Last month, HBO premiered a new adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel “Fahrenheit 451,” starring Michael B. Jordan and Hollywood’s current go-to evil G-man Michael Shannon. The story takes place in a world where firemen go house to house to start fires — to burn books.
Every few years, the work ends up on a banned book list somewhere in the United States. It’s an irony with a long history. In 1979, Bradbury himself demanded that Ballantine Books cease publication of a high school edition that censored some of the language.
Images courtesy Ballantine Books, Simon & Schuster, and Harper Voyager.
Enduringly cited by the American Library Association during Banned Books Week, Bradbury’s novel continues to be held up as a warning by defenders of the First Amendment across the ideological spectrum. Since political donations are a form of speech, Ted Cruz argued on the Senate judiciary committee in 2014 that proposals to limit such donations are the work of “Fahrenheit 451 Democrats.”
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Bradbury shifted his views on the nature of his implicit allegory. The book was published against a backdrop of McCarthy-era paranoia, which the author cited as a source of inspiration in early interviews. Later, Bradbury insisted that “Fahrenheit 451” was not mainly about government censorship — the real inspiration, he said, was the growing fixation on television and his fear of the emergence of a post-literate anti-intellectual America. The novel provides ample evidence of that in its depiction of a society numbed by mindless video feeds.
Since the 2016 election, as fretting about free speech and authoritarianism reached a new pitch, “Fahrenheit 451” has had a revival, along with other midcentury dystopian-regime novels like “1984,” “Animal Farm” and “The Man in the High Castle.”
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As part of our continuing series on American Icons, a close look at how the novel came to be, and how it had held up, with the novelists Neil Gaiman, Alice Hoffman and more.
American Icons is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.