Burn the Ashes

François Truffaut’s 'Fahrenheit 451' | art by Tony Stella

illustration by Tony Stella

In François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, fire is such a fact of life that it’s become mundane. A column of flame passed on your morning commute hardly merits a second glance. Only children, still in possession of their wonder, marvel as the firemen ride by on their screaming truck. “Mummy look,” they chirp. “There’s going to be a fire!” Those children thrill at the sight of these men clad head to toe in black, like ashen logs burned so long that no heat can change them any further, racing through the streets, spreading the smoldering destruction that keeps the world safe.

Those children know what a pleasure it is, as Ray Bradbury wrote in the opening line of his novel, to burn.

*

In the world of Fahrenheit 451, the written word is outlawed, and the film is so thoroughly scrubbed of text that the opening credits are spoken aloud in an urgent baritone. For his fifth film as a director, and his first in English, Truffaut chose to adapt one of the most renowned dystopian texts, but from the opening moments, he declares his intent to make the story his own.

Bradbury’s novel opens past midnight, the better to highlight the resemblance between dancing fireflies and the embers of the texts burned by Guy Montag and his cohort of firemen. Truffaut, on the other hand, chose to shoot his film virtually entirely at midday. In the opening sequence, the firemen raid an apartment, cramming books into sacks that they toss over a balcony to explode on the pavement below, pages spewing like a body disgorging viscera. On the ground, they gather those books—recognizable 20th century texts that would have lined the walls of any literate mid-’60s home—and as a small crowd stops to watch, Montag uses a flamethrower to dispassionately set the pile alight. The blaze is startlingly large and intense, but the faces in the crowd register only vague interest. These people are here not out of any thrill or outrage, but in search of a brief diversion in their day, one no more or less interesting than a subway busker.

Democracy, as they say, dies in darkness. But Truffaut is all too happy to remind us that it can just as easily die in broad daylight before an audience of bored pedestrians.

*

No artist could tell the story of Montag and the firemen without making some comment on the world around them; politics are inextricably woven into the central conceit. And yet the premise is elastic enough that any storyteller can bend it to suit their own outlook on the dangers facing free society.

Bradbury’s novel was published in 1953, and the events that it’s most often pinned to are the Red Scare and the looming specter of McCarthyism. But to Bradbury, the far greater threat was the rise of mass media. When Montag’s superior fireman, Captain Beatty, delivers an impromptu history lesson, he blames the culture we choose to consume for lowering our standards and murdering our curiosity until we crave works that resemble “a nice blend of vanilla tapioca.” The great tragedy, bemoans Bradbury through Beatty’s voice, is that censorship “didn’t come from the government down.” People didn’t just allow for their oppressive new world, they begged for it.

Truffaut’s film was released in 1966, in a culture far more openly inflamed than Bradbury’s—and the film is seasoned with details to evoke the moment, such as the sequence in which a squadron of thugs accosts a long-haired man and pin him to the ground, cutting his hair as he struggles in vain—but his concerns bore strong resemblance to Bradbury’s. In an essay he wrote contemporaneously with Bradbury’s novel, Truffaut complained that modern French films were “insipid” due to either “treason or timidity.” The essay became a manifesto after it was published in Cahiers du Cinéma, the landmark film journal for which Truffaut wrote alongside Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer. But rather than settle for cursing the evils of modern visual storytelling, Truffaut and his colleagues decided to reform cinema in their own image, launching the French New Wave, and with it a revolution in what this art form could be—a search for beauty (to paraphrase Jean Douchet) in the presence of hard truths, not in their comfortable denial.

Bradbury would only become more conservative in the years following Fahrenheit 451—through Beatty, he blames society’s self-imposed censorship on an acquiescence to minority pressure (“Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo,” Beatty sneers. “Burn it.”), a perspective that foreshadows later commentary like his idle wish for revolution in a Los Angeles Times profile published in 2010, the same year that he cited Reagan as the greatest American president. By the time of his death in 2012, Bradbury was held up as a hero by Tea Party thinkers who cited Fahrenheit 451 as a key text to their movement.

