Fahrenheit 451 (1966) *½
I’m not a Ray Bradbury fan. Oh, he has his moments (I love “The Crowd,” for example), but in general, he’s an author who very much rubs me the wrong way. If I may be permitted to wax Bradbury-esque myself for a moment here, he writes not prose but week-old bananas— clotted, mushy, rankly redolent of overpowering perfumes turned rotten and musky. One or two such sentences here and there can be a great way to make a point, but an elaborate olfactory metaphor on every page is too many for me by several orders of magnitude. Beyond that, I find Bradbury’s sentimentality highly annoying, and never more so than in his uniquely unconvincing dystopia, Fahrenheit 451. Yes, yes— I know. Everyone else thinks Fahrenheit 451 is brilliant, it’s every dedicated reader’s ultimate nightmare, and can’t I just once get with the program? Sorry, but no. The way I see it, dystopian sci-fi requires a certain hard-headedness that Bradbury simply hasn’t got in him. Even while trying to convey to his readers the soulless sterility of his nightmare future, he just can’t resist going on and on about the smells and textures that his characters are supposed to be too deadened to notice, and he has his hero talking in poetry and thinking in beat diction even before his big spiritual awakening. Meanwhile, the central conceit of the fire department evolving into the book-burning agency— far from being “easily explained and natural” (to quote Bradbury’s fire captain)— smacks of irony for irony’s sake, and in general, the tone of the novel comes across to me less as a call to arms against a growing social evil than as the grousing of a petulant luddite giving the finger to modernity. But despite all that, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is noticeably better than François Truffaut’s. The film version makes a smart move in eliminating the gratuitous nuclear war with which Bradbury ended the story, but otherwise goes wrong on so many different levels that it almost becomes compelling in spite of itself. It’s a case of not quite bad enough, really.
Fahrenheit 451 does get off to a very good start, however. It begins, not with a conventional scroll of opening credits, but with a voiceover speaking the names of the cast and crew; as we shall soon see, this is so perfectly appropriate as to border on brilliance. The scene is a firehouse in a well-kempt European city. About ten men in black uniforms take their seats on a rather toy-like red truck, and speed off down the road. Meanwhile, an extremely French-looking man in a black turtleneck (but of course…) gets a phone call from a woman warning him to leave his apartment at once. No sooner has Turtleneck done so than the fire company is at his door, beating it down and entering in force despite the fact that there’s no sign of anything burning. The firemen then begin ransacking the place, and soon enough they find what they’re looking for— piles and piles of books. The firemen bundle the books up in a nylon sack, toss it over the balcony to the ground below, and hose the lot down with flamethrowers.
That’s pretty much a typical day at the office for Montag (Oskar Werner). People around town send in tips about their neighbors, the firemen follow up, and if it seems likely that the suspects do indeed possess forbidden reading material, then Montag’s captain (Cyrus Cusack) starts up the truck and takes the squad out to the scene of the crime. And just in case I haven’t been clear on this, it isn’t just certain categories of books that are against the law. Rather, books in general are strictly banned, and that ban is rigorously enforced upon all people regardless of class or station. Interestingly enough, this sweeping change came about not through the rise of any tyrannical new government, but through the persistent whining of the easily offended. Minority group A was offended by book B, and so it was banned. Minority group C was offended by book D, so it was banned. The majority population was offended by books E, F, and G, so they were banned. Before long, all these ad-hoc bans added up, and the government— which was by that time ruling over an almost entirely post-literate populace anyway— found it simpler and more cost effective simply to extend the patchwork of interdicts into one big, comprehensive anti-book statute. That way, everyone could be assured that nobody would ever have to be exposed to an unwelcome, distressing thought ever again, and society could at last truly begin functioning with all the smoothness of the industrial age. As for how it fell to the fire department to go into the book-burning business, the advent of universal fireproofing in all new buildings, together with similar measures retrofitted to structures put up before, left the nation’s firefighters with nothing much to do, and so a new function for them was found. Why yes, I do believe that does qualify for some kind of award for advancing the state of the art of plot contrivance.
Anyway, on his way home from the aforementioned book-burning raid, Montag meets a young woman on the elevated commuter train. Her name is Clarisse (Demon Seed’s Julie Christie), and for no reason that I’ve been able to puzzle out, she looks exactly like his wife, Linda (also Julie Christie), except that Linda has longer, more conventional hair. Clarisse’s hair isn’t the only unconventional thing about her, either. She lives in the only non-fireproof house in town, she doesn’t have a TV (let alone one of the super-widescreen motherfucker models like the one that dominates Montag’s living room), and she asks a lot of questions about life, the universe, and everything. How Montag doesn’t instantly spot her as a book insurgent, I’ll never know. But be that as it may, Montag decides that he likes Clarisse a lot, which is extremely convenient in light of the fact that she lives right down the street from him.
