Holding to François Truffaut's
own auteur theory, Fahrenheit 451
is a good film, even though it is the one film he
would like to disown. A project Truffaut became
enamored with after reading Ray Bradbury's original
story, he obtained the rights after convincing Bradbury
that he wanted to make this science fiction story
instead of Bradbury's preferred The
Martian Chronicles (note in the film
that the "book people" make a reference
to Bradbury's other work). Truffaut couldn't find
enough financing for the film in France and had
to turn to Hollywood sources (at one point turning
down the Bonnie
and Clyde script because he wanted
to make the science fiction film). It's a decision
that Truffaut later regretted. Note that this is
the only Hollywood production that he ever directed.
For Truffaut, the filming was pure hell, partly because of his limited command of English and partly because continual power struggles with his lead actor, Oskar Werner, dominated the shoot. As Truffaut wrote in a private note to film editor Thom Noble:
"Unfortunately, we won't have the opportunity to work together on my next films, for after seeing Fahrenheit over and over again, I realize I should give up the idea of making films in English until I really know the language."
His original choice for Montag had been Terrance Stamp, who abandoned the project after Jane Fonda was dropped in favor of casting Julie Christie as both Montag's wife and lover. Although Truffaut had had a good working relationship with Werner on his classic Jules and Jim, Werner's elevation to the lead role caused perpetual headaches for the director. First were the demands for higher salary, but then continual refusal to follow direction (Werner wanted to portray a hero, but Truffaut wanted an anti-hero) and then Werner began "coaching" Julie Christie on her acting. Truffaut sacrificed some footage that Werner sabotaged with his overacting, resulting in a Montag who often seems very flat. Of course, Truffaut would never work with Werner again (for the curious, Julie Christie did become another of Truffaut's many temporary lovers). Despite the production challenges, Truffaut still manages to piece together a competent science fiction film, one that Ray Bradbury was extremely pleased with.
The melancholy tone of the story matches Truffaut's sensibilities. The future appears bleak--people live in uniform suburban communities of fireproof bungalows, and everyone tunes into their big screen TVs for the latest family programming. Books are universally banned because they make people unhappy, but no one looks content in this futuristic society. Truffaut shows the utter loneliness of commuters longingly staring out commuter monorail windows simultaneously kissing the glass, others caressing themselves publicly, others popping pills to chase away the blues, and the final shots of the "book people" ceaselessly reciting their books without truly interacting.
Montag is a fireman. Not in the usual sense, but in this future world firemen no longer put out house fires--they burn books, which burst into flame at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. One day Montag is approached by an attractive schoolteacher (Julie Christie in short hair), who rides the same monorail route daily. Outgoing and intelligent, she reminds him of his simplistic wife in appearance only (Julie Christie in long hair), and she provokes him with a haunting thought: "Do you ever read the books you burn?"
Bored with his life, the thought intrigues Montag. After all, the only thing his wife wants with the extra money his expected promotion will bring is a second wide screen television to substitute for a family, and he finds Cousin's programs mindnumbingly as simplistic as his empty-headed wife. Before long, Montag has secreted away a copy of David Copperfield, and his new life is born with expected complications.
At a limited budget of $900,000, special effects are limited but effective. To get a futuristic setting, Toronto and Seattle were chosen for the elevated train scenes, but the majority of the shoot took place in Pinewood Studios in London. The opening zoom shots of television antennas over the credits is brilliant, especially with the dynamic musical composition of Bernard Hermann (Alfred Hitchcock's longtime collaborator). Indeed, the suspense created by Hermann's music is the one item that Truffaut was most pleased with, and for good reason since it gives the film much of its foreboding tone.
Truffaut is well known for inserting autobiographical
material in his works, but you have to look to the
details to find this in Fahrenheit 451.
Once small incident near the end parallels his own
relationship with his real father (a man whom he never
got to know) and his strained relationship with his
stepfather. One of the dying book people poignantly
passes on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson:
"I do not love my father. I wonder sometimes if I do not hate him...How was I to love him? He has never spoken to me, smiled upon me. And I do not think he ever touched me."
Other small touches lie in the books selected that are burned as the camera lingers lovingly on many of Truffaut's favorites: Proust, Klossowski, Audiberti, Genet, Miller, Gégauff, Queneau, Twain, Dickens, Melville, Slinger, and Lewis Carroll. Even Mad magazine is burned just before Montag is declared "mad" (rather clever homage to 1960's pop culture by a non-English speaker). Other favorites are chosen for the book people to memorize by heart to avoid violating the authoritarian state: Plato's Republic, Wuthering Heights, Ulysses, Waiting for Godot, Saint-Simon's Memoirs, and the collected short stories of Edgar Alan Poe.
Fahrenheit 451 doesn't represent
Truffaut's best work, but it continues to hold up
well and provides memorable scenes. Philosophical
issues about the mindless state remain current, and
the scenes with an old woman going up in flames with
her beloved books and the wandering rebel book people
continue to haunt, all accompanied by Bernard Hermann's
haunting score and Truffaut's cinematic choices. Truffaut
had his doubts about the film's artistic success;
he wrote Ray Bradbury:
"I must admit I often felt crushed by the scope of the project. Perhaps I was too ambitious, and I constantly feared my efforts wouldn't be equal to your work."
Although the film was never a box office success, it still conveys Bradbury's intellectual vision well enough to stand the test of time more effectively than a number of mindless science fiction films with larger budgets. If nothing else, the basic message about losing our individuality and freedom by not reading is certainly worth Truffaut's reminder.