The Scoop: 1966 unrated, directed by Francois Truffaut and starring Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack and Anton Diffring.
Tagline: What if you had no right to read?
Summary Capsule: In a dystopian future, books are outlawed and people are stupid.
Deneb’s Review: I miss books.
We still have books, of course. I personally own about a zillion of ‘em, and they’re not disappearing any time soon. What I miss, I suppose, is not so much books themselves, but the importance of books – actual, physical books. Not E-books – not glodsdrammed Kindles – books books. Words on paper.
It seems nowadays that the moment something worthwhile comes out in print, every Internet huckster around starts going ‘hey, don’t actually buy that book! Instead, buy a hunk of electrons that you can download into our little screen-thingy that simulates a book! Wow! It’s the fyoo-cha!’ Never mind the irreplaceable tactile sensation of flipping through pages, never mind that the whole ‘library in your hand’ thing is rendered instantly worthless if you spill a glass of water on it, never mind libraries and bookstores and other such pleasant havens from reality – buy this electric doo-dad and all your woes will be over. Aarrgh-p’tewph.
These may seem like odd sentiments coming from an Internet reviewer, but here’s the thing – while I enjoy what I do, and I love having my opinions placed on the ‘Net for all to see, I have no illusions that they are there permanently. Oh, I hope they’ll be up for a good long while, but websites are transient things – eventually, unless someone sets up a trust fund to keep it going or something, MRFH and all the many long-winded opinions its reviewers have voiced will vanish, except from the minds of its former readers. That is the way with intangibles, which is what the ‘Net is – it’s data on a screen; we may think of websites as places and their contents as things which we may physically direct through a click of the mouse, but all they really are is lots and lots of pixels arranged in front of your eyes to form words and pictures. The ‘Net itself will survive in some form over the ages, I have no doubt, but a good chunk of the stuff currently on it will not – and if that applies to such a massive societal infrastructure as the World Wide Web, it sure as heck applies to downloads onto viewing devices.
A book, on the other hand, is physical. If you take good care of it, it will survive for years, sometimes much longer than the human lifespan. I myself own books that used to be my Dad’s when he was a kid, and some of them were passed down to him from his. You can’t store a program in a box in the attic, to be discovered again years later. (Well, you can; but by then it won’t work.) You can’t pass the contents of a Kindle down to your grandchildren. Heck, you can’t even dry them out after they’ve been soaked in the rain. They’re transient; if damaged or outdated, they’re gawn – whereas books, for all their bulkiness, are still here. It pains me that such simple logic is being overturned by society in our quest for the latest bleepity-bloopity. Sure, you do that. I’ll be over here ruffling through pages.
Ahem – uh, sorry. That was a bit of a rant. It does, however, address the fact that thematically, books are as important now as they’ve ever been – they may not be the one and only information delivery system that they once were, but they’re relevant as symbols, if nothing else. (And as I may have carried across, that “if nothing else” is something I am prepared to hotly debate.)
Which, in a roundabout way, finally brings us to Fahrenheit 451. Let’s get cracking, shall we?
Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman. Not someone who puts out fires for a living, dear me no. It’s the future, you see, and all modern buildings have been completely fireproof for a good long time. Firemen still drive around in big red trucks; they still use hoses and they still wear uniforms, but put fires out? Eh-eh.
No, what firemen do these days is start fires – it’s their job to burn things. And what do they burn? Why, books, of course.
Books, it seems, are illegal these days. They’re dangerous, you know. They cause discontent. And yet somehow, there are still a few scattered malcontents who actually read the things. The cops nab them, of course, but then there’s still the matter of those terrible, terrible books left lying around. That’s the job of the firemen – they ferret them out, pile them up, soak them with kerosene (that’s where the hoses come in) and torch ‘em.
This is what Montag does every day, and so far it’s gone pretty well for him. He’s got a nice house in the suburbs, a loving wife (Julie Christie), and the Captain (Cyril Cusack) has been hinting that he’s due for a promotion soon if he plays his cards right. Yes sir, Montag is living the good life.
Except he isn’t, really. Neither is anyone else.
You see, it’s not just books that have been banned, it’s everything that came with them – intellectual stimulation, escape from the self, all that other stuff. Such things cause people to get anxious, after all, and we can’t have that. As a result, every remaining form of entertainment and diversion has been turned into thoroughly toothless pap – and, slowly but surely, this is affecting society as a whole.
