I most regret never having written is about the book Fahrenheit 451. Columns need a ‘hook,’ something in the news which gives the column relevance, some current event which a writer can hang the column on. But Fahrenheit 451 is not exactly timely, nor is the movie based on it, and Bradbury passed away over a year ago. So why do I write about him now? Because the suppression of religious themes in a new film based on a new classic, namely Ender’s Game, reminded me of what was done to the work of Bradbury a generation ago.
Originally I’d written the material in this column as part of a separate column about the Ender’s Game controversy, but eventually I decided this material could stand on its own.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was about a dystopic future in which ideas were suppressed by a new class of firemen who instead of putting out fires, set fires to burn books. It’s a very good book, and a fairly bad movie. And one of the worst things about the movie is that it commits the act which the book decries, namely the suppression of a dangerous book.
The book which the movie suppresses is not a book, but The Book, Ho Biblios, the Bible. At the end of the novel, Montag, a book-burner turned dissident, is introduced to a colony of people who are living receptacles of the great literary works. They spend their lives committing entire books to memory and then teach them to the next generation so that the words are never lost.
Montag meets men and women who have memorized Zola, Dickens, and other classic novelists, but also someone who has memorized the Gospel According to St. Luke. In fact, the Bible plays a rather important role in Bradbury’s story. It is the first book which Montag took up, plucked literally from the flames. It is the book which starts his process of liberation from the regime. He first reveals himself as a reader to his wife Mildred by reading poetry to her, but not just any poem, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold. Dover Beach decries the loss of faith in the modern world.
“The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar…”
And the consequence of that decline in faith is the rise of closed societies, a decline in knowledge and connectedness with the past and a resulting rise in mass warfare.
“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Upon hearing the poem, Montag’s wife runs out of the room and later attempts to take her own life. Throughout the novel war ranges in the distance, moving closer to the city as the novel progresses. Bombers fly over the city, but no one knows who exactly they are at war with and why ignorant armies are clashing by night. At the end of the novel the city is destroyed in a nuclear apocalypse.
One of the most fascinating things about all of this is that it is all omitted from the film: the Bible, St. Luke, Dover Beach, the War, the doom of the city. The movie is not shy about mentioning book titles, in fact long stretches of film are dedicated to montages of piles of books, with covers clearly visible. The colony of living books is in the film and the same books are mentioned, except one, St. Luke’s Gospel. In short, the Bible is conspicuously omitted from the film version of the story.
Why is this? Because the Bible is the modern age’s dangerous book. It is without doubt the modern age’s most banned book. Soldiers couldn’t bring it with them into Saudi Arabia, Bibles had to be smuggled into the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn tells stories about little pages and fragments of pages hidden in gulags. I have friends who have smuggled Bibles into China. But it’s not Marx via Stalin or Mao who bans The Book in the West, it’s Marx via Gramsci, the architect of the Long March Through the Institutions. It’s a kind of censorship through sheer cultural bulk production; the people who make the movies about books like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 fear book burners enough to make movies warning us against them. But they fear the Bible even more, enough to become book burners themselves.