On the other hand, a scant two years after releasing his adaptation, Truffaut could be found scuffling at Cannes as he struggled to shut down the festival in solidarity with striking students and workers. Where Bradbury pointed at the world’s problems, Truffaut inserted himself into the fray, and into the narrative of his own nightmare—as the firemen toss books on a bonfire, Truffaut’s camera lingers on copies of Cahiers du Cinéma being consumed by flame, his own revolutionary ideas dissolving to make way for fascism.

*

The turning point in this story comes when Montag steals one book, reading it furtively and allowing the words of this essential text to consume him, triggering his rebellion. In Ramin Bahrani’s recent adaptation, Montag is awakened by Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky’s polemic on the ills of 19th century Russia, which inspires him to become a revolutionary activist far more assertively than in any prior telling of the story. In Bradbury’s novel, Montag has his world shaken by the Bible, which represents the power of text as a means to convey challenging ideas and critical thought. The simple act of consuming words and letting them roll around in his mind ignites the spark that will lead Montag to reclaim his free will.

For Truffaut, however, it’s neither radical words nor spiritual ones that might move a man to shift his entire worldview. The book that awakens Montag is David Copperfield. We watch him hunch over Dickens’ novel, savoring the opening lines in which the protagonist contemplates being the hero of his own life, his spirit inflamed by the simple power of becoming enveloped in a story. For any of his own radical leanings, Truffaut’s most passionate belief is less in the power of words than in the power of stories.

In Bradbury’s telling, “books are hated and feared [because] they show the pores in the face of life”—it’s the ideas in books that must be tamped down for fear of the action they’ll spur. But in Truffaut’s telling, it’s the transportive power of imagination that might agitate the masses. “[Fiction] makes them unhappy with their own lives,” Beatty scoffs as he paws through stacks of novels in a clandestine library, “makes them want to live in other ways that can never really be.” The line is an invention of Truffaut’s screenplay, and it’s a telling one. In both versions of the scene, the firemen peruse all manner of books, but it’s Truffaut’s version that pays special attention to fiction. In his vision of a censored world, the danger lies in the beauty of worlds conjured by artists, and the dreams and aspirations they might spur. It’s not so much the intellectual power of ideas that allows humanity to thrive, it’s the lyrical power of a good story.

*

Fahrenheit 451 is often hailed as a dire vision that’s only become more relevant with time. And yet there is so little in this story that I recognize from the world around me.

Central to any telling of this story is one conceit: humanity longs to be soothed. This is the urge that Montag’s government has seized on and manipulated—“Books disturb people,” Montag says towards the beginning of Truffaut’s film, and “[reading] makes people unhappy.” The story presupposes that nobody wants to be unhappy, and that if a government could create a soothing world where stress is a distant memory, the passive populace would be ripe for disenfranchisement.

“Do remember to tolerate your friends’ friends,” Truffaut’s equivalent of a cable news commentator instructs Montag’s wife as she watches TV at the end of her day, “however alien and peculiar they may seem to you.” What a horror Truffaut meant for this to be, a future where we cede our decision making and opinions to the talking heads on cable. A half-century later, though, what a quaint fantasy it seems, this state-run media broadcast mandating tolerance and compassion.

When I watch the columns of flame dotting Truffaut’s landscape, so pedestrian in their fearsome power, my mind can’t help but jump to August, 2017, when tiki torches were held aloft in Charlottesville by white supremacists who wouldn’t have looked out of place browsing at Whole Foods, their designer shirts and sharp haircuts framing faces that pulsed with rage as they screamed fascist slogans. And I think that maybe this is the natural human urge. Maybe we don’t long for a soothing authority. Maybe what comes most naturally, what we need to fight against lest it overtake us, is a sense of restless aggrievement, and an urge to punish anyone we see as telling us what to do.

And maybe that’s what a truly devious power system would choose to weaponize. “The only way to be happy,” Beatty crows, “is for everyone to be made equal.” Again, Truffaut dares us to be horrified by a world in which our unique humanity has been dulled into a bland and comfortable calm. But in the days and weeks that followed that night of tiki torches, our governing majority did little to tamp down the anger that had erupted, and certainly made no effort to forcibly mandate tolerance and peace. Instead, the prevailing trend from that governing majority and its media apparatus was to stoke the aggrievement and keep the aggrieved on a hair-trigger. Because if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that the easiest population to bend to your will is one that’s angry and looking for any validation in that rage.

