A few times over the past decades, I remember telling a few film lovers how much I admired Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, only to have the opposition defame my assessment. I've long been always confused by this, because my first viewing of the film was so memorable, probably due to the fact I’d seen very little Truffaut up to that point. The New Wave signatures—the pump-ins, the occasional slow-motion, the graphically stunning irises—shook my world. But, seeing it now, I think I understand where the naysayers were coming from. Fahrenheit 451, in my advanced age, strikes me as an overly-simplified telling of this complex tale, first written in 1953 as a reaction against McCarthy-era devaluing of intellectual ideals.
As presented in the film, the story is one of personal awakening by its main character, Montag. In this strange vision of a future that is decidedly non-futuristic (I guess the film’s clearly low-budget got in the way of depicting an outlook more technologically far along than this, though I kind of like the mixture of the old and new worlds), Werner plays a fireman—that is, a man that starts fires rather than extinguishes them (“We burn books to ashes, and then we burn the ashes”)—who becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his home and work life. Each day, he is sent out on destructive missions that have begun to eat into his soul, with his commander (a jangly Cyril Cusack, in a role originally intended for Lawrence Olivier) and chief rival Fabian (haughty Anton Diffring) continually looking over his shoulder as if they know something is wrong with him. Montag returns home to Linda, his beautiful but vapid wife (Julie Christie) who can only tear herself away from her flat-screen TV--a bit of prognostication the film gets correct--long enough to down sedatives from her blue bottle (amphetamines are in the red one).
Montag is shaken awake by Clarisse, the gamine young teacher he meets one afternoon on his home-bound monorail. She, too, is played by Christie; the wife is long-haired, and the teacher’s do is more close-cropped, and that is almost the entire difference between the two performances (in the book, Clarisse is much younger). It’s a challenging choice, having the actress play both roles, and I understand Truffaut’s wish not to set up a typical heroine/villainess dichotomy with two separate actresses. Yet I wish Christie had, as Clarisse, enlivened her delivery a bit more; meanwhile, she perfectly assays the deadened Linda, maybe because she’s not much of an actress at this stage in her career (despite her having won the Oscar the year before for John Schlesinger’s Darling).
Still, it’s clear Clarisse is a self-described “well of words” whose embrace of ideas and narrative is obvious, even as she never discusses her secret passion for books. After all, she’s talking to a fireman, and people are generally afraid of firemen, who can approach with impunity and search your body for any books they might suspect hidden (one of the film’s best scenes has firemen patrolling a kid’s playground, with one casually upending a woman’s picnic basket, while another pats down a pregnant woman’s belly and later the captain finds a tiny tome hidden in a baby’s jumper). But Clarisse senses something is different about Montag, and she keeps him on her radar.
The film dramatizes this working man’s transformation rather clumsily. We’re aware he knows how to hide things—a talent he’s had to learn as part of his job uncovering concealed volumes–and once we see he has a secret compartment in his modern household, we’re sure there’s going to be a book hidden there sooner or later. The first one he reads is Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, and we see Montag going though the title page (word for word), starting with the chapter title “I Am Born.” Montag is born here, too, and this indomitable paragraph feels like it tells his story, just like it tells our own. This is a terrific sequence, centered in on the words on the page, instantly reminding us what’s essential about fiction, in that we can see ourselves in stories that put eloquent words to their character’s (and our own) struggles.
But the film falls down in showing Montag’s ultimate shift. Before we sense the difference in his personality from discovering the enrichment in reading (which never comes, because there is no step-up in Werner’s sleepy performance), suddenly there are massive tomes sneaking around his home. When this third-act discovery lands, we’re dumbfounded. “Wow, he’s been doing a lot of reading. When did this happen?” This is the point where I began to ponder the possibility of Fahrenheit 451 needing a remake (which, apparently, is happening courtesy of HBO, who announced in April 2016 a remake slated to be helmed by Man Push Cart and 99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani).
This isn’t the first time such a project has been announced–I recall Mel Gibson being attached to a remake in the early ’90s. Even so, I can only hope this newly-proposed iteration is going to be an eight-episode miniseries or at least a four-hour two-parter, as Bradbury’s original story includes a bloody war going on in this dystopian world’s background (which would possibly clarify the explicit assault on words—here, it’s too-simply portrayed as a battle against people being threatened by ideas that might make them unhappy, while no thought is given to expressions that DO make them happy). I also had to ask myself, well, given that no one really likes to talk to each other in this world filled with empty-headedness and paranoia, how is essential information transmitted? This being a pre-digital telling of the story, the film shows Cyril Cusack going to a bank of file cabinets for information and pulling out Montag’s file, which includes only mugshots of Oskar Werner (including only 6, not the required 12, shots of the back of his head), and in seeing this I wondered “Well, how does this help in any given situation?” I could see a remake fixing all of this with well-placed digital goo-gaws. I also see reparations on those still-striking views Truffaut gives us of people rifling through newspapers filled with only wordlessly cryptic comic-book panels.
