Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury: An Appreciation

By Steve Evans

Author Ray Bradbury, whose richly evocative works of speculative fiction captivated me as a teenager, died yesterday, July 5, 2012. He was 91.

If there is a hereafter, I hope Bradbury now knows the significant and wholly positive impact his writing continues to make in my life. I am grateful.

Bradbury’s best-known novels, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, which I devoured 30 years ago in high school, address perennial themes of repression, totalitarianism and the virtue of iconoclasm as the mark of a truly free individual in an oppressive society. His influence on my youth is inestimable, as I struggled to develop my own identity in a cliquish Virginia high school far too populated with smarmy individuals wearing Izod alligators on their shirts – a trademark emblem that I gradually came to associate with a Swastika. Being mocked for reading -- science fiction, no less -- is something I will never forget, nor was I ever able to wrap my mind around the ridicule. It made no sense to me then and still seems inscrutable today. Apparently, some people feel threatened when confronted with a person reading a book. Until I learned to fight back, to savor the satisfaction of connecting my fist to a plump bully's nose and to revel in the eloquent sound of crunching cartilage, I found wisdom and no small measure of escape in Bradbury's books.

Film director Francois Truffaut adapted Fahrenheit 451 for his first color motion picture in 1966. It was also the French director’s first English-language film and he was reportedly dissatisfied with the somewhat stilted results. Still, it is an interesting film – which Bradbury himself said he enjoyed – and a compelling visual experience.

In the world of Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper ignites), owning and reading books is forbidden. Black-clad firemen roam an unnamed city gathering illicit books into piles for burning with their flamethrowers. The penalties for reading are severe – from psychological reprogramming to execution. One fireman gradually begins to question his role in the totalitarian state that employs him.

It is a cautionary fable of a fascist society that bans books as a means of repressing individuality. Truffaut’s picture has enjoyed a critical reappraisal in the 46 years since its release and is recommended viewing.

Thinking back on my own experiences in high school, I feel only contempt for my peers on the rare occasions when I bother to think about them at all. They wore the same shirts as everyone else so they could dissolve into anonymity and exist safely within the surrounding society. They mocked and derided anyone who was not one of them. During my coerced attendance at a high school reunion some years ago, I discovered that little had changed through the decades for many of these people. They move and perhaps even think in unison, like sheep herded toward an abattoir.

Why? Because there is almost always comfort in numbers, even if only illusory, which is perhaps why I have always been vaguely uncomfortable. Some people find it easier to hold the same beliefs and attitudes as the majority. They just let go of critical thought.

Ray Bradbury thought differently. His books were a solace and a reassurance to me that life can – and, dare I say, should – be lived on your own terms. You must simply avow to do so.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Stephen B. Evans. All rights reserved.

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