- Oskar Werner in Fahrenheit 451
When Brattleboro Literary Festival executive director Sandy Rouse heard schools across the country were banning books, she immediately thought of Fahrenheit 451 — the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel about a dystopian society where books are illegal.
Bradbury turned out to be "prophetic," said Rouse, who sees eerie parallels in his book to modern-day book bans in schools.
Compelled to draw attention to the practice of book banning, she teamed up with Jamie Mohr, director of the nonprofit Brattleboro arts organization Epsilon Spires. The two are cohosting a film series featuring movie adaptations of banned books — starting with the 1966 film version of Fahrenheit 451, screening at Epsilon Spires on Friday, December 1. Admission is free for anyone who presents a copy of Bradbury's book at the door or shows a library card from Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro.
While Fahrenheit 451 is not currently banned in any schools, it has faced several challenges over the years. In 2006, the book came under fire at a high school in Conroe, Texas, for its profanity and use of God's name in vain. In 2018, a parent in Santa Rosa County, Fla., filed a formal complaint against the classic novel's inclusion in the required eighth-grade curriculum.
"It's ironic, because it's a censored book that's about censorship," Mohr said. "So it's absolutely perfect to start the series with."
Rouse said the two hope to hold monthly screenings as part of a yearlong series, though they haven't yet finalized the roster of films. They're considering A Clockwork Orange, which follows a gang leader's experiences in a violent dystopian society, and The Kite Runner, the story of an unlikely friendship in Afghanistan amid political turmoil. Both films are adapted from books of the same name that are frequently censored.
Picking the movies will be difficult, Rouse said, because there are so many to choose from. And the number of books under fire continues to grow: The first half of the 2022-23 school year saw almost 1,500 instances of schools banning books across the country, according to the Index of School Book Bans compiled by PEN America, a New York City-based nonprofit that champions the freedom of expression.
Proponents of book banning seem to "fear exposing children to the perspectives of other people," Mohr said. "It's an attack against imagination and empathy."
Rouse and Mohr are also hoping to schedule speakers to accompany each film. Among the potential guests is Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who for five months has been reading from banned books at bookstores and libraries across Vermont as part of a "banned books tour."
At the screening on Friday, local screenwriter Tim Metcalfe and journalist Tom Bedell will introduce Fahrenheit 451. Metcalfe, a former Hollywood writer and Brattleboro resident, is known for the Revenge of the Nerds comedy series, about a group of outcasts who fight back against their bullies, and Kalifornia, the story of a journalist and his photographer girlfriend traveling cross-country to research serial killings, starring Brad Pitt. Metcalfe and Bedell will speak about Bradbury's inspirations for the novel and its reception around the world.
"It will be a really fun movie but also offer a lot to talk about in our current political situation with censorship and anti-intellectualism," Mohr said. "It's interesting how science fiction from decades ago foresees things in the future."