Today’s cinema adventure: Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel, and the great French director’s first- and only- English-language film. Set in a non-specified (but not-too-distant) future society, where firemen no longer put out fires but start them- in order to burn books, which have been outlawed- it tells the story of one such officer, Montag, whose curiosity leads him to start reading in secret, resulting in his gradual dissociation from wife, job, and culture. Though it was misunderstood by the critics and the public upon release, meeting with lukewarm reaction and largely being dismissed as an interesting failure, it has gained in reputation and respect over the years and is now regarded as a minor classic- and certainly as a seminal influence on the development of the sci-fi genre.
The choice of Bradbury’s story as source material for Truffaut was an odd one, considering the director’s previous work. As one of the founders of the French New Wave movement, he had won much critical and scholarly renown with genre-defying films that broke from traditional ideas of cinematic structure and conventional storytelling, tackling social themes in a peripheral way but focusing more intently on the dynamics of human relationships. His decision to helm a science fiction story- not only a specific genre but one which he had specifically stated was uninteresting to him, before he read Bradbury’s novel- was surprising in itself, to say nothing of it being a film that required adherence to a specifically structured plot and dealt directly with social and political issues. Odd choice or not, he felt strongly enough about it to spend several years acquiring financing. In addition, this would be his first film in English- a language he himself did not speak well- and his first in color. Clearly, there were a lot of expectations awaiting Fahrenheit 451 when it finally arrived onscreen in November of 1966.
Despite its seeming opposition to Truffaut’s usual milieu, the scenario contains numerous elements, such as self-destructive obsession and the dehumanizing effects of authority, which echo some of the director’s recurring themes. It’s no surprise, then, that his treatment of Bradbury’s novel brings these features to the forefront; he drives the plot mainly through his portrayal of the cold and robotic firemen and the protagonist’s slow unraveling through his growing passion for the books he is supposed to destroy. In addition, the two worlds between which Montag is torn are represented by a woman from each one (both played, in fact, by the same actress, Julie Christie), suggesting the triangular relationships which often figure prominently in Truffaut’s films. It’s also not surprising that many of the original’s overtly sci-fi trappings have been removed in this version; the technology in use here mostly consists of familiar, contemporary stuff revamped with a futuristic design- indeed, many of the everyday devices shown in the film look specifically antique. When we do see elements that indicate a more advanced technological world, such as the anti-gravity packs used by the airborne squad hunting Montag near the end, they seem jarringly out-of-place.
It is this seeming gap between artist and material that likely created much of the critical dissatisfaction that met with Fahrenheit 451 at the time. Truffaut’s sensibilities as a filmmaker were geared toward capturing the immediate, reflected in a style that seemed- indeed, often was- improvised on the spot, designed to bring attention to the ineffable perfection of the moment that was happening right now. For him to tackle a story of the future, then, created a conflict between his personal style and the needs of the material, and there were many viewers who felt that the director failed to reconcile these differences. This, however, seems to fall under the category of judging a film for what it isn’t, rather than for what it is, which, as I believe I have pointed out before, might be missing the point. After all, Truffaut’s success was built upon his notion that film should not be bound by expectations and convention, so it seems fitting that his contribution to science fiction cinema should be a film that is markedly different in tone and form to the accepted standards previously set for the genre. The world he depicts is not so much a distant, future community as it is an exaggerated representation of our own- an inherent conceit (indeed, the entire point) of the whole sub-genre of dystopian fiction, and one which Truffaut emphasizes through his visualization of the novel. Though we are given a few stylized nods to forward-thinking design- the elevated train which provides public transport, the oddly boat-like fire truck- the majority of the setting looks very much like the then-present day surroundings familiar to contemporary audiences. Most of the buildings have the elegant, mid-century-modern look that was so popular at the time (and indeed, remains so today), as do the clothes and the décor; contrasted with that self-consciously chic style are the obviously old-fashioned homes and trappings of the counter-cultural characters, whose refusal to embrace the modern trend could arguably be seen as a dead giveaway to their subversive tendencies. The primary means with which Truffaut emphasizes the difference in this social setting to that of our own is by his exaggeration, sometimes satirical and sometimes horrifying, of the more alarming similarities; the unending banalities that mark every interaction (even between husband and wife), the desire for popularity and personal advancement which seems to be the only real concern for most of the inhabitants, and the intrusive presence of the wall-screens through which the unspecified powers-that-be both control and placate the masses. The latter is particularly prominent, and- along with the telling opening credits, which are read by voice-over rather than seen in printed form, over a montage of TV antennas- underlines the dominant premise of both the book and the film- not the censorship of literature and free thinking by a draconian government, but the erosion of knowledge and wisdom through the superficiality of a popular culture dictated by an ever-shrinking attention span and an ever-growing desire to shut out the unpleasant realities of life. It is public mandate that has created the disturbing environment of Fahrenheit 451, not the forced domination of a powerful overlord; the citizens of the future are reaping the fruits of their own intellectual and emotional laziness.