Liking Clarisse seems to be what sets Montag on the path he’ll take for the remainder of the film. At least, that’s how it worked in the book; Oskar Werner is such an immobile lump of an actor that it’s impossible to tell why his Montag really does anything. The more he sees of the young woman, the more he realizes what an empty, purposeless life he leads, and that in turn gets him thinking that maybe the secret to a meaningful existence is hidden somewhere in those books nobody’s supposed to be reading. That would seem to explain the lengths to which readers go to preserve their contraband literature, along with their willingness to run the risks entailed by keeping books about in the first place. With this new idea in mind, Montag begins smuggling books home from his burning raids, but it isn’t until one woman (Bee Duffell, of Five Million Years to Earth) burns herself alive in her house— which she has converted into a veritable library— rather than see her collection destroyed by the firemen that his search among the forbidden pages takes on the urgency of obsession. After all, anything that could lead a person to self-immolation must be pretty powerful stuff.
Meanwhile, Montag’s rival for an upcoming promotion (Anton Diffring, from Circus of Horrors and Mark of the Devil 2) has noticed something odd about his behavior, and has begun to suspect what our hero is up to on his off hours. But before that guy gets a chance to do much of anything by way of ruining Montag’s career, Montag does the job himself by bursting in on one of his wife’s TV parties, turning off the wall set, and reading to Linda and her horrified friends from one of the books he keeps hidden in the bathroom air conditioning ducts. Linda turns him in to the fire department the very next day, and just as Montag is in the process of handing in his resignation, his captain convinces him to come along on one last mission— a raid on his own house. Montag turns this raid into the ultimate act of protest, turning his flamethrower not just on his stash of books, but on his entire house and his captain, too. Then he goes on the run, following a tip from Clarisse to the effect that somewhere off to the west, there is a secret colony of book insurgents who have dedicated their lives to preserving the knowledge and literature of the past in preparation for the inevitable day when the whole rotten system collapses under the weight of its contradictions.
I’ll start with the shorter of the two lists, the one of things Fahrenheit 451 does right. François Truffaut was a prominent figure in the French New Wave, and the visual aspects of this, his first English-language film, show him to be a director of considerable technical skill. Fahrenheit 451 is, above all else, a work of meticulously crafted imagery, in terms of both composition and design. The latter is probably even more important than the former, in that the surprisingly conservative approach to futurism here makes the look of the film far more convincing than just about any other 1960’s sci-fi movie. The clothes look like something normal people might actually wear, the set design has a practicality to it that is entirely absent from, say, The Green Slime or The Wild, Wild Planet, and (just like in the real world) the futuristic elements are layered atop and wedged in among all sorts of holdovers from the past. The one false note in this regard is Montag’s fire engine, a rather loopy design which suggests someone in the 1960’s trying to predict what 1930’s retro was going to look like in the 2040’s.
There is also, as I’ve already pointed out, one major change from the novel’s story which makes for a considerable improvement in the movie. This Fahrenheit 451 resists the temptation (to which Bradbury succumbed wholeheartedly) to give the story a nice, tidy, happy ending. There was, of course, no remotely believable way to do that within the confines of the main plot, so Bradbury was forced to invoke the deus ex H-bomb in his final chapter, using a convenient nuclear war to accomplish what his characters never could. Truffaut, perhaps benefiting from sixteen more years of Cold War experience than Bradbury had, crafts a more sober, open-ended conclusion, turning the Book People into a parallel for the increasingly significant dissident movement in the Soviet Union and its satellites.
Unfortunately, a lot more went wrong with Fahrenheit 451 than went right, and a lot of what went wrong is absolutely inexplicable. I can understand why Truffaut would decide not to kill off Clarisse— what would a mainstream movie be without a love interest for the hero?— and once that change has been made, it follows inevitably that she’ll have to be made significantly older than the seventeen-year-old girl in the novel. Montag mooning over a teenager might have flown in Paris, but it would have been a much tougher sell in the United States. However making Clarisse also Linda’s doppelganger is both pointless and just plain silly. Ratcheting up the malevolence of the firemen to Gestapo/KGB levels is another major miscalculation, in that it makes it much harder to swallow the story’s most important piece of setup, which is that Montag is at bottom a decent, thoughtful guy who joined the fire department not out of ideological commitment, but primarily because it paid well and had good job security. Nobody with a conscience could fail to be troubled by the thought of working as a bully-boy for a system that puts people like Montag’s captain in positions of nearly untrammeled authority. But by far the gravest error committed by the makers of Fahrenheit 451 was the casting of Oskar Werner. This is an actor with no personality at all, and yet we’re supposed to see him as this soulful, introspective type— or rather, as someone who would be a soulful, introspective type if ever he were given the chance. The way Werner plays Montag, he seems not contemplative but comatose, and when he makes the shift from passive, unarticulated skepticism to outright rebellion, any residual credibility the movie had left goes right out the window.