People don’t read the newspapers over breakfast anymore, they read comics – not good comics, either, banal wordless ones with no stories to speak of. Montag’s wife Linda does love him, but in an increasingly distracted way, since she’s focused on her main pursuit – popping pills all day and endlessly watching TV, specifically a show called ‘The Family’ which appears to have been designed as preschool programming for adults, manipulating its viewers into feeling good about themselves with tricks that shouldn’t fool an eight-year old. And when that’s not on, of course, there’s all sorts of neat-o-keen news reports about how those pervert book-readers are getting tramped back down and “re-educated”.
This is the normal routine of life in the future: take pills, watch TV, do as you’re told and be happy. Montag is a part of the system, an integral part – and yet he’s got this nagging feeling that something’s wrong. He himself is not happy, and he can’t quite figure out why.
Then he happens to run across Clarisse (Julie Christie again) on the way home from work. Clarisse is a neighbor of his, a talkative sort who eventually asks him a crucial question – has he, personally, ever read any of the books he’s burned?
The answer, of course, is no. But now that she’s asked, he’s tempted – and once he inevitably gives in to said temptation, his world suddenly gets much more complicated…
The name of Francois Truffaut, of course, is a loaded one for cinema buffs. I’m not too familiar with his work, myself, but I know who he is, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this one. I’d heard both positive and negative things about the film, and I wasn’t sure who to believe – and even if I believed the positive, was an arthouse director really the best choice to direct a science fiction movie?
Well… I’ll let you determine that for yourselves. But I don’t think he did too bad of a job.
That’s not to say I don’t have some gripes, though, and I’ll get them out of the way first. Let’s start with Montag – or rather, Oskar Werner. Why the hell is Oskar Werner in this movie?
If you’ve never seen Oskar Werner in anything, you’re probably wondering why I said that. Let me explain – as his name suggests, Werner was of Austrian origin, and while he spoke perfectly fluent English, like many second-language speakers he retained his native accent.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – it’s not his fault. But he’s the one guy in this entire movie that has anything but an English or American accent, and it’s incredibly distracting. It’s not a deal-breaker or anything; it doesn’t contrast logic – I mean, why shouldn’t he be an immigrant? It’s worked for Arnie in his movies so far – but it’s a really odd choice for a character who’s supposed to be a cog-in-the-system everyman type. (Of course, it doesn’t help that his performance here is rather flat – not bad, per se, but not really standing out all that much.)
Secondly, there’s an issue here that was a problem in the book as well, from what I remember of it, and was never really cleared up. This story is about books, right? More specifically, it’s about how reading and literature enrich people’s lives, and how without them, things kinda suck.
However, while I don’t think any bibliophile would dispute the fact that books do enrich one’s life, it’s a very personal sort of thing. It’s an internal process, and one that can be difficult to express to non-readers – I remember back in elementary school I used to be asked ‘why do you read so much?’, and I’d shrug it off because I had no idea how to answer the question. I read so much because I like books. Why? Um… they’re cool?
This is precisely the problem Fahrenheit 451 has to come to terms with. How, in a cinematic medium, do you express the wonder of experiencing literature for the first time? How do you show Montag’s discovery of and growing obsession with it? How do you capture the moment when his dormant neurons start fizzling? Beats me, because the film doesn’t really manage to do so. Oh, it gives it the old college try, with lingering shots of the pages as he stumbles over the text, but it never quite comes together. (And for that matter, in a world where the written word is banned, how is it that everyone still knows how to read? Are they still taught their ABCs so they can obey the traffic signs or something?)
Those are the big things; there are a few others, but not many. However, I meant what I said earlier – I think, all things concerned, this movie could have been a heck of a lot worse.
Thematically speaking, F51 may have flubbed a little over the literary aspects, but honestly it doesn’t matter too much because the film is about more than that. It’s about what happens when society has gone wrong somehow – it’s about censorship, cultural stagnation, the forcible clubbing down of the imagination, control of the masses by keeping them stupid, self-centered, and so afraid of being challenged in any way that they’d rather eradicate the world’s culture than have it potentially offend. Call me paranoid, but if you think those are outdated concepts, you haven’t been paying attention. There are people out there right now who will bend heaven and earth to keep an alarmingly large sector of the populace confused, ignorant and outraged so they, in turn, can keep the confusers in power – you never see just who runs this bookless world, but I’ll bet you it’s someone like that. In that sense, the movie is as timeless as it’s ever been – like all good dystopias, it is gripping because it shows how easily things could go wrong, and are going wrong even as we speak. It’s not so much a call to action as a ventured opinion that perhaps this isn’t the direction we want humanity to be going in, and if we want to change it, now might be a good time to start.
