In my continuing quest to read more of the classics, we listened to Fahrenheit 451 on a summer road trip. My kids are 12 and 15, and they really got into the story. It turned out that my son had to read this in school this year, but for some reason I never had to read this in high school. Instead I was slogging through Great Expectations and The Iliad…
We listened to this on Audible, and I have to say, Tim Robbins was the perfect narrator for this book. His quirky style and expressive voice fit very well with Guy Montag’s character and the whole feel of the story. Well done.
Now, on to the lessons learned, because part of the reason I embarked on this quest to read more classics was to understand what made them classics and what these writers did to have their stories stick in the minds of so many people for so long.
Lesson #1 – Side Characters Can Make All The Difference
Let me start by saying that after we listened to Fahrenheit 451 we watched the HBO movie version, and I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. No, it was not the original story. That’s okay. BUT…one of the changes we were all most disappointed by was that Guy’s wife Mildred was completely written out of the story.
Mildred was a bizarre character, but that’s why we loved her. The first time you meet Mildred, she’s overdosed on sleeping pills and Guy has to call some version of 911 to get her help. She’s okay by the next day, and when Guy mentions what had happened, she says that she wouldn’t have done something like that and forgets about it. She initially tries to understand Guy’s anguish over the books he’s stolen, but ultimately can’t handle the threat to her worldview and basically loses it and turns on Montag.
While Montag is the character rebelling against society, Mildred is a prefect example of what this society has done to the people within it. She wraps up multiple ideas and messages and concepts in one nutty package and tells the reader so much more than endless pages of explanation ever could. Bradbury “showed” you his cautionary world through an expertly developed side character.
Lesson #2 – You Don’t Have To Shove Your Message Down Readers’ Throats
Fahrenheit 451 has several important themes: the importance of free speech without censorship, the dangers of mindless conformity, how detrimental pleasure seeking and instant gratification can be, and the importance of not being willingly blind and ignorant. It’s a fascinating piece of social commentary, but readers are shown all these themes through characters’ thoughts and actions rather than Bradbury launching into long discussions about philosophy and social theory.
The fast cars that kill so many young people are casually mentioned in a conversation with Clarisse, highlighting how a fanaticism for entertaining and instant gratification has drastically reduce the value of human life. Mildred’s attempted suicide and the general feeling of malaise and depression of the characters shows how willing ignorance and conformity slowly destroys the spirit. Montag is affected by the woman who is burned with her books, but then we learn he’s been stealing and hiding books for a while, showing deep seated internal problems in an outwardly average and law-obeying citizen. Clarisse is an outcast simply because she likes to take walks and observe the world. She’s a threat to society because she makes others think about their own lives and choices.
It’s a classic example of “show don’t tell”, but I point it out because when writing with a clear purpose and message, “telling” often overpowers the “showing” and pushes readers away. Weaving your message into your characters, setting, and storyline will have more impact and stick in readers minds much longer than shouting at them to agree with you.