April 22, 2014
I was recently rewatching the 2002 Kurt Wimmer film Equilibrium when I suddenly realized this is Ray Bradbury's 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451 all over again. But it wasn't a crass failure of imagination. No, Wimmer was doing what many writers, artists and movie makers do--borrowing from a past work to offer an homage while providing a few twists of his own.
Both stories are dystopias. Both concern government-mandated book burning to control the population. Both involve a main character assigned to enforce the prohibitions but who slowly comes under the sway of what he is supposed to be destroying. In both the oppressive government is itself ultimately destroyed.
The differences separating these two stories, written fifty years apart, illuminate the changes that have taken place in society in those intervening years. While the enforcers in Fahrenheit 451 are firemen, in Equilibrium they are clerics. In Bradbury's world, civil servants are the front line of government policy. In Wimmer's, a quasi-religious order of martial arts experts are the tools of the dictatorship. Religion linked with violence is now the ultimate villain.
An additional difference is telling. With Bradbury, ideas are banned. Ideas raise questions, elevate expectations, inspire change. Rulers do not want such uncertainties released which might upset their control of the people. So their idea is to destroy ideas by burning books.
In Equilibrium, on the other hand, emotions are banned. Anger and jealousy cause wars and unrest. The rulers feel that with no emotion, there will be no violence--except a lot of government-instigated violence against those who refuse their emotion-eliminating drugs.
Of course, Bradbury's point is that ideas should not be banned and Wimmer's that emotions should not be suppressed. In the one, ideas are supreme. In the other, emotions are the ultimate good.
Some may decry the triumph of emotion over ideas in the last half century, and I am one of them. Doing what feels right or good is not a recipe for living well. But cold, heartless ideas aren't adequate either. We need ideas and emotion to balance each other and shape one another. We should be full of both grace and truth.