I’ve just finished reading what’s considered to be the finest work by one of science fiction’s greatest writers: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Set in a dystopian future where literature is outlawed, this is a classic novel of tyranny, insecurity, and yet defiance and hope. In 1966, more than a decade after Bradbury wrote his novel, Francois Truffaut adapted it for the screen.
The film opens to credits that are spoken instead of shown onscreen. That done, we are shown the interior of a house, where a man is sitting at a dining table. He reaches for an apple from the fruit bowl on the table, and the telephone rings. It’s a woman, and she’s frantic. He should get out soon, right now. They’re coming for him. The man obeys, rushing out of the house and racing away.
Within moments, we see who’s coming: a group of firemen, in a red fire truck with a salamander emblazoned on it.
They get out, and go about their work: methodically searching the now-empty house. Soon, the results of the search pour forth: a book is found hidden inside the large bowl-like lampshade hanging from the ceiling. More are found behind the false screen of a TV, and even more tucked away inside a radiator.
The firemen have brought along a large sack, into which all the books are shoved, before the sack is thrown downstairs, onto the ground. There, surrounded by a little crowd of curious onlookers, the firemen continue their work. A makeshift in incinerator is rigged up, a large circular platform of a sturdy wire mesh. The books are emptied onto this in a haphazard pile, and one of the firemen, Montag (Oskar Werner) dons fireproof clothing. He’s handed a flamethrower, and he directs it at the books. Everybody stands around as the books burn.
Montag is told by a pleased boss, the Captain (Cyril Cusack), that he’s likely to be promoted soon.
That day, when he’s on his way home by monorail, Montag is accosted by a girl (Julie Christie). She tells him that she’s been seeing him everyday travel the same route as her.
It emerges they’re neighbours, so when they reach their stop and disembark, she walks along with Montag.
This is an odd sort of girl: she happily tells Montag that she’s “Twenty years old and light in the head.” She asks him weird questions, too: has he ever read any of the books he’s burnt? (Montag is horrified; of course not); has he heard of a time when firemen put out fires instead of starting them? (No; as long as he knows, houses have been fireproofed, so there’s been no need for firemen to put out fires). Why burn books? (Because they’re dangerous; they put odd ideas into your head).
Despite her decidedly—as far as Montag is concerned—strange behaviour, Montag cannot help but like this girl, who’s friendly and sweet in an open and ingenuous sort of way. He also tells her that she looks a lot like his wife, except that his wife’s hair is longer.
… which we see for ourselves when Montag gets home. Linda (also Julie Christie) is sitting and watching a TV show. It’s nothing terribly entertaining (a programme on self-defence for women, showing—in slow motion—a woman toppling a man), but Linda’s so engrossed, in a zombie-like way, that she barely notices her husband’s arrival. When he tells her he’s probably going to be promoted, Linda’s reaction is to ask that they convert another of their walls to a TV display.
Linda is so devoted to TV that she’s also very excited to be part of a TV play—she’ll be one of the ‘cousins’ of what she refers to as her ‘family’, and she’ll be given cues to say her lines. This play, when it comes on, turns out to be a boring conversation involving two men wondering how to fit together all their relatives in a house—who will be accommodated in which room? And how till they be seated at the dining table? All Linda is called upon to do is say “Yes!” (and, in what is for her a thrilling instance, actually contribute three words). She is on top of the moon, but Montag, it’s obvious, is a bit bemused by this.
That night, while Montag reads cartoons (no dialogue, just a lot of illustrations), Linda—as is usual with her—plugs her tiny earphones in and listens to a woman seemingly explaining some beauty technique about a face pack. Linda pops some pills.
And so it goes on. Linda at home, with her earphones, her pills, her TV family, her boredom and her loneliness. Montag at work, training some new inductees into the intricacies of finding books (in order to find books, you first need to learn how to hide them). Montag being summoned by the Captain with further news about his promotion: Montag’s file—with only photos of him, no documents) being taken out, and the Captain praising Montag on all the good work he’s done in the years he’s been part of the force.