There are also problems with the film’s climax, with Montag escaping his former life and taking up with the Book People, a forest-bound commune of intellectuals who each choose preferable texts to memorize in whole in order to preserve them for future generations. Memorization seems like a weak defense for such importance (the digital world could fix this), and as beautiful–and gorgeously fun–as this sequence is, it doesn’t make for a very desirable outcome. The sight of people walking around in the snowy winter, endlessly reciting the volumes they’ve devoted themselves to doesn’t strike us as one that’s demonstrably preferable to the robotic realm left behind. There’s still no real human communication going on.
Now, I realize my words are making it seem like I don’t like Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. But I do. I can see now his difficulty in making this his first (and only) English-language film. I can sense it in his direction to the actors; apparently, he had a communication clash with Werner great enough for the director to classify this as his most unhappy filming experience (he originally wanted to go with either Charles Aznavour or Jean-Paul Belmondo in the lead, but producers balked at that, so Terrence Stamp was enlisted, until he realized he’d be overshadowed by Christie in the two female leads). And, unusually, I realize it in the titles Truffaut shows, in the film’s most difficult-to-watch sequences, as victims in the book-burning sequences (among the title being destroyed here: Proust, Genet, Behan, Nabokov, but also books by Charles Chaplin, and ones including images by Salvador Dali and even Truffaut's old haunt Cahiers du Cinema).
It’s the film’s sensational photography, by Nicolas Roeg, that keeps you going through it. Just looking at Fahrenheit 451 is a treat. Your eyes drink in those dazzling reds around the firehouse (where even the firepole senses Montag’s betrayal), or the maudlin oranges in Montag’s chilly home. The blue siren lights sing around the book-burning spots, as do the drab cement grays around the blocky British suburbs. The enveloping warmth of the Book Woman’s library is an oasis, albeit one short lived, while the autumnal and ultimately snowy vistas of the book-lover’s fiefdom leaves you with the impression that a fantastic movie has been seen (until you’re left to put it all together). There’s only one disappointing special effects shot to be seen here, a goofy view of four dangling air-patrolling policemen that’s clearly a blue-screened afterthought. Still, Tony Walton’s costume design (Nazi-influenced, when it comes to the firemen’s sternly blackened uniforms) and Syd Cain’s art direction also do their part (although one senses that the set design could use a little more cash thrown at it).
I also love Truffaut’s many dark gags: the needless breaking of things in the Book Woman’s house; Cusack’s throwaway “Stop it” to a man pantomiming a romantic embrace during the playground assault; the apple-chomping book lover seen throughout the entire film (munching on the fruit of knowledge); Anton Diffring’s cross-dressing second role as a briefly-seen woman observing Clarisse’s return to the elementary school she’s been fired from for being too smart; the Captain holding up a copy of Mein Kampf as he extols the burning of all books; the dumpy doctors outrageously dressed in white patent leather while giggling over tending to the comely Linda as she lies overdosed on downers; the inclusion of a Mad Magazine paperback during the book burning sequence; Linda’s gasp as she removes a picture from a wall and finds a book dropping from behind it (she acts like it’s a cockroach); the Book Woman’s smiling regurgitation of by-rote times tables as her executioners count down to her death; the twin book lovers at the end who represent the two volumes of Pride and Prejudice; and, most notably, the hilarious TV show (“Come Play With Us”) that Linda gleefully participates in, not realizing that her responses have been pre-determined by the producers (“What do you think, Linda?”). I adore these sly touches.
And there are more serious moments that land mightily, like the one where Montag identifies an elderly man as a book-holder (the film’s frame alarmingly solidifies the suspect, with blackness keeping him in check). There’s that great scene (perhaps Werner’s best) where he reads to Linda’s collected girlfriends, reducing us to sorrow because she had never been reminded of emotions she’d held inside. There’s the agitating moment where Clarisse tearfully revisits her stark elementary school, with a former student recoiling in horror upon seeing her (the kid is played by a pre-Oliver Mark Lester). In a quick glimpse, we see Montag’s escape story being told on TV, with only the shot of the back of his head (the one that his captain wanted more examples of earlier) being used as public identification. And, finally, there’s glory in the final sequence where human intelligence somehow finds peace in this absurdly callous world.
On speaking to how Ray Bradbury’s story has come to fruition, one has to look at the devaluation of books, and even movies, as commodities. As a collector, I can’t help but see my library (with many first editions, including a signed first edition of Fahrenheit 451) spiraling down in intellectual value now that millennials (at least) fail to recognize the worth of real-world books. But I do see this film, and the book it’s based on, as an effective clarion call to their import. No Kindle version, subject to open-ended editing, can be trusted against the power of the printed word, and no world without reading can be one that adequately celebrates the accomplishments of man. Still, I do hope for an eventually superior cinematic recounting of Mr. Bradbury’s universally prescient mainstay.