Fahrenheit 451 in comic-book form.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 17 2009 10:12 AM

Is It Time To Burn This Book?

When Fahrenheit 451 becomes a comic book, it's time to worry.

Fahrenheit 451.

As the end time for printed books draws near, Fahrenheit 451, the 1953 novel that envisioned it all, has just been published, again. And this time it reads like a joke—an extended, ironic, illustrated joke. Because this time, Ray Bradbury's novel about firemen who burn books instead of putting out fires is— oof!a comic book.

Think back to the original novel. Comic books are the only books shallow enough to go unburned, the only ones people are still allowed to read. Beatty, the fire chief, who seems to have loved books once and whom Bradbury has called "a darker side of me," explains it all to the hero, Guy Montag, the reluctant fireman. When photography, movies, radio, and television came into their own, he says, books started to be "leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm." Burning them isn't so tragic, he suggests, because they are already so degraded.

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"Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests, Tabloids. … Classics cut … to fill a two-minute book column. … Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click, Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, Digest-digest-digests! Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes!" (Sounds like the Internet, doesn't it? News articles become blogs, blogs become tweets.) "School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored." (Texting, anyone?) "More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less."

Fast forward 56 years to a condensed, comic-book version of the very novel in which comic books and condensations are presented as pap. Surely this is black humor, a resigned joke about the imminent eclipse of books on paper by images, both digital and analog. Except that it isn't. The graphic novel of Fahrenheit 451, with pictures by Tim Hamilton and a condensed text authorized by Bradbury himself, seems quite earnest.

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It's hard to know what on earth Bradbury was thinking. Did he just give in to the enemy? And what was the artist, Hamilton, thinking, when he illustrated the fire chief's rant with his own tableau of degraded books: Hamlet for Dimwits, Time magazine, and, yes, two Classic Comics editions, Moby Dick and Treasure Island. (Hamilton himself illustrated a comic-book version of Treasure Island before taking on Fahrenheit 451.) It's as if author and artist were vigorously waving a white flag and shouting, "We couldn't beat 'em, so we joined 'em!"

Maybe there's another explanation, though. Maybe Bradbury sees the comic book as a kind of life raft, a salvation, for books. At the end of Fahrenheit 451, an underground society of persecuted book lovers picks volumes to memorize before burning them. They recite them to others. It's back to the oral tradition to save the literary world. Today a similar thing (minus the burning) is happening in reality, as graphic novelists pick out classics to retell in their own way. Fahrenheit 451 is but one of many. This year alone, there are new graphic novel versions of Moby Dick, The Trial, Crime and Punishment, The Great Gatsby, and the Bible. Is Bradbury saying that it's back to pictographs to save the literary world?

I don't think so. Graphic novels may win some new readers, but the text is almost always shortened to make way for pictures, and what survives of it is radically different: It's mostly dialogue, like a screenplay. In the graphic-novel version of Fahrenheit 451, almost all of the words are spoken. Even the pictures confirm that the novel has become a script.

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Montag is drawn in deep, spooky shadow, as if he were telling his tale out loud, by a bonfire or with a flashlight under his chin. And this only deepens the irony, for Fahrenheit 451 seems to be just as much against movies, theater, and television as it is against comic books.

In the novel, insipid housewives spend their time memorizing scripts for soap operas starring themselves that are piped into their homes and projected onto room-size screens (like reality TV, except more interactive). Montag's wife, Mildred, is addicted to these "parlor walls." She explains the attraction: "When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines." She calls the walls her "family." Her only complaint is that she doesn't have a "fourth wall." (Yes, that's what she calls it.) Then she could be both audience and actor. Home theater would become real life.

And so, it seems, we are back to the first hypothesis: The comic book is more surrender than salvation—white flag, not life raft. Bradbury appears to have decided to hurry the apocalypse for books, or at least to announce it, by helping transpose Fahrenheit 451 into the perfect anti-book (in Fahrenheit 451 terms)—both theatrical script and comic strip.