Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

By Tim Hamilton

The irony of turning Ray Bradbury’s classic tale of a book-burning future into a graphic novel was presumably not lost on artist Tim Hamilton. Though Fahrenheit 451 is often thought of as a warning against censorship, its outlawing of books is not something brought about by state pressure but public demand. As the retired English professor Faber explains to the hero Guy Montag, firemen (the ones who burn books) aren’t even necessary to keep things in line since “the public itself stopped reading of its own accord.” On this point the cynical fire chief Beatty is in complete agreement, providing Montag with a crash course on how the book-reading public came over time to crave more and more sensation and want less and less of the classics. Until, finally, all that was left were trade journals, “three-dimensional sex magazines,” and . . . comics. You are still allowed to read comic books in the future. And the reason they survive is because they provide what people want: “More cartoons in books. More pictures.”

To borrow from the analysis of Neil Postman, Bradbury’s is a dystopian vision closer to that of Huxley than Orwell, one where Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody and where the people of Western democracies will rather freely “dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled.”

For Postman the switch from Orwell to Huxley tracks the movement away from a print culture to one based on images. In this Bradbury is also squarely in the Huxley camp, with Montag’s wife, an addictive personality anyway, hooked on an immersive and somewhat interactive medium that looks a bit like a multi-screen television but also prefigures the internet. The point being that television and the internet are genuinely popular among the “solid unmoving cattle of the majority” (this is the English professor talking) leaving print to wither away in irrelevance. Faber remembers “the newspapers dying like huge moths” and how “no one wanted them back,” words that have only gained in painful resonance. As for Big Brother, we’ve learned to stop worrying and love the guy, even welcoming him into our homes on high-speed. In Fahrenheit 451 there is no police force to speak of spying on closet readers. Indeed there doesn’t seem to be any police presence at all aside from the Mechanical Hound. Readers are turned in by concerned members of the community who volunteer to inform on them.

I say Tim Hamilton was presumably aware of these contemporary ironies because, in what is a very faithful adaptation, he leaves many of them in (including a self-referential jab at one of his own classic comic books), though it’s interesting that Bradbury himself doesn’t have anything to say about the wisdom of his prophecy in his Introduction. And so if you want a classic condensed, with pictures, this authorized version fits the bill. It is not a bold re-interpretation. The art has a dark, flattened feel and stays low-key, only striking a strong note in the unnatural, spiky rendering of flames. Hamilton doesn’t do faces well, and so casts most of them in profile or in shadow. And a strong visual cue in the novel that set the whiteness of the good characters (Clarisse, Faber) against the blackness of the firemen’s uniforms is missed. As with the cover of a hit single, one wishes the adapting artist had taken a freer hand with the original in order to give us something really new.

After all, it’s not like we’re going to stop reading the original now that we’ve got a comic version.

Are we?

Review first published October 18, 2009.

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