Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

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 firehouse

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.

The firemen set out

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 uses the flamethrower...

Montag is told by a pleased boss, the Captain (Cyril Cusack), that he’s likely to be promoted soon.

... and gets appreciation from the Captain

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.

On the monorail

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.

Montag gets acquainted with an odd neighbour

… 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 watches TV

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.

The 'cousins'

... and another cousin

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.

The Captain talks to Montag

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.

Linda is found passed out

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.

A simple procedure

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.

Linda gets frisky

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.

Clarisse with a friend

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).

A baby is found to be carrying a tiny book

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.

Montag, in secret

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.

Montag consoles Clarisse

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.

At the school

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.

Fabian gets suspicious

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 book woman

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.

Up in flames

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.

The flying scouts-cum-hunters

Comparisons, comparisons:

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.

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26 thoughts on “Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

  1. It’s quite interesting to read about how the film was made and Truffaut’s take on it – for instance having to work with a different team from his usual for his French work.
    And I think I have read that he at elast once said in an interview that it had been a mistake to cast Julie Christie in a double role.
    Interestingly, Bradbury himself preferred Truffaut’s ending over that of the book!

    • I believe this was Truffaut’s only English-language film. It must have been interesting to read about how he worked on it – and why he made those decisions (the one about casting Julie Christie in a double role, for instance – that is so pointless).

      I was taken aback to read about Bradbudy actually preferring Truffaut’s ending to his own! Personally, I thought Truffaut’s ending was a little too romanticized – firstly, that bit about Montag actually falling (even if he doesn’t say so) for Clarisse and now being reunited with her. Secondly, all those people walking about, reciting their books before they burn them… it struck me as so needless (the burning, not the memorizing). And if you’re walking about, murmuring completely different things, won’t you get confused? :-) I know I would!

  2. Sci-fi has never been a favourite of mine as a genre, but I read Ray Bradbury at a time I used to read anything, including the wrapping around the peanuts we bought by the roadside. Fahrenheit 451 was chilling. I haven’t watched the film, however, and I doubt I will. (See above.) Liked your review – as always.

    • I think, before I got married to Tarun, I must have watched perhaps ET and Jurassic Park, and that was the extent of my knowledge of sci fi. But Tarun is a hard core sci fi fan. All sorts of sci fi, from alien invasion to monster movies to superhero movies to post-apocalyptic… you name it, he watches it. Initially, I stayed away; then, slowly, I got sucked in. I am still nowhere close to him when it comes to knowledge and/or fandom, but it’s a genre I’ve started to enjoy over the past ten years or so.

      The book is brilliant, though.

      • A person after my heart! I too had never tried scifi or fantasy until I met J but I got sucked in straightaway. Apart from the usual, I always recommend Ursula LeGuin. If she wasn’t slotted as a “scifi/fantasy” writer, she would be among the great living writers imho.

        • I guess I’m a minor expert on science fiction of the past, though not much in the present (as with a few other things)…

          I read and also wrote a bunch of SF – speculative fiction, to use a broader term – up until my early or mid 30s (i.e., into the mid ’90s). From the age of 19 and for the next 15 so years, I had about ten or so SF or horror/fantasy-related stories published in small literary magazines or tiny genre magazines.

          Ray Bradbury was one of the writers I’d looked up to since childhood. Another writer from that era who impressed me – actually more – was Theodore Sturgeon. He was known mainly for short stories and for one novel, but he also wrote some episodes of The Twilight Zone and Star Trek.

          I went crazy for the “new wave” of science fiction from the late 60s and early 70s (though I didn’t read this stuff until at least the mid ’70s)… I liked the British ones the most – J.G. Ballard, for example. Angela Carter was another favorite whom I’d read first in experimental SF magazines. But she escaped the genres completely; hardly anyone even seems to know that she was ever published in those places.

          Ursula Le Guin is good, and she’s adored by anarchists. (I used to be in a couple of anarchist groups 15 to 20 years ago, so I know a few. But I’m really more of an anarchist-sympathetic socialist – like George Orwell.) I read The Dispossessed twice and it was interesting, but I found the writing to be a bit too expository and maybe a little dry sometimes. But she is extremely highly regarded by many.