But that evening, when Montag gets home, it’s to find Linda lying unconscious on the floor. Montag quickly phones emergency; he realizes she’s probably swallowed one too many of her pills. The bland, emotionless voice at the other end asks which pills she’s swallowed, and Montag picks up the bottle, reading out the single-digit number on top, and telling the colour of the pill to the person in the Poisonings Section.
Within minutes, help arrives: two technician-like men with some equipment, which they start setting up. Montag’s agitated questions—where is the doctor? Who are they? What will they do?—are met with a flippant, almost bored unconcern. This sort of thing, they say, is very commonplace: Linda is the first one tonight, but she certainly won’t be the last, ha-ha. It’s a simple procedure, they say: they’ll pump out everything and fill her up with good fresh blood, and she’ll be good as new.
Montag is hustled out of the room, and called in much later when the men are through. As they’re leaving, they tell Montag (with a sly wink) that when Linda wakes up, she’ll be starving. And not just for food.
Linda is very hungry when she awakes. Also, she remembers nothing of what had happened the previous night, and refuses to believe Montag when he says she had taken a drug overdose.
She is too, as predicted, very attentive towards Montag. No, not when it comes to what he has to say, but in bed, which somewhat surprises her husband.
Back on the monorail the next day, Montag notices his strange neighbour. By now, he knows her name is Clarisse, and that she works as an elementary school teacher. Today, Clarisse is accompanied by an older woman (Bee Duffell), who stares frankly and openly at Montag.
Other things happen: we are shown, for instance, the firemen at work in a pretty little neighbourhood park. There are mothers and babies here, old folk sitting on benches and little children playing on the grass. The firemen come through, and without any compunctions, examine everyone and their belongings (a pregnant woman’s stomach is patted, too, to ensure she’s not hiding books there, and a tiny book is confiscated from among the clothes swaddling a toddler in a pram).
Meanwhile, we are given a surprising glimpse into Montag’s private life. Late one night, after Linda is asleep, Montag goes into the adjacent room, climbs onto a stool to open the ventilation shaft, and from there, pulls out—a book! It’s a copy of Dickens’s David Copperfield, and Montag takes it with him into the living room. He sits down and laboriously, with a finger slowly plodding its way through every line, begins to read aloud. It seems this is probably the first book he’s ever read: the unfamiliarity with the written word shows through—but it also seems that Montag, far from detesting books, is curious about them, wants to know more.
The next morning, on his way to work, Montag is accosted by Clarisse. She looks upset, and finally confides in him: she’s been fired. No explanations provided, but Clarisse knows. None of the other teachers like her or approve of her, because she has odd notions about school: she tries to make school fun for her students! Montag persuades Clarisse to go and talk to the principal, try and explain her case.
Clarisse agrees, but never gets around to doing that. She does go to the school (which is frighteningly dreary and regimental, what with those little grey jackets hung up in rows and the sound of little voices filling the air, reciting multiplication tables by rote)… But there, she runs into one of her former pupils, and the way he turns tail and races off breaks Clarisse’s resolve. She breaks down, and Montag has to comfort her.
There’s been, in these scenes, a brief interlude while Montag and Clarisse are sitting at a café. Looking out, they see a man moving furtively and indecisively around a red letterbox-like contraption. A would-be informant, wondering whether or not to let the authorities know that so-and-so is hiding books. All it needs is an address and a photograph to be slipped into the slot, and the firemen will be after the ‘criminal’.
… which is what we see later, at the firehouse. The alarm starts ringing, and everybody runs for their helmets and for the pole, sliding easily down to the fire truck. One of Montag’s colleagues, Fabian (Anton Diffring), has been getting increasingly suspicious of Montag’s commitment to his job, and even as they’re going out to attend to this latest alarm, Fabian tries to warn the Captain that Montag should be watched.
