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Torching the Library: Different Year, Same Temperature

Published: March 19, 2006

ONE balmy Hollywood night in 1947, Ray Bradbury and a friend took an after-dinner stroll along Wilshire Boulevard. A police officer pulled over and asked what they were doing. Even then, it seems, nobody walked in Los Angeles.

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Everett Collection

Bee Duffell in François Truffaut's 1966 film version of "Fahrenheit 451," the Ray Bradbury novel being brought to the stage next week in a New York premiere by the Godlight Theater Company at 59E59.

. Fahrenheit 451

Mr. Bradbury, then a young writer scraping out a living turning out stories for magazines with names like "Thrilling Wonder Stories" and "Weird Tales," turned his absurd encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department into a terse short story, "The Pedestrian," set in a future in which aimless ambling is a crime. His protagonist, though, took a moment to notice something else on his night walks: rows of "tomblike houses ill-lit by television light, where the people sat like the dead, the gray or multicolored lights touching their faces, but never really touching them."

It took just a few more steps, plus a dark leap of the imagination, for Mr. Bradbury to turn this image of a simple pleasure outlawed by a stupefied culture into the disturbing world of his 1953 novel, "Fahrenheit 451." Named for the temperature at which paper ignites, the novel depicts a near-future society in which firemen don't extinguish fires but instead burn books, and where the complacent populace, numbed by nonstop television and advertising, seems all too eager to embrace enforced ignorance. Suicide, abortion and teenage violence run rampant. Politics are a joke. And somewhere in the white-noise background, there's a war on.

Like the 20th century's other iconic dystopian novels — "Brave New World," "Nineteen Eighty-Four," "A Clockwork Orange"— "Fahrenheit 451" today reads more as straight-up social commentary than as science fiction. At least that's how Joe Tantalo, the artistic director of the Godlight Theater Company, read Mr. Bradbury's book when he was looking for a follow-up to a successful production of "A Clockwork Orange" last winter. Mr. Tantalo's production of "Fahrenheit 451," using a 1979 stage adaptation of the novel by Mr. Bradbury, opens next week at 59E59, in the play's New York premiere. Mr. Tantalo, who says he worries about the survival of democracy in America, said he found the book's contemporary parallels so frightening that he set his bare-bones staging in the present.

"It's not a futuristic world — there are no weird hats," Mr. Tantalo said of his production, which will use plexiglass screens and some modest stage wizardry but no video and no props. "There are too many parallels to where we are now that it doesn't make any sense to set it in another time."

When Mr. Bradbury recently gave Godlight his blessing for the New York production, he told Mr. Tantalo that the play "is more relevant now than ever."

"The need to be stimulated has increased on radio, in TV, in motion pictures and in magazines," Mr. Bradbury, 85, said in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles.

Indeed, the book's prescient litany of symptoms may explain why it has never been out of print. It serves as both a blunt, handy teaching tool — class, see what happens if you don't respect the written word? — and a seemingly ever-fresh vision of a society entertaining itself to death. François Truffaut made a film version in 1966, and the writer and director Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile") has a new film script that has yet to find studio backing.

"I've read it, it's wonderful, but the main problem is getting funding," Mr. Bradbury said of the new adaptation. "It's going to be very expensive."

Given that the book was published at the height of the Red Scare, the anti-intellectual fear-mongering of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy might seem a likely inspiration for the fascistic firemen of "Fahrenheit." Not so, Mr. Bradbury said.

"I wasn't thinking about McCarthy so much as I was thinking of the library of Alexandria 5,000 years before," he said. "It burnt three or four times — a couple of times on purpose and once by accident." In fact, "Fahrenheit 451" was composed in a library at the University of California, Los Angeles, on a rented typewriter in the basement. When he wanted a break, the young author, a lifelong bibliophile, would wander dreamily through the stacks. "My mind turned to something that would endanger all that," he said. "I thought about what had happened in Italy and Germany so recently, and the rumors about what was going on in Russia."

In "Fahrenheit 451," a totalitarian government enforces its regime of stupor with a fiery reign of terror, and over the constant drone of the television one hears the periodic screech of warplanes.

But Mr. Bradbury does not share the view of some — including Michael Moore, whom Mr. Bradbury still hasn't forgiven for "stealing" his title for the film "Fahrenheit 9/11" — that the Bush administration is waging an Orwellian "endless war" to cover a hidden agenda. Mr. Bradbury's interpretation of current events instead follows another familiar line of attack: that the fury of the Arab world is blowback from the longstanding American policy of favoring Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. His solution to the Middle East impasse sounds like science fiction: create a new Jewish homeland in south Florida. "People think I'm joking when I say that," Mr. Bradbury said.

"I don't believe that any of the governments of the past 60 years, including the current one, are guilty of using war to aggrandize their power," Mr. Bradbury said flatly, pointing to Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson as two presidents he saw destroyed by unpopular wars.

Mr. Bradbury still writes daily ("I'm finishing work on three new novels," he said) and makes frequent public appearances at libraries and colleges. The topic of education, much more than Washington politics, is what really gets him wound up. "We've allowed our education to go to hell," he said, warming to a pet subject. "We have too many technologies impacting us, thousands of factoids inhabiting our eardrums every day, so that we get a feeling that maybe we're educated, but we're not."

It's not only the electronic media that are shortchanging us, he said: "If you go to the newsstand today, you see 1,000 magazines, and there's hardly an idea in them. They've been invaded by advertising. I had a poem in Good Housekeeping a few years ago. I looked through and I couldn't find it. I finally called them and asked, 'Where's my damn poem?' It was on Page 150, opposite the Clorox ad."