Review of: ‘FAHRENHEIT 451’
with Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack
(1966, DVD Universal Pictures UK, November 2003)
‘…A Novel Of A Strange And Weird Future…’
The opening paragraph punches home the shock. The fireman is hosing ‘venomous kerosene’ from his brass nozzle. It brings you up sharp. ‘kerosene’? Francois Truffaut’s only English-speaking film adapts Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi novel in which the Fire Brigade is not there to put out fires, but to burn illegal collections of books wherever they discover them, hidden behind false-front TV’s, concealed in radiators, suspended in Perspex light-shades, or ‘a veritable well of words’ stashed in secret loft-space. Fahrenheit 451 is ‘the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns’. So your Kindle is presumably safe! To thirty-year-old fireman Guy Montag, with the symbolic ‘451’ numerals on his beetle-black helmet, ‘it was a pleasure to burn’. In a form of gleeful pyromania he considers himself as ‘some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history’. And Oskar Werner plays this fireman, who learns to love the books he’s employed to burn.
The book is a strange mix of retro, and historical futures. The brass pole down which the firemen slide, and the eight-legged robo-hound, a precursor of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Fido’ cyborg-dog in ‘Snowcrash’ (1992), and let’s leave K9 out of this, OK? The 24-hour robot bank-tellers predict ATM’s. In fifties SF-terms there’s a sketched-in back-story of ‘we’ve started and won two atomic wars since 1960’, leaving maybe a starving radioactive world beyond America’s national borders. Nobody knows for sure. They’re now on the precipice of a new war as ‘bombers crossed the sky and crossed the sky’ above them. There’s also a kind of dystopian Political Correctness that conforms more to the fifties idea of orderly social homogeneity. ‘The tyranny of the majority.’ The ‘Little boxes on a hillside’ thought-control leveling down embodied by the three caricatured wives with their mindless harpy-inanities. As Montag’s wife uses her ear-thimbles, a kind of radio iPod, and interactive three-wall TV with its endless soap-opera ‘relations’. Truffaut has Montag offered promotion. When he’s asked ‘am I right?’ he replies ‘absolutely’, deliberately replicating Linda’s auto-response to her wall-cousins. Kurt Vonnegut also used SF as a medium to satirise this stultifying conformity. Future Graphic Novel Lawman Judge Dredd also confiscates banned books. Books offend minorities, and ‘there are too many of us, he thought. There are billions of us and that’s too many’, and with more people, there are more minorities to offend. African-American’s dislike ‘Robinson Crusoe’. Jews don’t like Nitzsche. We must be happy. So we must all be alike. Books raise awkward questions about freedom and individuality. Questions create dissatisfaction, with ‘silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words’. As if to vindicate his position Captain Beatty (Cyril Cusack) brandishes a copy of Hitler’s ‘Mien Kampf’. Books are subversive. Rebellious. ‘A book is a loaded gun’. ‘If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him, give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget…’ Of course, it’s a metaphor. As much of a metaphor as the old-fashioned salamander fire-truck they drive, or the phoenix for suave boss Beatty. Book-burning is a mark of intolerant totalitarianism from Nazi pyres to Ku Klux Klan to the burning of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ on the streets of Bradford. Like the Taliban, Truffault shows in a neat sixties, touch how conformist forces also shear long-haired youths. And Bradbury conjures this situation forced into extremis. In an increasingly inhospitable world, he shows the survival of literacy, of sensitivity, of solitude, of quiet thinking. A situation more so now than it was then. Are books dying? Small bookshops maybe, but not if you visit Waterstones. Is the internet killing off newspapers, are they ‘dying like huge moths? Are postal charges eliminating the viability of small-press publishing? Now there’s even more background noise of inconsequence. More roaring dumbed-down trivia.
