Fahrenheit 451: A Dystopian Reflection on the Written Word
1984. The Handmaid’s Tale. The Hunger Games.
These are just a few classic dystopian stories, a genre that stems back to nineteenth century literature but has become increasingly popular across all modern mediums of storytelling.
Dystopian societies are typically built on the fear and dehumanization of its citizens; they disguise certain limitations, laws, cruelties, and rituals as happiness and order, saying that the world can only go on if citizens comply with the system. In these dark worlds, humanity’s fears become reality; ‘Big Brother’ watches over everyone, females are forced into positions of servitude, and children fight to the death in an arena, all to keep order, create peace, and ensure the survival of the human race.
We seem to be fascinated with these worlds because our society is built on the rejection of their brutal and restraining qualities. We crave material that affirms our beliefs about how we should be treated by our peers, communities, and institutions and what rights we, as humans, should be entitled to. In other words, dystopian stories allow us to draw a line between a righteous society and an oppressive society.
In times where societal instability is most apparent, dystopian stories seem to become more relevant because they act as a mirror to our world, a source that makes us look the nature of our reality and our impending future. Even the oldest stories seem to become predictors of the future when we return to them with a modern lens. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the three stories I mentioned have produced successful theater, TV show, and movie adaptations within the past six years.
Most recently, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 got the movie treatment by HBO which produced an updated version starring Michael B. Jordan as its protagonist, Guy Montag. This is the second film adaptation to be made from the 1953 novel (the first was made in 1966).
Bradbury’s book is set in a futuristic society where books are banned and burned by firemen, an idea based in the author’s observations of censorship and propaganda throughout World War II and the Cold War. In that era, the novel stood as a warning against these attacks on human rights and freedoms.
In a society that thrives on free speech, a free press, and an endless network of information, thoughts, and opinions, why choose to revamp Fahrenheit 451 for audiences almost 65 years later? We are no closer to book burning than we are to throwing kids in an arena to fight to the death.
Dystopian stories, in my eyes, are the most effective in revealing the truths of humanity we choose to ignore because they draw on the extreme, the unimaginable, and the appalling. They ask, what threatens the stability of our society and our humanity? They ask, what lengths would we go to protect the constructs, happiness, and order we value and what would we do to things that get in our way?
Most stories choose to answer the former by glorifying the instabilities we see in our society every day and creating worlds built on their potential impact: hate, ignorance, technology, surveillance, war. They answer the latter with heroes set on returning the society to our inherent values: peace, happiness, equality, privacy.
Dystopian stories can reflect the realities of our world, but HBO chose to move the mirror a little closer: to reflect us.
Jordan’s Montag, the up-and-coming fireman on the Salamander Squad, moves through a world that is not far from Bradbury’s original but contains much more technology that is eerily similar to the social media platforms and devices we use today.
Montag’s home contains floor to ceiling television screens controlled by Yuxie, the Alexa inspired companion. City wide news reports prompt viewers to leave comments and reactions and to “stay vivid on the nine,” the main social platform of the city. Patrons can go to bars wired with VR headsets.
And in the background, firemen start bonfires of pages, teach kids to fear books, and arrest those who harbor tangible materials that threaten the unified, peaceful city.
You might think we are nowhere close to this world. Thankfully, our government does not censor us, but we are headed down a path towards a population that values their technologic footprint more than the tangible expressions that fill libraries, bookstores, and papers.
We do not recognize that the stability of our race, and our rights, rests on how much we value the written word.
We choose to publish content on platforms built on code, that only exist in ones and zeros on the world wide web. In that decision, we choose the efficient over the tangible, but that has consequences.
If the internet were to go away tomorrow, what would we have to show for ourselves? Distant recollections of clicking keys and hitting ‘send,’ or ‘publish,’ or ‘tweet.’ Not many of us would have a paper trail to prove our work, to recall our memories, or to even prove our existence.
Books, publications, and correspondence are vitally important to the survival of the human species because they exist in an unalterable form that can be preserved and passed down through generations. And, still, we prefer emails over letters. E-books over books. Alexa’s updates instead of a newspaper. The written word is not forbidden, but it is becoming extinct and our memories are going along with it.
In the film, Montag encounters a group of rebels that are fighting to keep books from being eradicated. Each has memorized a full book of their choice. One boy has memorized over 13,000.
Question: how many phone numbers do you know by heart? Maybe one or two? Why memorize more when all you have to do is click a button on your phone to call someone.
In Fahrenheit 451, the human memory is the only thing that stands between a censored society and the eradication of knowledge. Yet, we go about our days without committing even the simplest phone number to memory.
We stream shows on all our devices. We ask Alexa for the news. We text. We tweet. We comment. We type.
And we forget it all by the next day.
As long as we put our information, and faith, in the hands of a device, our future rests in the powers looming beyond our screens. We are truly at their mercy. And, one day, we might find ourselves looking at a phone and not knowing what numbers to press. Or, worse, silently recalling a few sentences from a book we once knew but that is now banned.
Is that anything different from Fahrenheit 451?
This story is not a rally call against technology; it actually understands that it plays a huge part in the preservation of information and the dissemination of opinions in a country built on free speech. The story, instead, asks us to question the diversity of forms in which we receive and create information. It forces us to reckon with the idea that technology is not as stable as we believe, and our blind faith in it could destroy more than our history, our communities, and our creations; it could destroy us as well.
The stability and survival of our society rests on the written word. It forces us to remember and be remembered. It is the only thing that stands between retaining our freedoms and giving them up to those who wish to see them burn.
Fahrenheit 451’s hero is willing to take on the flames himself to insure the survival of millions of books.
So, what length will we go to preserve our legacy?