So far as more surface-level details go, F51 looks good and sounds good, too. The visual design is exceptionally stylish, showing a futuristic world that is basically a strikingly off-kilter version of modern (as applied to when it was made) life. I don’t know if Truffaut was intentionally trying to prevent it from becoming dated anytime soon, but if so, he did it in a rather clever way – everything is just that little bit behind what was then the current norm. Instead of regular ‘60’s telephones, there are the old speak-into-the-horn versions from the early days of telephonic communication. Instead of being dressed in strikingly futuristic fashion, people wear clothes that range from then-modern to a decade or so out of fashion. Innovation, in other words, is slipping backwards as humanity slips into a malaise – all except the televisions and the fire engines, of course. Those are ultra-modern, the former looking eerily like the giant wall-mounted flat-screens of today, while the latter are both disconcertingly toylike and with a utilitarian, they-mean-business feel to them. As for the firemen themselves, they look more or less like what you’d expect regular firemen evolved into a Gestapo-like organization to look like – they still wear helmets, but they’re more Napoleonic-looking than utilitarian, while their uniforms are sleek, stripped-down black.
Sound-wise, this film has a pretty good score. I don’t generally mention the soundtrack in these reviews, but it’s worth doing so here because it features a noted composer of the past – Bernard Herrmann, the same guy who scored most of Hitchcock’s flicks. If you like lush, orchestral music underlying your movies, you’ll love this – it’s generally considered some of Herrmann’s best stuff, and while I’m far from an expert, it’s certainly darn good stuff in my opinion. In particular, the firetruck’s sinisterly urgent leitmotif that inevitably accompanies another book-burning trip lends the whole thing a rather melodramatic intensity.
On to the characters. I’ve already more-or-less stated what I think of Werner’s Montag, so I’ll just skip ahead to Julie Christie. She’s a good actress, as you probably know, and she does a good job with her double role here. The characters of Linda and Clarisse are both sympathetic in completely different ways. Linda is one of those people who have managed to convince themselves that they are very happy, but in reality are totally miserable. Addled by her pills, she stumbles helplessly through life, associating only with her TV manipulators and a cadre of fellow housewives just as blurry in the head as she is. She’s terrified of her husband’s newfound book obsession mainly because it disrupts what she views as a good life – even though she knows deep down that it’s really a terrible one. She overall gives the impression of a lost little waif far younger than her actual years, and is living proof of how terrible the foe is that Montag actually faces.
Clarisse, on the other hand, is more or less the person Linda could have been had she not bought into the system (which is probably the reason for the dual casting). She’s bright, intelligent, cheerful, friendly, and overall engaged with the world in a way that too few people in it are. The problem is that the powers-that-be don’t like people who are engaged; they prefer mindless drones like Linda. Hence, poor Clarisse is in for a tough time of things, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that wherever she’s going, sooner or later Montag is going to follow her.
The final character of any real importance is Cyril Cusack’s nameless Fire Captain, Montag’s boss. For a while, I was convinced that Cusack was the same guy who played Alex DeLarge’s probation officer in A Clockwork Orange. Turns out I was wrong, something I’m genuinely surprised about (you see both films and tell me you can’t see why. There’s a striking resemblance).
The Captain is not so much a villain in and of himself as a personification of the system’s insidious nature, insidious in that at first it seems harmless. Far from being Montag’s adversary as he starts to question his role, he instead acts as a sort of father figure. He seems to genuinely like him, which would be touching if the Captain himself weren’t so darned creepy. To start with, he has the unsettling habit of always referring to Montag in the third person (if that’s the correct term; I’m not sure) – in other words, he never calls him ‘you’; he always calls him ‘Montag’, which occasionally makes it sound like he’s talking to a pet, or about another person altogether (‘would Montag like a piece of cake?’). Second, he seems to know exactly what’s going through his head, and is not fooled for a moment by his pretences of normality – but he doesn’t do anything about it. He seems to be trying to indirectly persuade his subordinate to step back in line by adopting a can’t-you-see-how-very-silly-all-this-is-my-boy sort of tactic instead of actually acting on his suspicions – and for a while there, it seems to be working; he’s outmaneuvering him by making seemingly no moves at all. We do, however, see more typical villain behavior from him in a few moments witnessed second-hand where his true nature shines through, and shows him as the brutal authoritarian he is, which make his normal unctuous behavior still creepier. He’s something like a fascistic Mephistopheles, tempting his charge towards conformity, and overall just comes across as the sort of person who would make your skin crawl if you met him in real life.