If there’s one thing about the modern world that Fahrenheit 451 did get right, it’s the daily lifestyle of Montag’s wife, who putters around her house staring at screens, lost in a virtual world of simulated connection. How could I fail to recognize that urge when the first thing I do on waking is reach for my phone and plunge my consciousness into a vast network of information and opinion? But the digital world that Montag’s wife steps into is one belonging, of being a cousin in an all-encompassing family. The world that I choose to step into is one of endlessly refreshed quote-Tweets that wrap cruelty in outrage, a Russian nesting doll of barely-controlled fury. And like a rat voluntarily hopping into a Skinner box, I compulsively pull down on that screen and gulp another pellet of addictive indignation. There is some pleasure in that burn, jolting my mind awake enough to get me downstairs and put the coffee on.

If anything, Truffaut’s bleak future strikes me as entirely too optimistic. What seems most relatable in the world he conjured comes in what a fact of life this inferno has become for Montag’s peers, the way that a time when any of this seemed remarkable has receded into a half-remembered haze.

*

In both Bradbury’s story and Truffaut’s, Montag escapes his dystopian metropolis and decamps to the woods, where he’s welcomed by a colony of radical luddites, each of whom has committed to memory one book.

In Bradbury’s telling, the so-called book people retain their identities. In Truffaut’s, they become their books, calling each other not by their given names but by the title of the book they each carry in their minds. “You may as well shed your old skin,” The Journal of Henri Brilard tells the man who will soon cease to be Montag.

Truffaut mines the premise for some surreal comedy—we are introduced to two identical twins, one named Pride and the other Prejudice, who walk in lockstep and speak in seamlessly alternating sentences—but in the last moment, he elides the small glimmer of hope that closes Bradbury’s novel.

In both tellings, the book people await the day that they’ll be called upon to recite their memorized texts and begin the process of rebuilding civilization. And Bradbury’s story ends with the dawning of this rebuilding: on the horizon, Montag’s city is leveled by a bomb, and the book people march towards the ruins where they’ll begin their work.

For all the fanciful and radical notes that seem to suggest this film as the more hopeful take on the material, Truffaut declines to offer the promise of a better future. The only new beginning offered by the film is the exchange of heat for cold—months pass, and we leave the book people trudging through the snow, ignoring one another, mumbling their words to themselves, the drone blending into a hum of white noise, before they shuffle off in their separate directions and leave the landscape empty.

Truffaut may have seen the promise of a better future in his own world, if people could just savor the power of fiction and fight against the treason of low standards. But that didn’t mean he had to hold out hope for reversal in a society that had chosen to forget how.

*

There is one more thing I recognize in Truffaut’s film.

We see the firemen visit a park, where Beatty happens upon an infant in a stroller. Tucked in with the baby’s toys is a tiny book, and Beatty plucks it out and confiscates it, playfully scolding the child. But the baby reaches out for it, crying and begging, longing to get those small hands back on those small pages and flip around.

My daughter is a year and a half old, and these days, when she wakes up in the morning, the first thing she says is, “Book?” She repeats the request as we get her changed, put up her hair, and bring her downstairs, growing increasingly insistent until she’s finally deposited on the couch with her cup of milk and a picture book. It was her first word, too, back when she wasn’t much older than the baby that Beatty scolds. Even then, she was never happier than when she was planted in the middle of the floor, board books spread around her, flipping cardboard pages back and forth.

And when Truffaut’s film seems too optimistic to me—when I wonder if it’s naïve to posit books as the spark that our minds crave when in real life as we carry around devices that can access any book ever published and then use those devices instead to endlessly refresh our ephemeral feeds—I remember my daughter. A recent study showed that books are the best way to convey information to a child, the best way to spark the connections in their minds that set their processing centers alight.

Maybe it isn’t that Truffaut’s film is too optimistic, it’s that we don’t always remember to live up to the challenges of that dystopia. Just like Montag and his compatriots, we invite on ourselves the world we live in. Maybe if I just follow my daughter’s example, I can use stories to dream of a better one. It’s not illegal yet.