The novel presents a future American society in which the masses are hedonistic, and critical thought through reading is outlawed. The central character, Guy Montag, is employed as a "fireman" (which, in this future, means "book burner"). The number "451" refers to the temperature (in Fahrenheit) at which the books burn when the "Firemen" burn them "For the good of humanity". Written in the early years of the Cold War, the novel is a critique of what Bradbury saw as an increasingly dysfunctional American society.
The concept began with Bradbury's short story "Bright Phoenix," written in 1947 but first published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963. The original short story was reworked into the novella, The Fireman, and published in the February 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. The novel was also serialized in the March, April, and May 1954 issues of Playboy magazine. Bradbury wrote the entire novel on pay typewriter in the basement of UCLA's Powell library. His original intention in writing Fahrenheit 451 was to show his great love for books and libraries. He has often referred to Montag as an allusion to himself.
Over the years, the novel has been subject to various interpretations, primarily focusing on the historical role of book burning in suppressing dissenting ideas. Bradbury has stated that the novel is not about censorship; he states that Fahrenheit 451 is a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature, which leads to a perception of knowledge as being composed of "factoids", partial information devoid of context, e.g. Napoleon's birth date alone, without an indication of who he was.
A movie version of the novel was released in 1966, and it is anticipated that a second version will begin filming in 2008. At least two BBC Radio 4 dramatizations have also been aired, both of which follow the book very closely.
Fahrenheit 451 takes place in an unspecified future time in a hedonistic anti-intellectual America that has completely abandoned self-control. This America is filled with lawlessness in the streets ranging from teenagers crashing cars into people to firemen at a station who set their 'mechanical hound' to hunt various animals for the simple and grotesque pleasure of watching them die. Anyone caught reading books is, at the minimum, confined to a mental hospital while the books are burned by the said firemen. Illegal books mainly include famous works of literature, such as Walt Whitman and William Faulkner, as well as the Bible and all historical texts.
One night returning from his job, fireman Guy Montag meets his new neighbor Clarisse McClellan, whose free-thinking ideals and liberating spirit force him to question his life, his ideals, and his own perceived happiness. Later, Clarisse is killed in a car accident.
After meeting Clarisse, Montag returns home to find his wife Mildred asleep, with an empty bottle of sleeping pills next to her bed. He calls for medical help; two technicians respond by proceeding to suck out Mildred's blood with a machine and insert new blood into her. The technicians' utter disregard for Mildred forces Montag to question the state of society.
In the following days, while ransacking the book-filled house of an old woman before the inevitable burning, Montag accidentally reads a line in one of her books: "Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine". This prompts him to steal one of the books. The woman refuses to leave her house and her books, choosing instead to light a match she had concealed from the firemen's view, prematurely igniting the kerosene and martyring herself. This disturbs Montag, who wonders why someone would die for books, which he considers to be without value.
Jarred by the woman's suicide, Montag calls for sick leave, wherein he receives a visit from his fire chief Captain Beatty, who explains to him the political and social causes which underlie the work they perform. Captain Beatty claims that society, in its search for happiness, and in an attempt to minimize cultural offenses through political correctness, brought about the suppression of literature as an act of self-censorship and that the government merely took advantage of the situation. Beatty adds that all firemen eventually steal a book out of curiosity, but all would be well if the book is turned in within 24 hours. Montag argues with his wife, Mildred, over the book he has himself stolen, showing his growing disgust for her and for his society.
It is revealed that Montag has, over the course of a year, hidden dozens of books in the ventilation shafts of his own house, and tries to memorize them to preserve their contents, but becomes frustrated that the words seem to simply fall away from his memory. He then remembers a man he had met at one time: Faber, a former English professor. Montag seeks Faber's help, whereinafter Faber begins teaching Montag about the vagaries and ambiguities but overall importance of literature in its attempt to explain human existence. He also gives Montag a green bullet-shaped ear-piece so that Faber can offer guidance throughout his daily activities.
During a card game at the firehouse, Beatty tells Montag he had a dream about him, and relates the literary argument he claims to have had in his dream. Beatty quotes many books and shows an amazing knowledge of literature to prove to Montag that books can confuse the thoughts. Then follows another call to arms; Beatty theatrically leads the crew to Montag's own home. He reveals that he knew all along of Montag's books, and orders Montag to destroy the house. Montag sees Mildred, who had betrayed his secret, moving away from the house and sets to work burning their home; not content destroying the books, he burns the televisions, beds, and other emblems of his past life. When Beatty finds Faber's earpiece, he threatens to track Faber down, whereupon Montag turns the flamethrower on Beatty, killing him, and then knocks out two other firemen. He is soon a fugitive for these crimes. When the firehouse's mechanical hound attacks him, he turns the flamethrower on it, destroying it.
He flees to Faber's house, with another firehouse's mechanical hound and television network helicopters in hot pursuit. The newscasters hope to document his escape as a spectacle, and distract the people from the oncoming threat of war, a threat that has been foreshadowed throughout the book. Faber tells Montag of vagabond book-lovers in the countryside, whereinafter Montag escapes to a local river, floats downstream and meets a group of older men who, to Montag's astonishment, have memorized entire books, preserving them orally until the law against books is overturned. They burn the books they read to prevent discovery, retaining the verbatim content (and possibly valid interpretations) in their minds. The group leader, Granger, discusses the legendary phoenix and its endless cycle of long life, death in flames, and rebirth, adding the phoenix must have some relation to mankind, which constantly repeats its mistakes.