Though re-evaluation has led to a much greater appreciation of the film than was present in its initial critical assessment, there are still a few flaws that cannot be completely ignored. Truffaut was disappointed in the dialogue, which he felt was stilted and pedantic; though he himself had written the screenplay with Jean-Louis Richard, his own lack of proficiency in English limited his ability to create the kind of witty, stimulating exchanges he wished to include- though from a more objective standpoint the marked lack of character in the language of the film creates a strong impression of the puppet-like artificiality of the people that inhabit it. More unfortunate, really, is the performance of Oskar Werner as Montag; having previously worked with Truffaut in Jules and Jim, the Austrian actor was a last-minute replacement in the role (when Terence Stamp dropped out over fears he would be upstaged by the aforementioned double-casting of Julie Christie), and had substantial disagreement with the director over the way the character should be played. Truffaut wanted Montag’s humanity to be apparent, Werner felt that he should be stoic and mechanical; the resulting conflict brought an end to the friendship the two men had previously enjoyed, and Werner’s dissatisfaction and refusal to co-operate even led to deliberate sabotage- for example, cutting his hair before filming the final scenes in order to create continuity errors. His final performance is, as he wanted, detached and largely unemotional- when his passions begin to emerge as a result of his forbidden interests, they seem to surface more as arrogant anger than as deeper awareness- and as a result, it is hard to care about him as more than a vehicle for audience perspective on the story. As for Ms. Christie, although her twin performances were derided by some critics at the time as being different only in her hairstyle, her work here is highly effective; the similarities between the two women she plays, Montag’s outsider friend and his vapid wife, only serve to enhance the differences that result from their respective interests in the substantial and the trivial.
Truffaut’s vision of Bradbury’s work is realized by a superbly distinctive construction of its physical environment. The production design by Syd Cain incorporates the contrast between then-contemporary ideas of futuristic styling and a taste for the comfort of familiarity presumably held by the unimaginative residents of this future, unnamed city. Likewise, Tony Walton’s costume design opposes the gay and cheery hues and smart styles of everyday life against the ominous black fascism of the firemen’s uniforms and the earthy traditional feel of the clothing worn by the “book people.” The vibrant cinematography, by Nicholas Roeg (whose later work as a director in his own right would sometimes suggest influences from this film), captures it all in a dazzling color palette that reflects the height of mid-sixties fashion. As for the soundtrack, Bernard Herrmann- the master composer responsible for some of the iconic scores heard in films by Alfred Hitchcock, who was Truffaut’s favorite director- provides a haunting musical accompaniment in his own unmistakable vein, creating an influence, as he always did, that contributes immeasurably to the final overall effect of the movie.
Ultimately, though Fahrenheit 451 has become an acknowledged milestone in the direction of science fiction on screen, and it is now viewed as a little gem of its era, it does fall short in comparison to other works by its auteur director. Nevertheless, even a weak film by François Truffaut is a work of art, with much to offer and much to appreciate. It is something of a curiosity in his canon, an out-of-character project undertaken in an alien environment- his limited English made filming in London an isolated and unpleasant experience for him. It’s worth noting that, despite substantial changes made to his original plot, author Bradbury publicly stated many times that he was pleased with the film, and even that some of the changes (specifically the choice to allow Clarisse, the intellectual schoolteacher who sparks Montag’s curiosity about the books he burns, to survive to the end of the story) were pleasant improvements. In the final analysis, perhaps, what makes Truffaut’s adaptation work is the thing which drew him to the story in the first place: the director was a lover of books and literature, a fact which is evident in the way he portrays them onscreen. The weathered and dog-eared volumes seen throughout the film evoke substance and endurance, and the lingering detail in which he depicts their burning emphasizes not so much their destruction as their beauty and their eternal appeal; and the climactic scene in which the exiled literati walk around reciting their memorized books, surrounded by a delicately beautiful snowfall, packs an unexpectedly powerful emotional punch- despite the cold inaccessibility of Werner’s performance as our would-be hero- resulting from this worshipful, loving appreciation of the printed word. It is a worthy message Truffaut presents here, and one which seems even more urgent as our modern society- in which crucial information is provided in easily digestible factoids by thousands of broadcasted feeds, and bookstores are increasingly difficult to find- grows more and more to resemble the one portrayed here. That he was successful in translating that message to the screen is made powerfully apparent by the fact that, after watching Fahrenheit 451, I had a sudden and overwhelming urge to go and read a book.