I can’t believe they haven’t made another adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (1953) after the 1966 film by François Truffaut.” IMDb shows that a new adaptation is “in development”, but further googling found that this has been the case since at least 2006. Despite hacking the book apart for similes, metaphors, and such, this was one of the relatively few books I fully enjoyed in high school. I enjoyed it not for its language or its feeling, but for its cinematic qualities of image and story. Strange how the more literary novels are the ones that find themselves better adapted to film. That may be because they are not loved for themselves, but are a superficial self-love. Enjoying those flights of fancy created in the mind of the reader, rather than a deeper relationship with the author. So, while two who share a love will recognize the soul of a literary adaptation, the styling of plot and image they will not recognize. That isn’t Tolkien, it’s Jackson. Man, I didn’t like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012).
Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman. He doesn’t put out fires—what a thought—he sets them. A fireman burns books at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. He is good at his job. People hide their books away and he has a facility with finding them—to find, one must first learn to hide. Books upset people, they are lies, and they are dangerous. When he meets a young woman called Clarisse (Julie Christie)—a woman who looks very much like his wife Linda (also Christie)—a bug is planted in Montag’s brain. She asks “Have you ever read any of the books you burn?” From that point onward, Montag becomes isolated from his chief, the Captain (Cyril Cusack), and coworker Fabian (Anton Diffring). As Montag is in line for promotion, this may account more heavily for Fabian’s attitude. Eventually, inevitably, Montag begins to read these books, beginning a voracious habit that changes him forever.
The dystopia in Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is more resonant now than ever before with interactive television (or the appearance of interactivity) and mood altering pills prevalent among middle class ladies. There are even flatscreen TVs and retro-fads like flat-edge razors. For those relaxing to the dulcet tones of New Jersey housewives, I wonder whether this topia would be very dys to them. They might be inclined to think the Captain is talking sense when he enumerates the vanities of writers, their pointlessness, their endless disagreement, and asks “What good are they?” To some extent, of course, there is truth to what he says, but not enough to complacently accept the conclusion. But would the lazy brain not be moved when the Captain said, “we must burn them”, pulling up a copy of Mein Kampf , “all of them”?
That last bit tickles the provocateur in me and is strong enough to hang the weight of the entire film. That is not to say director François Truffaut does not make an otherwise valuable film. He does. Truffaut also wrote the screenplay with Jean-Louis Richard. As in the book, the showdown between the Captain and Montag is the very best part. However, the scene takes place, as I recall, in the comfort of the Captain’s office where he expounds a far more detailed argument, quoting freely from the great books, proving that he has come very close to these things without being seduced by them. The point gets across in the film as well, though with less force. For some reason, Truffaut spends a greater proportion of time on people crying or emoting in some other way rather than on quiet character development. The music by Bernard Herrmann is excellent, which is to be expected.
The very first thing that you will notice about the movie is the weird anachronism. It is the future, and yet it is so clearly the 60’s. The décor, the costumes, the hair styles are all firmly 60’s fads. Montag wears this ridiculous leather cap the whole time. The cinematography (Nicolas Roeg) is similarly dated. Little flourishes of the camera, awkward stasis on the romance, and the jumpy action all keep the modern viewer dependent on the flexibility of their disbelief. It may be enough to have Julie Christie to make me suspend mine enough to enjoy the film.
Performances are all quite fine. Oskar Werner took a little getting used to because of the accent, but that was quick work. Christie is lovely and plays the vacuous wife Linda a little better than the strong willed Clarisse. Where things start to break down is when Montag reaches the end, which I won’t spoil for you. Sufficed to say, it goes on a little too long.
I still say it could use another adaptation.