Sometime in the years 1948 and ’49 I wrote a series of stories about book burning in world history, starting with the Alexandrian libraries 3,000 years ago, which burned twice by accident and once on purpose. As I was growing up, I saw photographs of Hitler’s burning of the books in the Berlin streets and later on heard about Lenin’s and Stalin’s library purges and assassinations of authors.
Since I’m a library person, having educated myself in the libraries of Los Angeles, all of this concerned me, and the older I got the more I wanted to write stories about libraries and books. I had written a short story called “The Pedestrian” about a future in which it’s illegal to walk on the streets. A few months later, I took “The Pedestrian” out for a stroll, and when he turned a corner, he was confronted by a teenage girl named Clarisse McClellan, who took a deep breath and said, “I know who you are, from the smell of the kerosene. You’re the fireman who burns books.”
A little more than a week later, my first version of what would become Fahrenheit 451 was finished. But first I had to find a place to write. I had a newborn child at home, and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA, I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half-hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days, I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.
The wonderful thing about writing Fahrenheit 451, which I called The Fireman the first time out, was the fact that I could run up and down stairs in the library and seize books off the shelf, not knowing what I was going to find next, opening the books and discovering quotes to rush back down to the typing room to insert in my novel. It was a passionate and exciting time for me. Imagine what it was like to be writing a book about book burning and doing it in a library where the passions of all those authors, living and dead, surrounded me.
When I finished, I didn’t know what I had done. The Fireman was published in the January issue of Galaxy Magazine in 1951. Two years later, Ballantine Books asked if I could add 25,000 words to the original novella. I said that I could, because there was so much I hadn’t yet said.
I called the characters back and asked them to speak to me, which is how I do all of my writing. I listen to my characters, I watch them and I put down their reactions. I knew that Beatty, the Fire Captain, had more to offer about his history of book burning. I knew that Clarisse McClellan had something to say about her fancies and about the culture she survived in. I knew that Faber, a recluse, fearful of being out in society, had more insight and philosophy to gift me with.
So I listened to them again and in the summer of 1953 went back to the library basement and finished the work on the longer version of The Fireman. But I still had no new title.
I wondered at what temperature book paper caught fire; I hadn’t bothered to look up the temperature at that time. I called the UCLA chemistry department, but they couldn’t tell me. I called the USC science department, and they had no information. I finally said, how stupid! Call the fire department, they might have the answer. I called the L.A. Fire Department and spoke to the chief and said, “I know that this is silly, but could you tell me the temperature at which book paper catches fire?”
He said, “Just a moment,” and went away. When he came back, he said, “451 Fahrenheit.”
“Oh my God,” I said, “that’s wonderful. Just reverse it and it has a nicer sound. Fahrenheit 451.” So I rushed to my typewriter and placed the new title on my book.
That was the summer when Joseph McCarthy was running rampant in Washington with his threats to the libraries and his investigation of supposed communist backgrounds of screenwriters. It was very difficult to find a new publisher in magazine form before the book was published.
A young editor who was starting a new magazine approached me. He had only $450 with which to buy a property.
I said, “I have Fahrenheit 451, and you can have it for that money.”
He bought my novella and it appeared in the second, third and fourth issues of Playboy. I think there are a lot of young men in the world who might thank me for helping Hugh Hefner at the right time!
The book’s history started small and grew over time, and I still did not realize what I had done.
When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 for the stage, I called back my characters and asked them to explain more about their lives. Beatty spoke up and told me the reasons why he burned books. It turned out, as he spoke, that he was once a romantic and a book lover, but in the years following his love of libraries, a series of disasters ensued. There was a failed romance, his mother died of cancer, his father was a suicide and so, at the age of 30, he opened the books and found the pages were empty, they were no longer able to sustain him as they had in his younger years. He then turned on the books as if they had offended him, and he became a fireman.
All of this I didn’t know when I wrote the novel. I wish I had heard Beatty speak to me at that time. I also discovered that Beatty had a secret cache of books. He took Montag, the Fireman protagonist of the novel, home and revealed a fantastic library. Montag was aghast and cried, “But you’re the chief fireman! How can you keep these books?” To which Beatty responded, “It’s not having the books that counts, Montag, it’s reading them. I never touch them. They’re like my harem. I keep them around me and never once do I ever crack the covers or read one line.”
Later, in October 1966, François Truffaut made a film of Fahrenheit 451. I have a theory about film: If you have a very good film with a bad ending, then you have a bad film. If you have a mediocre film or a good film with a brilliant ending, then you have an almost brilliant film.
That’s the story of the film Fahrenheit 451. The ending, with the book-people wandering in the wilderness, speaking the lines from the books they have memorized as the snow falls all about them and the fabulous Bernard Herrmann score plays, brings you to tears.
Driving back from a preview with Fritz Lang, the famed German director, he kept shouting, “God dammit to hell! I hate those book-people wandering in the forest, speaking their favorite book!”
“Fritz,” I said, “it’s only a metaphor. It’s not supposed to be real. It’s a metaphor.”
“God dammit,” said Fritz, “I hate that ending with the book-people and the snow falling and the Herrmann music.”
Thank God I didn’t listen to Fritz. The film today stands by itself, without his God dammits.