Montag imagines himself to be more-or-less content until, the same evening his wife Mildred (Linda in the film) overdoses on sleeping pills, he encounters the strangely disturbing beauty of Clarisse McClellan, ‘seventeen and crazy’. In the movie she’s ‘loopy crazy’, and Julie Christie has the dual role of playing both women, implying that although they may have started out with equal potential, they evolved into two very contrasting people, despite ‘Time’ magazine claiming her portrayals differ ‘only in their hairdos’. Linda has long hair. Clarisse has a bob. In an artfully contrived subplot Clarisse even pretends to be Linda on the phone. Clarisse is a flower-child before there are flower-children. A social misfit because she asks questions where others merely accept. She’s the beautiful irritant that insinuates herself into his disquiet, into the dissatisfaction he scarcely realizes he feels. The ‘stirrings of unease’. Medics come and impersonally replace his wife’s blood so the following morning she’s unaware of the whole near-death incident. Charted in their dislocated aimless conversation. He ruminates that, along with the new blood, if only she could also be the recipient of ‘someone else’s flesh and brain and memory. If only they could have taken her mind along to the dry-cleaners and emptied the pockets and steamed and cleaned it and reblocked it and brought it back in the morning. If only…’
His life comes apart. Even the fireman’s pole rejects him. ‘Do you ever read any of the books you burn?’ asks Clarisse. ‘That’s against the law’ he laughs. But the woman at the house on Elm who burns herself to death with her ‘secret library’ Tower of Babel books sets him thinking. ‘There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house.’ There is a tantalising seep of unacknowledged quotes – ‘time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine’, which is from poet Alexander Smith’s ‘City Poem: Dreamthorpe’. Montag reads an excerpt from ‘that evil political book’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. There are two verses complete and uncredited of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”. In the film you strain to catch book-titles as they burn, ‘Catcher In The Rye’, Jean Genet, Kafka, Brendan Behan, ‘Moby Dick’, Henry Miller’s ‘Plexus’, De Sade’s ‘Justine’, ‘Lolita’, an issue of ‘Mad’ magazine. ‘The World Of Salvador Dali’ burns in a long page-flickering sequence.In a Truffaut in-joke he burns an issue of ‘Cahiers Du Cinéma’.
Clarisse vanishes. Is she dead? Montag has salvaged a book and brought it home. More, he has a stash of books hidden above the vent. Truffaut portrays him reading ‘David Copperfield’, he reads aloud, following the lines with his finger. Because he’s unfamiliar with book-reading he even methodically reads the imprint. Do Beatty’s loaded comments mean that he knows? Escaping, Montag links with a poetry-quoting retired English Professor called Faber – named rather obviously for TS Eliot’s publisher. On-screen there is no Faber. Instead Montag has a dream in which it is Clarisse who burns. Then, no, it is her house which is purged, but she escapes through a skylight. Montag assists her to destroy an incriminating list of subversives. In both versions Montag’s last call is at his own house, betrayed by his wife. And the act of burning his own home becomes the act of burning his past self. Better illustrated in the book where he torches their bed ‘with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain.’ He turns the flame-gun on Beatty and incinerates him too. Then there’s the pursuit through the night city, the coordinated surveillance from every house simultaneously. Montag is deliberately almost run down by joy-riding feral teens. And where Truffaut has him drifting by punt as his pursuers use curiously-animated jet-packs to hunt him down, Bradbury uses the robo-hound. Eventually they both make his way to a secret rural commune, the outlaw custodians of literary lore, the ‘walking camp’ where members spend their days memorising books. In this way, even though the physical volumes may cease to exist, the books will not die. One of the memorised books is ‘The Martian Chronicles’ by Ray Bradbury.
The tale told in Bradbury’s evocative rapid poetry of ‘the warm-cool blowing night on the silvered pavement’ is re-told by Truffaut in elegant photography. Bradbury uses fire as a motif. ‘If he was fire, Faber was water.’ Beatty has an ‘alcohol-flame stare’. The sun burns time. And fire is the first thing Montag sees of the camp, which the film switches into a bleak autumnal railway carriage. For a screenplay focused on flame, Truffaut makes it a very chill film indeed, partly by deploying colour values, which critic Philip French describes as ‘beautifully shot by Nicolas Roeg’. There are colour-filter title-frames with voice-over credits. There are reds and greys which predominate. The screen is drenched siren-red for calls. And he effectively conveys the idea that each time a book is incinerated, it is an act of murder. John Brosnan, in his ‘Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’ entry is less convinced, ‘the film is more ambiguous than Bradbury’s original’ he argues. Where Bradbury is sharp, Truffaut is more ambiguous, more questioning. ‘Truffaut seems not altogether to accept Bradbury’s moral simplicity. This is particularly evident at the end, with the book-people murmuring aloud the words they are committing to memory, while plodding about the snow-covered landscape like zombies.’ With the boy learning Dickens by rote from his dying grandfather, a deliberate echo of the monotonous chanted times-tables that washes around Montag in the corridors between the classrooms of Clarisse’s school. The aesthetic, as opposed to the literal survival of literature still seems to be in balance. As a humorous parting shot Brosnan observes ‘Truffaut might have been less dispassionate with a story of a future where all films are banned!’ A little unfair, as Truffaut was always a literary director. And the film reflects his genuine love of books, opting for a straightforward linear adaptation of the novel, while re-crafting it in ways unlike anything a British or American director would have done. For Bradbury, there’s none of Truffaut’s cleanly appropriate reunion with Clarisse. Only the strange apocalyptical leveling of the cities Montag has left. The momentary vision of Mildred lost and alone without her comforting wall-cousins as the power fails and she’s left facing only her own reflection. Both book and film use the joke ‘as you can see, you can’t judge a book by the cover’. But only onscreen Montag becomes Poe’s ‘Tales Of Mystery & Imagination’. Clarisse becomes Louis de Rouvroy’s ‘Memoirs Of Saint Simon’.