So that’s Fahrenheit 451. Not a perfect film, by any means – I personally would have liked to have seen a few more typical science-fiction touches from the novel, such as the Mechanical Hound that hunts down wrongdoers. (And one thing that is a recognizable legacy of Truffaut’s more typical films is that the pacing is awfully slow.) However, all things considered, I do recommend the movie. It’s stylish, visually interesting, packs a thematic punch, and is well-directed and (mostly) acted. By all means check it out.
First, though? Read a book. A real one. Find a comfy chair, sit down and read. It’s good for ya.
- The title comes from 451 degrees Fahrenheit, supposedly the heat at which book-paper burns. However, this is a misnomer; it burns at a minimum of 424 degrees.
- Montag’s first name in the book is ‘Guy’; however, he is never called that in the movie.
- The strange, lizard-like animal that is the firemen’s insignia is a salamander, the heraldic embodiment of fire.
- While Ray Bradbury overall approved of the adaptation of his novel, he did object to one thing – the depiction of Clarisse. In the book, Clarisse is a friendly teenage girl; in the movie, she’s a grown woman. He felt that this missed the point of the character, whose innocence and vivaciousness were supposed to be a result of her youth.
- Truffaut had worked with Oskar Werner on previous movies and gotten on quite well with him; however, by the time he was cast as Montag, Hollywood success had turned Werner’s head, and he became near-impossible to work with. It got to the point where Werner was intentionally doing the exact opposite of what Truffaut wanted most of the time, while Truffaut refused to talk to Werner except through an intermediary.
- If anyone can explain to me just what the hell is up with the way firepoles are used in this movie, I shall give them a metaphorical penny. It’s weird.
- During the book burning scenes, many of the books focused on were special favorites of Truffaut’s. (Also included were copies of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 itself.)
- Due to his ongoing antagonism with the director, Werner got a haircut at one point in order to cause an intentional continuity problem. This is why his hair near the end of the film is all ruffled up; it’s in order to disguise the fact that it is shorter and in a different style.
Montag: It’s a job like any other – good work, with lots of variety. On Monday we burn Miller, Tuesday Tolstoy, Wednesday Walt Whitman, Friday Faulkner, and Saturday and Sunday Schopenhauer and Sartre.
Captain: Ah, Robinson Crusoe – the Negroes didn’t like that because of his man Friday. And, Nietzsche, ah, Nietzsche; the Jews didn’t like Nietzsche. Now here’s a book about lung cancer, you see, all the cigarette smokers got into a panic, so for everybody’s peace of mind, we burn it. Ah, now this one must be very profound – The Ethics of Aristotle. Now anybody that read that must believe he’s a cut above anybody that hadn’t. You see, it’s no good, Montag; we’ve all got to be alike. The only way to be happy is for everyone to be made equal. So we must burn the books, Montag – all the books.
Clarisse: But he’s an informer!
Montag: No no, he’s an informant.
The Jewish Question: I’m Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Jewish Question; delighted to meet you!
Captain: What does Montag do with his day off-duty?
Montag: Not very much, sir – mow the lawn.
Captain: And what if the law forbids that?
Montag: Just watch it grow, sir.
Child: Oh Mummy, look! Firemen! Mummy, there’s going to be a fire.
Captain: Montag has one quality I appreciate greatly – he says very little.
Montag: You’re nothing but zombies, all of you – just like those husbands of yours you don’t even know anymore! You’re not living; you’re just killing time!
Captain: All this philosophy, let’s get rid of it – it’s even worse than the novels. Thinkers, philosophers; all of them saying exactly the same thing – ‘only I am right. The others are all idiots.’ One century they tell you man’s destiny is predetermined, the next they say that he has freedom of choice. Oh, it’s just a matter of fashion, philosophy, just like short dresses this year, long dresses next year.
Montag: Behind each of these books, there’s a man. That’s what interests me.
Cousin Charles: Linda, you’re right.
Cousin Bernard: She’s right!
Both: Linda, you’re absolutely fantastic!
Captain: What’s this, Montag – something wrong between you and the pole?
Montag: We must burn the pyromaniacs out.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- Soylent Green
- Planet of the Apes (the first one)
- A Clockwork Orange