          Unfortunately, I completely burnt out on SF after reading about 1,000 stories for an anthology that I co-edited in 1993. Well, that was one reason among a few…

          • Thank you for those recommendations here and there, Richard! I have heard of most of those writers, but I don’t recall every reading any full-length novels by any of them (except George Orwell). May have read short stories in anthologies, but I should certainly look out for novels, too…

            “after reading about 1,000 stories for an anthology that I co-edited in 1993.

            1,000! I can’t even begin to think what that must have been like. I don’t blame you for going off sci fi after that.

        • Ah, yes. You’ve recommended Ursula LeGuin to me on several occasions previously, but I’ve never got around to reading her. Must do that, someday…

  3. Madhu,
    Excellent review. Now I know I have to read the book. I would perhaps pass up the movie. I am puzzled what prompted an American to write a book like this in the early 50s. Post-WWII, the US was at the top of the world, accounting for about 50% of the world’s GDP, and a devastated Europe looking to them for rehabilitation. It would have been natural for such a book to come out of a totalitarian system.

    On the question of a book being made into a movie, I doubt if even best adaptation can surpass the book.
    AK

    • AK, do please read the book – it’s really good.

      As for the condition of the US post WWII, I think that is probably what prompted Bradbury to envision a world where everything is so comfortable, so cozy and ‘good’ (if you do not want to think for yourself, that is) – that it eventually swings the other way. Somewhat like Orwell’s 1984, but a Big Brother that is – at least outwardly – more benign than in Orwell’s book. A lot of that ‘surrounded by TV’, ‘public broadcasts telling you how to behave; ‘regimented from babyhood’ thing is probably a mix of what the US was in the 60s, and what the Allies had helped put an end to, less than a decade before the book was written.

      Skip the movie but do read the book.

      • Nice write-up, Madhu (as always). It’s been a long time since I read this book; I will have to do so again some time. I may have seen the film but hardly remember it at all.

        Answering AK’s question about why an American would have been prompted to write a book such as this one in the early ’50s…

        Coincidentally, I wrote a little birthday tribute to Balraj Sahni on Facebook today, with a good article attached. In my message, I said, “Balraj Sahni made great breakthroughs as a ‘Bollywood’ actor during the late 1940s and early ’50s. In Hollywood, he would have made the Blacklist.”

        And there’s the answer… Fahrenheit 451 was written during our McCarthy era. Actors, singers, directors, authors, etc., were summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee and got blacklisted, causing them to lose their livelihoods for years. Many other people were arrested and some deported for alleged connections to the Communist Party. The early 1950s may have been relatively progressive in terms of economic policies, but this was a peak in the U.S. for anti-communist hysteria and censorship. Many people also found themselves stifled by an oppressive atmosphere of heavy moralism and cultural conformity (not to mention sexism and racism).

        Fahrenheit 451 has been praised for decades as a great dystopian novel upholding liberal values in the face of oppressive right-wing censorship. Ironically, though, in some interviews shortly before his death (conducted, probably, in the first decade of the 2000s), Ray Bradbury revealed that he actually had recently supported some Republicans, such as the first George Bush. It’s unclear whether this was a change of political opinion for him or whether he was never the great ally of the left that some people assumed he was. But even in these later days, it was clear that he had a strong libertarian streak (even if a right-leaning one instead of a left one).

          • You’re welcome, AK. I was wondering if I had jumped on your comment a bit too much, so I am glad you liked all the details.

            In this case, I actually had a chance to comment to you about something I grew up with but you didn’t. Usually, it’s the other way around. :)

            • Richard,
              I was just wondering whether America is receding into that era with similar intolerance and hates. Trump’s a Republican nomination seems unstoppable. What if he finally pulls through?
              AK

              • AK, I would not say that Trump represents growing intolerance in the U.S. as a whole, but he represents growing polarization and dissatisfaction with the status quo.

                On the other side of the political spectrum, Bernie Sanders has been remarkable in terms of bringing progressive ideas back into the mainstream and bringing the word “socialist” into the public discussion as well (which is very unusual in the U.S.). Socialism has also come back into the political discussion in some more local elections, and polls among young people, especially, have shown more of a distaste for capitalism and openness toward socialism. So, I think that a good segment of the population is actually going in the opposite direction from red scares and McCarthyism.

                If the election turns into Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump, a lot of people are going to vote for Hillary out of fear of Trump. But for most, she also represents business as usual. IMO, neither a President Trump nor a President Clinton II is going to be met with great positive enthusiasm by the majority of Americans.