A French ‘New Wave’ activist, he’d begun as an influential critic and ‘auteur’ movie-theorist. Until, from ‘The 400 Blows’ (1959) to his third movie ‘Jules Et Jim’ (1962) which also starring Oskar Werner, his reputation took him outside the French market. For Truffaut, his only English-speaking film proved a major challenge, not only because it was also his first foray into color, and because the large scale Pinewood production contrasted with his more usual small crews and budgets, but largely because he scarcely spoke English himself. Like his some-time collaborator Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Alphaville’, his future is suggested by selective shots of brutalist towerblocks. The one future-concession is the overhead monorail where robotic commuters read wordless picture-papers. A dysfunctional people caught in the sharp vignette of a man in the park who appears to be embracing a lover, but is actually caressing himself. Truffaut’s deliberately stylised artificiality is offset by the musical lyricism of the Bernard Herrmann score – longtime collaborator of Truffaut’s idol, Alfred Hitchcock. Yet unlike many filmic adaptations from literary sources, the book and film reinforce and complement each other, both bringing out and developing suggestions from the other. Building into an impressive cross-media continuity. Martin Scorsese rates the film as ‘underrated’, and claims it as an influence on his own work. Another Bradbury-derived film – ‘The Illustrated Man’ (1968) followed by other hands, with Rod Steiger taking the star billing in a portmanteau of three linked tales. Again, it’s an SF film for people who don’t necessarily like SF films, thoughtful and evocative with little of the flash-SFX and blockbuster zapping pace more usually associated with the genre. Truffaut died 21st October 1984, aged 52.
And, of course, paper does not spontaneously ignite at Fahrenheit 451. In fact, different brands of paper ignite at different, and generally higher temperatures. Ray Bradbury later admitted he just liked the number.
‘FAHRENHEIT 451’: READ & DESTROY…!
‘FAHRENHEIT 451’ (Anglo-Enterprise & Vineyard Universal, 1966. DVD Universal Pictures UK, November 2003) 112-minutes. Director: Francois Truffaut. Producer: Lewis M Allen. Screenplay: Francois Truffaut & Jean-Louis Richard (with additional dialogue by David Rudkin & Helen Scott) from the novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury. With Oskar Werner (as Guy Montag), Julie Christie (as Clarisse & Linda Montag), Cyril Cusack (The Captain), Anton Diffring (Fabian & Headmistress), Jeremy Spenser (Man with Apple), Bee Duffell (Book Woman), Alex Scott (Book ‘The Life Of Henry Brulard’), Michael Balfour (Book: ‘Machiavelli’s The Prince’), Denis Gilmore (Book: ‘The Martian Chronicles’), John Rae (Book: ‘The Weir Of Hermiston’), Mark Lester (Schoolboy), Anna Palk (Jackie), Noel Davis (TV Personality ‘Cousin Midge’), Gillian Aldam (Judoka Woman). Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg. Special Effects: Bowie Films, Charles Staffel. Music: Bernard Herrmann.
‘FAHRENHEIT 451’ by Ray Bradbury (USA Ballentine paperback original, 1953, Rupert Hart-Davis hardback 1954, UK Corgi Paperback, 1957) original short story “Bright Phoenix” in 1947, but only first published in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ in 1963. Meanwhile, the original short story was reworked into a novella as “The Fireman” published in ‘Galaxy Vol.1 No.5’(February 1951). The novel then serialised in ‘Playboy’ in three parts (March, April & May 1954)