FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966; Oscar Werner, Julie Christie; directed by Francois Truffaut; widely available)
“You see, it’s… it’s no good, Montag. We’ve all got to be alike. The only way to be happy is for everyone to be made equal. ”
Author Ray Bradbury passed away last week at the age of 91. He wrote for television, including for Alfred Hitchcock, but the most famous movie to be adapted from one of his books was Fahrenheit 451. The best-selling Bradbury novel (which I read way back when) was directed by Francois Truffaut (his first and only English film) and released in 1966. Its critical reputation has improved (“meandering narrative…”, “pretentious and pedantic…”, “an interesting miss”, in the words of critics then). I’d seen Fahrenheit before, but in light of Bradbury passing away, I wanted to re-watch it. It’s gotten better with each viewing. A very good film; not quite perfect though.
From the start, Truffaut startles with quick zooms towards what appear to be ordinary, old rooftop TV antennas. But upon closer look, they are not. They’re a little bit different. This is the future. Over these dramatic shots, we hear the credits being read by an ominous, off-screen voice. The absence of the printed word is in keeping with Bradbury’s novel (a 1984-like future in which fire departments-in-reverse burn all books–“even this one (Mein Kampf)”–and sometimes their owners, with extreme prejudice. I don’t recall seeing (actually, hearing) this technique anywhere except in Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons (readers may want to help me out here…). Composer Bernard Herrmann created one of his best scores for Fahrenheit 451, and to his credit he (reportedly) resisted requests to use it during these opening “titles’. Immediately after these credits, however, Herrmann’s music gets underway. It’s urgent, unique, oppressive and authoritarian, all at once. The childlike xylophone has an accompanying visual: a bright red fire truck carrying a squad of fire lighters. It looks remarkably like a child’s toy as it races through the countryside–not to put out a blaze but to start one.
With the exception of glimpses of the pages of books, and “The End”, there is no text anywhere in the film. Not on or in any building (the fire station exterior simply reads “451”). Not during the odd, intrusive and sterile television programs Linda Montag (Julie Christie) watches on her “wall screen”. Christie’s husband, Guy, (Oscar Werner), aspires to a second screen (and, being a “guy”, he will most likely want a bigger one).
Christie also plays the part of Clarisse, a free spirit compared to the Stepford Wife behavior of her Linda character. She’s very direct while commuting via the monorail, initiating a conversation with the reclusive fellow traveler Montag, who is intrigued by her persistence. “Why do you burn books?”, she questions cheerily.
This is a thought-provoking film. Books in Fahrenheit 451 are looked upon much like how we view illegal drugs today. Books in this book-less new world are “used” even though they can “cause unhappiness”. They’re hidden away in homes. People who’ve read them all their lives, can’t stop–and would rather die than withdraw from reading. Confiscations of books are announced by weight (“Today’s figures for operations in the urban area alone account for the elimination of a total of 2,750 pounds of conventional editions…”). Whether you’re a casual or an avid reader, these firemen are not your friends.
A middle-aged “book lady” says, “These books were alive; they spoke to me!”. She meets, voluntarily, a horrible fate. Perhaps she didn’t know that books could continue to speak to her, in the true sense of the word. Some distance away from this restrictive society, there is a place where books are kept alive. A precious few have memorized one book a piece. With these wandering souls, books will live forever. They’ll be passed on to other, younger people.
Questions remain. There are only so many folks out there in that forest along the river and abandoned railroad tracks. Just how many books can possibly be saved? Why do the authorities leave them alone? Wouldn’t they suspect Montag (who is not as sympathetic a character as he should be) would be hiding among them? With helicopters and men in jet packs (an unfortunately poor special effect) at their disposal, how could the authorities miss this community–a community that could easily be wiped out without consequence.
Then there’s the two, trouble-prone young firemen at the station. What are the misdeeds they are berated for? It’s sort of funny that it’s never explained; it appears as though it might be a subplot left on the cutting room floor–one of a few plot threads that don’t go anywhere. There’s also Montag’s surprise (or is he faking it?) that there could be such a thing as a non-fireproof house, and his response to Clarisse’s astonishment that fireman once extinguished fires. (Surely large fires must still occur… .)
In the end, the literary scofflaws who’ve become the books they’ve read and memorized, walk through the snow-covered, leafless woods–woods that once, in a way, were the carriers of those words. It’s a moving and unforgettable scene, sad and yet a little hopeful, with beautiful, moody music to match. But the pace is off a bit there, too–the film ends a little bit abruptly. The romance here is about our love of books. The romance between Clarisse and Guy, which needs some resolution or fulfillment–one more chapter–is a loose end that is not tied-up.
This dark, cold movie is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s a thoughtful, cautionary story, and it’s not to be missed by anyone who’s ever read a book they wished would never end. Machines are gradually intruding on the lives of the film’s inhabitants, says one character, slowly taking them over. It’s the future in Fahrenheit, but that line was written 50 years ago. “Wall screens” (big, LCD and plasma sets), street corner cameras, satellite views, mindless TV programming and drone surveillance are a reality here in 2012. This is entertainment for us in the here and now, but once the movie’s over, you’ll wonder if the bleak future the movie depicted is as far-fetched as it seemed in 1966.