What do J.D. Salinger, Ray Bradbury, and George Orwell have in common? They are all known for a midcentury novel that took them from obscurity to notoriety, Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984, respectively. And I have just read/reread each of them in that order. Catcher because I’d never read it, Farhenheit because of its censorship theme, and 1984 because it’s from the same epoch and often gets compared to Farhenheit for its prescience.
Well, it’s certainly interesting to compare/contrast the books with the movies, although, Catcher in the Rye has never been made into a movie. Salinger was wise enough to refuse several offers, and thankfully so, considering the cinematic abomination of Fahrenheit 451, but I’ll get to that later.
Salinger’s book has raised eyebrows since its first publication. It’s been banned and panned. Written in an appropriately colloquial style with an adolescent attitude, using vernaculars, goddams, chrissakes and topped off with a few fuck yous and sexual references, it’s easy to see how the book offends the sensibilities of those phonies the main character, Holden, is so critical of. The overly sensitive and prudish critics of the book seem to have short memories of what it was like to be a teenager. The angst of modern day transition to adulthood is expressed in all its glory by Holden’s frank first person narration. It couldn’t have been done with polite language or a well “crafted” literary style. Anyway, Holden’s ranting throughout the book is a hoot. I love his no-pulled-punches attack on hypocritical attitudes. At the same time, Holden’s views are immature and naive. The literary elements, the monotonous repetition of slangy catch phrases, the juvenile expression of his thoughts and emotions all sum together to tell a story suited to its time and still relatable today.
Interestingly, I followed reading Catcher by Fahrenheit 451, a story centered around censorship and book burning set in the near future. This look into a crystal ball, always quaint when seen from a later perspective, has hit a few marks, such as, earbud-like audio “seashells,” wall-sized TVs in dedicated rooms, incessant advertising and mind numbing “entertainment.” But that’s about the limit of its insight. Written in a trying-too-hard and hackneyed “poetic” style, it’s choppy, disjointed, and lacking in connective tissue. The plot’s historic timeline is inconsistent, which makes it hard to suspend disbelief, or to assemble a credible perspective on how their society got to the point of book burning. It has its moments. It has an undercurrent of power, yet taken as a whole it reads like a rough draft, a very rough draft. Montag’s character, the story’s hero, is as trite as the storyline he inhabits and the author’s writing style. It’s a mystery how it ever got published.
On the other hand, 1984 is a well written, well thought out, hard hitting future shock. It may have overreached by dating itself in 1984, but as you may recall, the main character, Winston, is not sure of the exact year, his birth date or his age. What is clear is the vivid description of place and inner emotion. I get intense images, lifelike visuals as if I were experiencing it first hand, and visceral feelings of empathy. This is creative writing. It makes me (re)realize the talent it takes to be a real wordsmith and a brilliant storyteller. And there’s more to 1984 than good writing skills. The powerful political commentary is still valid (possibly more valid) today. Some have praised Fahrenheit for its prophetic predictions of the future contrasted to 1984 for being less accurate with its prognostications. From the narrow point of view of technology, yes, but from the broader point of view of where society has headed in the last several decades since these books were written, Orwell has frighteningly hit bullseye after bullseye. (The technology of 1984 is deliberately stunted—its arrested development is integral to the story.) Orwell’s dystopia dives deeper, is more probing than Bradbury’s. It tackles the subjects of censorship, person freedom, privacy, government control, social strata, economic policy. This isn’t a simplistic little fairytale. It’s made of many pebbles of truth bound in a mountain of dramatic fiction.
The movies? The movie of Fahenheit 451 stinks. It has ground and minced, masticated and spewed the book. Okay, everybody always says the book is better than the movie, but this time, nope it ain’t, not really. Even though the movie mutilated the book, it is merely equally bad. The director, François Truffaut, has bastardized important details. The alterations have reached a point that the only comparisons to be made are the title, the names of a few characters, along with its blanket hokeyness. For instance, the firemen in the book are all dark and swarthy; in the movie they’re blond. The firemen always do their burning at night; never once in the movie. The mechanical hound is a central figure in the book; the movie incomprehensibly “substitutes” the firehouse pole for the hounds. It makes absolutely no sense even if you’ve read the book. That’s just a few of the dozens of insensitive mortifications.
1984 lucked out. The movie version is surprisingly faithful, with only a few very minor alterations and additions. Dialog is often straight out of the book. Remarkably, the means it uses to stay true to Orwell’s vision is by paring down the storyline to its bare essentials. The plot has been selectively abstracted to “fit the screen,” yet it still boldly expresses the bleakness of Oceania. One technique used to create mood is the reduction of color saturation and filtering out almost all color expect blue, leaving grim, jaundice flesh tones. Big Brother’s world is purposely monochrome and so is the movie. Flat listlessness pervades from start to finish.
There are two weaknesses to the movie. The desolation and decay portrayed have gone too far causing the movie to lag, its pace plods into lethargy. Second, is the love affair between Julia and Winston. In the book they have a lusty, full fledged, blazing, endorphin-loaded sex-fest. Although their illicit love affair isn’t missing in the movie, the relentless languor doesn’t adequately capture their energy, or help to carry the viewer through the depressing stranglehold on mind and body that the Party has on its subjects. In other words, the book keeps us hooked, the movie lets us dose off when it should be pulling us in closer.
There’s one more thing to mention. Cinema could be viewed as the ‘literature’ of the Information Age, and yet there is really, truly no substitute for a book. Books engage the mind. (Don’t feel like reading? Engage in a book on tape.) Books give you time to ponder, to imagine, to visualize,
Still, in a way, nobody sees a flower–really–it is so small–we haven’t time–and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. —Georgia O’Keefe
If a director/producer would take the time to respect Catcher in the Rye, it could make a great movie. Ah, but, “we haven’t time—and to see takes time,” Hollywood doesn’t respect and Multinational B.B. doesn’t want you to take time.
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