When they reach their destination, Montag is taken aback to find that the occupant is the older woman he had seen with Clarisse the other day. She is steely, determined and unafraid, even as the firemen burst into her house and begun to pull out books by the score. The Captain makes a discovery, too: hidden inside the house is an entire library. Not just a dozen or two books, hundreds of them. He takes Montag inside and shows him, warns him. These are evil, these are no use but to corrupt people’s minds. That is why they must be destroyed.
Fabian comes along to let the Captain know that the woman’s books are being collected together in the hall downstairs, and they’ll be ready for incineration in a few minutes. The Captain hurries Montag along: they must go down and get started.
They go down to the hall, where all the woman’s books have been thrown on the floor—heaps and heaps of them, now doused with fuel. The woman, as stolid and firm as ever, stands amidst her beloved books. The Captain keeps telling her to move out of the way before they set fire to her books, but she keeps standing, refusing to be parted from her books. They count down, and even as they reach ten, she beats them to it: a matchbox appears in her hand, and she strikes a match, letting it fall to her feet before the firemen can do anything.
The books go up in flames, and with them the woman.
One great big inferno, and Montag, with that book hidden away in his bag, realizes there’s no going back. This woman has died for her books, for her love of books. What lies in store for him? Should he, on the verge of a promotion, stay true to his profession and go on pretending that books mean nothing to him? Or should he admit that books are more important to him than this crazy job?
What I liked about this film:
The story, which has more than an echo of truth in it. Even though it’s half a century old, Fahrenheit 451 is an uncomfortable reminder of a world that we today are familiar with: a world so taken over by visual and aural stimuli that books have an alarmingly decreasing place in it. Smartphones, the Internet, TV, so much surrounds us, bombarding our senses, convincing us that this is what we need to know, that the softer voices of books get drowned out.
Linda’s preoccupation with her ‘family’, or the way the state-controlled PAS tells the sheeple what to do (“Go out on to the street, look for a man running along alone, report him immediately because he’s a criminal”), even the regimented look of the elementary school’s corridors: all are evidence of a society gone wrong. It’s also, interestingly, rather reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984.
What I didn’t like:
The unconvincing special effects. Granted, this is 1966, but films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, made just two years later, did a far more competent job of creating a futuristic world. And Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t even use a tenth of the SFX that 2001: A Space Odyssey does—but it still manages to make the interior of the monorail, or the flying scouts, look rather shabbily done.
Fahrenheit 451 was based on Ray Bradbury’s classic novel of the same name. While Truffaut remained fairly (not completely, as I’ll show later) faithful to the book, there is still a definite difference between the book and the film—and, unsurprisingly, the book comes out the winner.
The major differences centre on some of the technology, and on two of the characters. A lot of interesting technology that Bradbury incorporates in his book is what helps set the tone of Montag’s bibliophobic world. The unceasing jingle advertising a toothpaste, for instance, which plays over and over again on the train. Or the full-on-three-walls show, comprising the ‘family’ that Linda is a part of. Or, most chillingly, the Mechanical Hound, which only needs the tiniest whiff of a quarry’s DNA to be able to hunt it down.
… None of which (possibly for budget reasons?) are there in the film.
Then there is the odd fact that Julie Christie is cast as both Linda and Clarisse. In the book, there’s nothing to suggest that they look exactly alike (in fact, in the book, Clarisse is a seventeen year old schoolgirl, not a young school teacher). I can understand that Truffaut might have wanted to emphasize the difference in Linda’s and Clarisse’s personalities by giving them that quirk of looking alike, but actually being diametrically opposite—but it ends up not really working; it seems forced.
On the whole, I’d say that while Fahrenheit 451 is not the most horrendously butchered version of a book that I’ve seen (far from it), it lacks the chilling nature of the novel. And some of its passion. Bradbury manages to convey the essence of books—what makes them so valuable, what makes them so dangerous—brilliantly; he also evokes, in a very real way, the cold, inhuman viciousness of a world that hates books so much that people will betray friends and family in order to rid the world of books.
Only some part of that passion and that frenzied hate manages to make itself felt in the film. Watch it by all means, but do read the book to appreciate what it was based on.