CBR 10 Bingo: Fahrenheit 451! (banned and challenged books)
There’s no shortage of books that have been turned into movies, but relatively few have been turned into music videos by heavy metal bands. To be more accurate, the 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, which was itself inspired by the true story of a Canadian soldier brutally injured in World War I, inspired a 1971 film by the same name, which inspired the Metallica song “One,” whose video features cuts from the film. Coincidentally, the book was written by Dalton Trumbo, who was portrayed in the film Trumbo by Bryan Cranston, who appeared in Larry Crowne with Tom Hanks, who starred in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon.
Enjoy that chuckle, kids, ’cause shit’s gonna get dark real quick!
As the novel opens, a phone is ringing, and Joe Bonham wishes it would stop. Eventually we realize the phone isn’t really ringing; Joe is dreaming, remembering when he got the phone call from his mother that his father had died. He left his job and went home to be with his family and mourn. As he starts to drift out of his dream state, he realizes that he’s covered in bandages and begins to understand that he’s been seriously injured. He remembers being in battle, in a bombproof dugout, and figures a bomb must have gotten him. As his heart starts to pound and he fails to hear it, it dawns on him that he’s deaf. “So he’d never hear again,” Joe muses. “Well, there were a hell of a lot of things he didn’t want to hear again. . . .The hell with it.” As he wonders what happened to the other guys in the hole, Joe figures he was probably pretty lucky.
Joe is so, so wrong.
Like, really wrong.
I can’t overstate this.
Interspersed with memories from his pre-war life, Joe pieces together the full extent of his injuries. As he remembers his girlfriend Kareen, about holding her in his arms when he said goodbye to her, he realizes his left arm has been cut off. Before he can fully come to terms with that, it dawns on him that his right arm is also missing. If there were an inventory listing all the appendages in the world, Joe would have a big zero in the “arms” column. So he’s just supposed to walk around armless forever? Well no, because crap, his legs are gone, too. No arms, no legs. He’s literally the horrible embodiment of the tasteless joke about a guy named Matt. So he’s going to live out the rest of his life like this? Just lying in bed watching TV maybe eating Doritos if somebody will be kind enough to feed them to him? No. . .oh no. . . please let’s not go there. Joe has no face. No arms, legs, ears, eyes, nose, or tongue.
As depressing as this sounds, Joe keeps it together for the most part by occupying his mind with puzzles. He spends years learning how to track the passage of time by identifying the footsteps (via vibrations) of the various nurses as well as his medication and bath schedule. Eventually he becomes obsessed with the idea of communicating with someone on the “outside” by banging out Morse code with his head. For a moment, it seems like this might be a novel of human triumph. When Joe breaks through and a nurse finally understands what he is doing, he’s happier than he has ever been in his life. He has touched the outside world; he’s made a connection. He exists. Sadly, the response is anti-climactic. The world (or at least, the army) would rather not deal with Joe. They medicate him, and he falls into another dream-like haze.
So, yeah, definitely not a pro-war message. But simply describing Johnny Got His Gun as an anti-war novel is an oversimplification. I rather think the novel is opposed to the romanticism of war; war may at times be necessary or unavoidable, but we can never ignore the real human costs. In the author’s 1959 introduction, Trumbo wrote about the start of World War I: “It was a season of generosity; a time for boats, bands, poems, songs, innocent prayers. It was an August made palpitant and breathless by the pre-nuptial nights of young gentleman officers and the girls they permanently left behind them. . . .Nine million corpses later, when the bands stopped and the serenities started running, the wail of bagpipes would never again sound quite the same.”
Trumbo himself was famously part of the Hollywood Ten, held in contempt by Congress and blacklisted by Hollywood for refusing to testify about their Communist ties or provide names of Communist sympathizers. Not surprisingly, Johnny Got His Gun became especially controversial after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Yet Trumbo himself, if his introduction is to be believed, supported not reprinting his novel until the war came to an end. “There are times when it may be needful for certain private rights to give way to the requirements of a larger public good.” Not exactly the words of an instigator.
As far as the novel goes, I expect I’d have been more enraptured by it when I was in high school, when I was more inclined to be shocked by the callousness of the world, especially where war and people’s lives are concerned. The style of the novel is simple; at times stream-of-consciousness, but not what I’d call transportive. Every once in awhile, though, something would strike me as beautiful in its helpless desperation.
“He understood the overpowering impulse to kill without having a reason for killing the desire to beat against living skulls until they were pulp the passion to strangle the lust for murder that was more beautiful more satisfying more imperative than any lust he had known before. But he couldn’t do it he couldn’t kill he couldn’t do anything but tap.”