Censorship is alive and well in Florida. Last month, a Pasco county middle school banned the popular Stephen Chobosky novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower; forbidding it to be part of the curriculum. According to an article in the Tampa Bay Times, the novel is filled with detailed descriptions of rape, sex and masturbation. One school official said that while the book’s message is good for troubled students, for others it could be exposing them to too much disturbing information for the first time. The article appeared about two weeks ago. I have not read any updates since. There was talk of banning the book in every middle school and possibly every high school in the county. Apparently, some other districts throughout the country have also banned the book.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a teen as soon as I was told not to read a book, or that a book was banned, I ran out, found a copy and read it! It was the same way when the Catholic church would ban a film. Off I went to see what the commotion was about. It propelled me to read books that I may not have otherwise have read and for that I thank them.
Then there is the idea that kids will be corrupted by the material. Frankly, today’s young kids are not that innocent. The idea that they will be corrupted I find archaic. It’s more likely puritanical parents are the ones in fear of being corrupted. Reading banned books or watching banned movies did not corrupt, disturb or otherwise affect me other than to hate censorship.
I find the idea of censorship an attack on the first amendment, democracy as well as an attack on intellectual freedom. That is what is at stake in the 1956 film Storm Center. It stars Bette Davis as Alicia Hull, a free-thinking librarian in a small New England town. She’s been at the job for more than twenty five years. She loves books. She loves the words, the ideas they open up for people, especially Freddie (Kevin Coughlin), a young kid of ten or so who is an avid reader to the exclusion of just about everything else, even sports as his Neanderthal father, George (Joe Mantell), complains.
Alicia believes in all kinds of books even ones with ideologies she disagrees with. They should all be available to read and discuss. That’s part of what makes us different from oppressive countries like Russia where books with ideologies that don’t conform are banned. That is until the New England town’s city council find a book on Alicia’s library shelf called The Communist Dream. They tell Alicia they have received various complaints from some of the town’s citizens and are concerned. Not just for the communist rhetoric, they have more personal fears also; their political careers. They want Alicia to remove the book from the library shelves. At first she agrees, after being promised a new children’s library wing she has been asking for. However, that evening, alone in the library as she looks around, she come to realize that a library is a tomb for learning and the exchanging of ideas is at the center if it, whether one agrees with those ideas or not. She puts the book back on the shelf, telling the council that though she finds the communist idea repulsive, people have a right to read and judge for themselves. That’s what makes America different. When one council member pleads with her to just remove the book, just this one time, she responds that the library has an entire section of political theories. What happens if another book later on is found objectionable? Where does it stop?
The city council, led by politically hungry politician Paul Duncan (Brian Keith), force the adamant librarian to resign. He’s even willing to expose that she once belonged to patriotic sounding organizations that turned out to be fronts for the communists. Though she quickly resigned from these groups, once she realized the truth, for Duncan that was too little, too late. Alicia resigns her job and the town’s hypocrisy soon turns most of them against her. Even little Freddie who she loved for his love of books and the boy loved her back comes to hate her.
The boy has been brainwashed by his father who doesn’t understand a kid who rather read than play sports. George also hates the fact that his wife, Laura (Sally Brophy), more understanding of the boy than dad, plays the piano. What’s with all the culture? He moans. George represents what Isaac Asimov called, “a cult of ignorance in the United States.” People who pride themselves on their anti-intellectualism.
During the ground breaking ceremony for the new children’s wing of the library, Freddie, brainwashed by all the hatred for Alicia, verbally attacks her. He breaks down yelling that he hates her for being a commie. Later at night the distraught confused boy burns down the library. Dad probably was very proud.
The film ends with a crowd in front of the burned down library. Alicia who basically gave up and was ready to leave the town that turned against her comes to the burned down library after being asked by the one city council member who was sympathetic toward her. In a sudden, and unconvincing turnaround, she decides to stay, fight on and rebuild the library.
If you have not guessed by now, the film is heavy handed, to say the least. Written by Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity, Golden Boy, Picnic among others), the script slams its message right into your face. However blunt, it’s message and its heart are in the right place Unfortunately the execution is not as smooth as it could have been.
Many of the characters are single dimensional from the boy’s father to Brian Keith’s politically power hungry councilman. To make matters worst Kevin Coughlin who plays the young boy, Freddie, chews the scenery like it’s the best thing he has had to eat in years. Bette Davis does what she can keeping her performance restrained and dignified like her character.
However, despite the melodramatic, sometimes simplistic script, the heavy-handedness of it all, the film’s heart and message are in the right place. Viewing the film today, one can easily read that the freedom we have in this country should be cherished and should not be taken for granted. We need to keep fighting the fight because there is always narrow-minded forces who want to take it all away.