A staple in classroom discussions of short stories and novels when I was in high school was the question: does the main character change from the beginning of the narrative to the end? It was the easiest prompt a teacher could use. It required of students an analysis of the character, based on concrete facts from the text. An easy kind of first question to ask and an easy kind of question to begin to answer, because it seemed a character almost had to change who was involved in or at least aware of the events that make up the plot. A high school student would eventually learn that the most damning judgment possible of a character is that he or she has managed to remain substantially untouched and unmoved by what is happening around or within him.
I treated myself this first week of the new year to a home viewing of a movie that had been a pivotal one in my high school days. Fahrenheit 451, adapted in 1966 by François Truffaut from a science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury, is the narrative of a future society that has banned books as destructive of the intellectual and emotional equanimity of its citizens. The title refers to the temperature at which book paper will catch fire, a fact important to “firemen” charged with destroying books that rebel members of society might attempt to hoard and read and share.
The appeal of the movie to a high school student in the 1960s was the ease of its theme to recognize and support. The added appeal to a student who loved to read was the appearance of covers and title pages of familiar paperbacks in various scenes of the movie. This futuristic society still had renegade copies of J.D. Salinger’s Cather in the Rye, and watching the opening pages of an assigned reading text as they curl and blacken in one scene of conflagration could make the action seem closer to possibility. A student viewer might feel pretty good about himself for having read a text that a future society would consider burning.
My surprise last night was the power of this narrative of an individual in the process of changing. Montag, played by Oskar Werner, starts as a fireman who seems entirely identified with the values of his society and who is proud of the place he has succeeded in gaining as a result of that identification. This man should not be ready for change or interested in it or on any level available to it.
I watched, startled when I realized what I was going to witness in the two hours of the movie. I was going to watch an individual fight the growing evidence of a life that was not fitting him. I was going to watch an actor’s face that only slowly registered anything of the turmoil within this character whose future was slowly losing its clarity and safety. I was going to see the moment when his actions start supporting a conscious separation from familiar paths and goals.
It is amazing to remember a much younger John who could not have imagined how much the changes in a human being’s life – including his own – will elude easy prediction and defy easy explanation. Artists are drawn to portray such change, however, again and again, no matter how it unsettles the intellectual and emotional equanimity of otherwise good people. Thank God it does.
Scenes from Fahrenheit 451 on YouTube