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Fahrenheit 451, written by Jean-Louis Richard and Francois Truffaut from the book by Ray Bradbury, directed by Francois Truffaut, 1965, 110 min.

Francois Truffaut, the noted French New Wave director, made one foray into science fiction as a director, Fahrenheit 451. I'm a fan of Truffaut's artsy movies, especially his debut film, The 400 Blows, one of those works of art that lives up to its hype, and Day for Night, a mid-career effort from Truffaut that is a loving tribute to movie-making itself. Truffaut's only acting role in a movie that he himself did not direct was as the French investigator in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a role that supported the ideas of that movie in an integral way. How does Fahrenheit 451 fit into Truffaut's oeuvre? It remains an anomaly and somewhat of a flawed effort. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is a lyrical book that is simultaneously quite angry. It's a mix that is difficult to achieve; in fact, it could be argued Bradbury is the only one who can truly do Bradbury. Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 keeps many of the plot elements of the book but somehow misses some essential part of the book that has made it inspirational for so many years.

Montag is a fireman, in a society where all houses are fireproof and the fireman's job is find people who are hoarding books and burn the books. Montag is stuck in a loveless marriage; his wife Linda takes too many pills in an early scene and has to get her stomach pumped. Montag meets a girl named Clarisse who spurs him to question his way of life and why books need to be burned. Montag begins reading David Copperfield and is soon hooked on the experience of reading books. He also gets more involved with Clarisse and her problems; she has been fired from her teaching position and later her uncle is denounced for having books in his house. One night while Linda is hosting a party, Montag can't take it anymore: the vapidity of Linda and her friends causes him to read a book to them. From then on, the trajectory of Montag's life is out of the position of power as a fireman and towards the margins of society.

The movie makes two or three major changes to the plot of the book. Truffaut leaves out the whole Mechanical Hound sequence, a part of the book where Montag is chased by a robotic police pursuit device. Judging by the cheesy effects for some flying cops that show up later in the movie, the Mechanical Hound is perhaps not such a bad thing to leave out. The main character Clarissa stays alive for the whole movie, something that might have given the story some rather typical twists near the end but Truffaut keeps the audience guessing. Part of the surprise of the ending has to do with Truffaut's answer to the problem of the book: how to fight back against a totalitarian society bent on destroying freedom. Bradbury's book showed that such a society would self-implode, lacking flexibility and the ability to generate new ideas out of old ones. Truffaut's rebels at the end aren't interested in political power or military retaliation -- they are intelligent people, fighting back directly against one specific area of oppression. They are waiting for the oppressors to self-implode, but that cataclysm is not shown. It works, even though most modern viewers have been conditioned by other movies to expect a fiery, violent, confrontational ending. Truffaut uses the ending to fit the philosophical implications quite neatly.

Truffaut includes a great deal of fascinating human insight. A woman who chooses to be burned with her books, as a message to society -- a largely deaf society, but why else would a martyr need to take that final step? When Montag reads to Linda's party, one of the women starts weeping, having been reminded too much of how deep emotions can be. In a devastating scene, not found in the book, the firemen are checking out a public park, and most of the women with young children are used to the outrageous lack of civil liberties. The Fire Chief confiscates a tiny book from a baby and chastises it -- the baby's hand reaches up for the book. The movie even gives us some humour in this vein: watch for the mop-up squads, in a commercial telling us that law enforcement can be fun. The Fire Chief's monologues are also witty, even as they are terrifying. Characterization is hampered by a problem sometimes typical of science fiction: this is a society where people have been emotionally repressed and their lives are empty. The movie has other interesting details as well. Every training book for the firemen's classes had blank pages and the opening credits were spoken, not printed out (although that does raise the question of how anyone knew how to read). But there were also details that felt wrong -- for one, I don't think the overall look of this society worked, much less futuristic than the society in Bradbury's book. Perhaps the implication that oppression already occurs is effective too.

Overall, Fahrenheit 451 is a movie that tries as hard as it can, has its heart in the right place, gets many details right, but somehow fails to gel into a compelling whole. It's recommended for fans of the book but it remains more of a curiosity piece than gripping cinema in its own right.

DVD Note: Fahrenheit 451 is available in a nifty new DVD reissue. It has an audio commentary, as well as background material on Ray Bradbury, Francois Truffaut, and Bernard Herrman (composer for the film).


Also see the review of the book this movie was based on.


First posted: January 19, 1998; Last modified: February 15, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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