  4. A riveting book no doubt.. One of the major issues with movies based on famous books is to live up to the expectation.. I have never heard anyone say ‘well, the movies was better than the book”… :)

    Fahrenheit 451 was one of the summer books for my son when he was in high-school. He loved it so much that I also ended up reading it. This was not the first time it happened; their high school summer reading books were usually great reads..

    I also read your book review and totally agree with you. Given that this was written about 60 years ago, it is actually now much more closer to reality than before.

    I am curious to see the movie though (I am always a sucker for movies based on the books despite the obvious). The last book (another one of my son’s high school summer read) based movie I saw was “Into the Wild” which was actually a true story, unfortunately..

    I loved your review.

    “most chillingly, the Mechanical Hound, which only needs the tiniest whiff of a quarry’s DNA to be able to hunt it down.” …

    It is so hard to put that into a movie.. You are right; comparisons, comparisons..

    • Thank you, Ashish! Glad you liked the review.

      I can identify with your reading something your son recommended because he read it at school. :-) My daughter is too young for that yet, but I remember, when my nephew and niece were in school, my husband and I would get loaned a lot of books because “You must read it, it’s so good!” (And a lot of them were).

      I can actually imagine the Mechanical Hound put into a movie – like, say, the Alien was. But it would have required a creature designer with skills perhaps not readily available in the 60s… or perhaps Truffaut didn’t think the Mechanical Hound that important to the story? I got the impression that Truffaut focussed more on the personal and human aspects of the story than on the scientific/technological ones.

      Into the Wild is a Jon Krakauer book, isn’t it? I haven’t read it, but I did love Into Thin Air – superb.

      • Yes, it’s a John Krakauer book. I also read “Into Think Air” but I think “Into the Wild” had left more impact on me. May be because I read it first? Either way, just the concept of living in the wild without any support from the outside world is somewhat of a paradigm shift for most of us social animals. Chris Mcandles/Super Tramp was just really interesting (generous, kind) person in my opinion. And may be because Alska is my dream place. Well that is just a long list of reasons why I liked it so much.

  5. OK, I thought I will take some time out and read this review after all I do like it when you review old English films. Films usually do not measure up to the books they are based on. Yes I do understand an author does not have the constraints of time and space, but a film has to finish within two hours and in case of Hindi films about two and half hours. There are very few directors who are able to retain the book’s essence while keeping in mind the needs of the big screen. As I have not read the book, your review I found was quite intriguing, so maybe if I were to see the film without knowing about the book I might well enjoy it.

    • Interestingly, Truffaut didn’t cut out much when it came to the length of the movie vs. the book (not that Bradbury’s book is too long, anyway), and he more or less managed to get the essence right. But there was still something about the book that makes it memorable; the movie, less so. Not, especially, if you’ve read the book – which isn’t surprising. But if you haven’t read the book, the movie isn’t bad.

  6. I am busy doing several things, but I have been also taking some time out to see movies downloaded from YouTube. Recently I saw this film, I do not know whether you have seen it or not, you have not reviewed it, did not find it in your list. It suits the time frame of your blog. Its Intruder starring William Shatner a far cry from his partially bald, chubby-cheeked Jim Kirk days of Star Trek. I would like you to see it, if you haven’t already and review it, this is one film that I feel like discussing. I will not tell you anything about the film, only this that it is to do with the desegeration days in the U.S.A. The days when finaly the blacks were allowed to go to all white schools. Well this is your reader’s farmaish. Here is a link to the film.

    • Thank you for that, Shilpi! I haven’t seen The Intruder (though I have seen one William Shatner film from his pre- Star Trek days: the superb Judgment at Nuremberg. I have bookmarked this, and hope to be able to watch it sometime within the next week.

      • Judgment of Nuremberg, my father used to talk about this film, at least I don’t remember, my brother says that was one those films that he obviously liked. I have been wanting to see. I found it on YouTube, need to download it before it disappears.

        • It’s an excellent film – I reviewed it a few years back on this blog. Disturbing (and deeply so, considering its subject matter). But excellent. And Spencer Tracy’s 11-minute speech at the end is remarkable, not just because it’s filmed all in one shot, but also because it never flags, never gets boring – a good example of good dialogue combined with good dialogue delivery.

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