fahrenheit 451 (1966 film)

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
directed by Francois Truffaut, written by Truffaut and Jean-Louis Ricard, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury

In a dystopian 1960s future, books are banned, and it's the job of firemen to burn them. One such fireman is Guy Montag (Oskar Werner), who, after a chance meeting with idealistic schoolteacher Clarisse (Julie Christie), starts to become curious about the books he burns. He starts to read them, to steal them whenever he can, and soon he accumulates a small, secret library. But his new-found passion for books inevitably brings him into conflict with his moronic, pill-popping wife (also Julie Christie) and the authoritarian state.

Truffaut and Bradbury clearly had genuine concerns about the decline of the written word, and in particular its erosion by television, which yields the film's most prescient moment. Montag's wife spends all day watching her wall-sized flat-screen TV, which broadcasts non-stop drivel. One evening she watches an hilarious interactive drama, which in fact has no dramatic content and consists entirely of a discussion of the seating arrangements for a party. Here we can see, for the first time, a dimly realised 1960s version of what we now call "reality TV".

For Truffaut and Bradbury, books are an essential part of being human. People who don't read apparently lose their memories -- Montag's wife can't remember when the couple first met. Fahrenheit further argues that books are people in their own right. "Behind each one of these books is a man" says Montag, and indeed a human does seem to emerge from the pages of David Copperfield as Montag reads it. In this scene, I was reminded of the joy I used to feel when approaching a novel; a new world, a new personality, a new mind to explore. I have since, sad to say, become rather jaded with the experience.

Most of the other scenes extolling the virtue of books -- such as when Montag reads for his wife's friends -- fall flat. The film is curiously passionless about its cause: it takes it for granted, it doesn't work to get me on its side. Oddly enough, books in Fahrenheit 451 really only come alive when they're burning. The pages turn themselves as they shrivel in the heat; books flicker out of existence, page by page, words and memories dissolving into smoke and ash. The effect is really quite beautiful -- so beautiful, in fact, that it almost makes me want to run out and torch my copy of, say, Snow Crash.

Oskar Werner as the protagonist must take some of the blame for the film's lack of passion: he's cold, self-absorbed, narcissistic; he strikes poses, he minces. He's impossible to care for; the film would be better with Terence Stamp in the role, as was originally intended. But still, it would have to wrestle with the considerable burden of the source material. Truffaut is far too respectful of Bradbury's extended penny-dreadful. The seriousness with which he treats it just highlights its implausibility, its slightness is constantly in mind.

Bradbury's tale has a far-fetched and rather silly premise. How can a high-tech society, with futuristic monorails and widescreen TV, survive without any representations of words? How can Montag and so many other people read? The premise overshoots so wildly that it misses any possible satirical point. No real-world society, to my knowledge, has wanted to ban all books, but only some of them, and this is a crucial difference. As dystopic visions go, Fahrenheit 451 is poorly thought-out and perfunctory.

The book reeks of the kitschy high moral tone of bad sci-fi. It's no surprise that it's so popular with schoolmarms: it espouses a schoolmarm's view of literature. It presents books as reified culture, literature as an object you can acquire, like a clock for your mantelpiece. The "book people" who are literature's last hope seem to miss the point of literature: they rote-learn sequences of words without engaging with what they mean, they concentrate on the surface structure and ignore its significance. To consume culture is presented as a joyless but improving exercise, something to do because it's good for you.

Truffaut's book people, when they appear at the end of the film, are entirely ridiculous -- self-absorbed souls wandering around a forest reciting novels to themselves. Perhaps Truffaut is being critical of their idea of literature, or perhaps not; it's hard to say. The film just peters out. It seems to slink away, somewhat embarrassed, not sure what to do with itself.