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Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.

Ray Bradbury selling newspapers on the corner of Olympic and Norton, Los Angeles, c. 1938.

Bradbury and His Other Works

Ray Bradbury published more than eighty books. His first one, Dark Carnival (1947), established him as a striking new voice, and three years later The Martian Chronicles made him a crucial one. A collection of linked short stories, Chronicles represents a typical Bradbury reversal: Rather than a story about a fireman who starts fires, it's a classic invasion scenario, except that Earthlings are the ones invading Mars. Some critics have interpreted it as a shrewd allegory for the suburbanization of Bradbury's Los Angeles and the West, and rank it above Fahrenheit 451 for subtlety and grace of language.

In 1951 Bradbury completed The Illustrated Man, his second story collection. Much like Chronicles, this book has a framing device that brings these pieces together: a man whose myriad tattoos each become a separate narrative. While his novels still get most of the attention, Bradbury was also a master of short fiction. For example, his short story “A Sound of Thunder” (1952) is probably Bradbury’s single most influential story, with its parable of a carelessly squashed prehistoric butterfly that has history-altering consequences. Were it not for Fahrenheit 451 (1953)—itself an expanded short story—he might well be regarded less as a novelist with several fine stories to his credit than as a fine writer of stories who sometimes dabbled in book-length fiction.

After the success of The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury left the science-fiction world, if only part time, to write Dandelion Wine (1957). For twelve years he wrote almost daily about his childhood, and this novel was the result. Set in Green Town, a fictionalized version of his native Waukegan, Illinois, the book centers on twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding and the summer he spends growing up and recording his life in writing. Dandelion Wine, while vastly different from Bradbury's fantasy work, highlights his ability to branch out from the genre for which he remains best known.

Well into his eighties, at an age when many writers are content to tally their royalties and relax, Bradbury was still working. Through the first years of the new millennium, Bradbury steadily published new fiction alongside several anthologies of his older stories, poems, and essays. The short-story collection The Cat's Pajamas appeared in 2004. With a collection of essays right behind it, writer's block was never a problem for Bradbury. Surrounded by grateful inheritors, he produced new work in a reading landscape already transformed by his passage through it. Like the butterfly from "A Sound of Thunder," Bradbury's influence will only increase with time.

Selected Works by Ray Bradbury

  • Dark Carnival, 1947
  • The Martian Chronicles, 1970
  • The Illustrated Man, 1951
  • The Golden Apples of the Sun, 1953
  • Fahrenheit 451, 1953
  • Dandelion Wine, 1957
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1962
  • I Sing the Body Electric!, 1969
  • Death Is a Lonely Business, 1985
  • Ray Bradbury Collected Short Stories, 2001
  • The Cat's Pajamas: New Stories, 2004
  • Farewell to Summer, 2006
  • Summer Morning, Summer Night, 2008
  • We'll Always Have Paris, 2009

Some of Bradbury's Literary Influences

The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Bradbury's inheritance from Burroughs goes well beyond their shared fascination with the red planet. In The Martian Chronicles and the Tarzan books, both writers show a preoccupation with the process of civilization—its obvious benefits and its less acknowledged cost.

The Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
With such short fiction as "The Tell-Tale Heart" and his classic novella of exploration, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe became another key influence on Bradbury. The legacy comes across especially in Bradbury's own expeditionary collection, The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury's and Poe's shared ability to treat important themes while still telling a propulsive story marks them across the generations as kindred spirits.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
One of Verne's most successful novels, this adventure pits the resourceful Professor Aronnax against a mysterious undersea beast. Bradbury would later write an introduction to the book, drawing a characteristically audacious comparison between Verne's Captain Nemo and Melville's Ahab.

Bradbury and Film

Ever since his mother took him at the age of three to a matinee of Lon Chaney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bradbury was an avid moviegoer. Long before he cracked open his first book, hardly a week went by without an outing alongside his mother to the local theater. Indeed, Bradbury's early love of literature can likely be traced to the intuitive grasp of storytelling that a steady preschool diet of silent movies nurtured.

It took a long time for film technology to catch up with Bradbury's chosen genre, and some would say it still hasn't. But before the advent of computer-generated imagery, science fiction and fantasy were even harder to adapt on film than they are today. For every success, many highly original, vividly imaginative novels never reached the screen. Fahrenheit 451, like such other dystopian novels as A Clockwork Orange that focus more on character than on epic scope, lent itself well to film in those pre-CGI years. Director and cowriter François Truffaut's 1966 version of the novel renders Bradbury's future as a dull, almost colorless world. The film, starring Oskar Werner as Montag and Julie Christie in a dual role as Clarisse and Montag's wife, alienated some original viewers for departing from Truffaut's previous New Wave aesthetic, but revisionist critics have mostly proven kinder to it.

Truffaut's film is one of several movies based on Bradbury's work, though by far the best known. Other adaptations include 1969's The Illustrated Man, 2005's A Sound of Thunder, and 1983's Something Wicked This Way Comes, which had Bradbury as screenwriter—a role he filled often in both movies and television. From his version of Melville's Moby Dick for John Huston's 1956 film to his work on his own writings, including 1969's The Picasso Summer and the 1993 children's movie The Halloween Tree, Bradbury proved himself an able adapter of fiction. His stories also appeared many times on such television programs as The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His short animated collaboration with science-fiction writer George Clayton Johnson about man's age-old compulsion to fly, Icarus Montgolfier Wright, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1962 as best short subject.

Of all the pictures taken of Bradbury over the years, perhaps the one that captures him best was snapped on the set of Something Wicked This Way Comes. He's pointing out something in the distance to his friend, the great stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. The scenery around them perfectly captures the Midwest of Bradbury's youth, and one gets the feeling that this great storyteller has somehow succeeded in art—directing his own childhood. Bradbury has already lived, written, and now dramatized the emotions that the camera is about to record. Not surprisingly, the look on his face captures not just joy but pure, serene confidence. He's finally in the movies—a place he's felt at home since that matinee in Waukegan nearly sixty years before.

Films based on the works of Bradbury

  • A Sound of Thunder, 2005
  • The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, 1998
  • The Halloween Tree, 1993
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1983
  • The Illustrated Man, 1969
  • The Picasso Summer, 1969
  • Fahrenheit 451, 1966
  • The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1953
  • It Came from Outer Space, 1953

Screenplays by Bradbury

  • The Halloween Tree, 1993
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1983
  • The Picasso Summer, 1969 (written under the pseudonym Douglas Spaulding, his alter ego from Dandelion Wine)
  • Moby Dick, 1956

"When I talk of myself as a child of my time, perhaps the biggest truth is that I am a cinematic child of my time."
—Ray Bradbury
from Sam Weller's The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury

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