Meanwhile, the television network helicopters surround and kill another man whom they use as a scapegoat for the missing Montag.
The war begins. Montag watches helplessly as jet bombers fly overhead and attack the city with nuclear weapons. Mildred is implied to die, though Faber is assumed to have left the city. It is implied that more cities across the country have been incinerated as well; a bitter irony in that the world that sought to burn thought is burned itself. At the moment of the explosion, the emotion of seeing the city burned causes a key phrase from the Bible to emerge from the depths of Montag's memory.
The novel is concluded with a shocking but slightly optimistic tone. It is suggested that the society Montag knew has almost completely collapsed and a new society must be built from the ashes. Whether this new society will meet the same fate is unknown, but it is implied that the book-keepers will begin to build mirror factories (a literary allusion wherein mirrors are a metaphor for books) to show people who they are, what they have become, and how they can change with time and knowledge.
Other motifs attributed to the novel are:
One particularly ironic circumstance is that, unbeknownst to Bradbury, his publisher released a censored edition in 1967, omitting the words "damn" and "hell", for distribution to schools. Later editions with all words restored include a coda from the author describing this event and further thoughts on censorship and "well-meaning" revisionism.
Yet in the paperback edition released in 1979, Bradbury wrote a new coda for the book containing multiple comments on censorship and its relation to the novel. The coda is also present in the 1987 mass market paperback, which is still in print.
In the late '50s, Bradbury observed that the novel touches on the alienation of people by media:
In February 2001, the project was revived as director Frank Darabont entered negotiations with Warner Bros. to rewrite Terry Hayes's script and direct the film. Gibson was confirmed to be involved only as a producer, and Darabont planned to complete the script by the end of 2002. In July 2004, Darabont said that he had completed the script and hoped to begin filming Fahrenheit 451 after completing a script for Mission: Impossible III. Darabont did not begin Fahrenheit 451 immediately, instead going on to direct The Mist. The director said in November 2006 that he would do long-term preparation work for Fahrenheit 451 while filming The Mist and hoped that he would begin filming after The Mist was completed.
In August 2007, Darabont expressed his intent to film Fahrenheit 451 in the summer of 2008, and that he would place the story's setting in an "intentionally nebulous" future, approximately 50 years from the contemporary period. Darabont planned to keep certain elements from the book, such as the mechanical hound, in the film. The director did not comment on rumors of Tom Hanks as Guy Montag. The director said that the protagonist had been cast and would be announced soon. The following November, the director confirmed Hanks's involvement with the film and described the actor to be "the perfect embodiment of the regular guy". In March 2008, Hanks withdrew from the film, citing prior commitments as the reason. Darabont is now looking for a new lead, explaining the difficulty, "It needs to be somebody like Hanks who has the ability to trigger a greenlight but is also the right guy for the part. It's a narrow target. It's a short list of people.
The title of Bradbury's book has become a well-known byword amongst those who oppose censorship, in much the way George Orwell's 1984 or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World have (although not to the same extent). As such, it has been alluded to many times, including in the ACLU's 1997 white paper Fahrenheit 451.2: Is Cyberspace Burning? and Michael Moore's 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Bradbury objected to the latter's allusion to his work, claiming that Moore "stole my title and changed the numbers without ever asking me for permission.
Artist Micah Wright used the theme "Hand all books to your local fireman for safe disposal" overlaid on a 1940s fireman propaganda poster.
Hungarian poet György Faludy includes the lines in the opening stanza of his 1983 poem "Learn by Heart This Poem of Mine": "Learn by heart this poem of mine, / Books only last a little time, / And this one will be borrowed, scarred, [...] / Or slowly brown and self-combust, / When climbing Fahrenheit has got / To 451, for that's how hot / it will be when your town burns down. / Learn by heart this poem of mine.
Ray Bradbury also alludes to himself in his book Let's All Kill Constance as the main character, a writer, thinks about writing a book about a "hero who smells of kerosene" and muses about the possibility of books being used to start fires in the future.
The character of Sonmi~451 in David Mitchell's dystopia Cloud Atlas is likely to be a reference to Fahrenheit 451. The main theme evolving around her is the importance of literature as a cornerstone of human culture and society.
A 1986 computer text adventure revisits the story of Fahrenheit 451. The real-time strategy game StarCraft includes a flamethrower-wielding character named Gui Montag, after the protagonist of the book.
In R.O.D the TV's episode 16, all the books from jimbo-cho are gathered and burned in an event entitled operation Fahrenheit 451.
In the sixth episode of the 2008 Japanese anime, , a book referred to as "The Book of Prophecy" simply titled K505 was targeted for termination. This title alludes to Fahrenheit 451, as K505 can be read as 505 units of the Kelvin measurement of temperature that approximates 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Characters in the series' fictional, near-future setting also reference the book as being written "60 years ago" and how "a French director adapted it into a film."
Dozens of other references to the novel occur in television, music, and video games.
The music video for the Offspring's "Hammerhead" features mechanical dogs. Given the political nature of the song it is most likely representing the Mechanical Hound which hunted Montag throughout the book.
First edition (1953) – This edition was actually published in three formats, and included two short stories: "The Playground" and "And the Rock Cried Out"