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Commentary: Ray Bradbury and the gift of imagination

The movie version of "Fahrenheit 451" came out when I was a teenager, and had the virtue of most movies you remember most vividly: It isn't quite like anything else you've ever seen. It's directed (in English) by legendary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, and stars Oskar Werner and a young Julie Christie in what might be the best performance of her career, a dual role as both a victim of mind control and a free-spirited rebel against it.

I read the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel not long afterward. Truffaut clearly took some artistic license with the story, but there's nothing unusual about that, nor does it diminish either work. (Think of Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick and "The Shining": Two colossal talents and colossal egos, and each thought his was the better work. They were both right.)

The only other Bradbury work I've read (I think) is "The Martian Chronicles," so I'm far from being an authority on Ray Bradbury, who died last week at 91. But "Fahrenheit 451" is one of those incredibly imaginative, and almost frighteningly accurate, artistic visions that don't come around much. Artistic imagination of any kind is impressive, but especially the visionary kind.

I've never considered myself a serious sci-fi geek; Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj would kick me off the "Big Bang" set. A college roommate and close friend was a "Dune" cultist, and he hounded me to read it for four years. (I have reliable word that the Frank Herbert novel bears little resemblance to that godawful movie. Not all directors can work Truffaut's kind of alchemy.) I escaped further "Dune" harassment only by graduating and moving a thousand miles away.

You could probably count on one hand the number of science fiction books I've read, or at least that I remember. But when I start flipping through favorite movies, "Forbidden Planet," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Logan's Run" and "Blade Runner" are all there. And I still think "2001: A Space Odyssey" (speaking of Stanley Kubrick) is one of the most visionary flicks ever made.

None of those, with the obvious exception of "2001," is in the same artistic league as "Fahrenheit 451." It's a story about, among many other things, book burning (the title supposedly refers to the ignition temperature of paper), and is set in a post-literate society where the written word is contraband and possessors of it are felons.

It anticipates such now-familiar creations as invasive electronic surveillance, "interactive" media -- which Bradbury depicted as the technology not of a communications and information revolution, but of a mind-control opiate -- and that broadcast lobotomy we call "reality" TV.

News stories following Bradbury's death say he always resisted being pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, and maintained that "Fahrenheit 451" was the only true sci-fi book he wrote. It's easy to guess what he meant, just as it's easy to understand King when he bristles at being called a horror novelist. It means their respective bodies of work are broad and rich enough to defy such simple characterization.

That Bradbury wrote for "The Twilight Zone" is something I didn't know, but it helps explain why Rod Serling's classic series was (and still is) so much better than most of the dreck on TV.

Steven Spielberg called Bradbury "my muse for the better part of my sci-fi career," and it surely can't be mere coincidence that Spielberg cast Truffaut as scientist Claude Lacombe in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

One account of Bradbury's later life portrays him as an old man who never lost a young man's imagination. Every other artist, and the rest of us for that matter, could do a lot worse.