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Fahrenheit 451
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Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury's visionary science fiction novel, Fahrenheit 451, depicted a future world in which books are forbidden and their concealment punishable by death. Every household is monitored by floor to ceiling television screens delivering brain-washing government jargon and the populace, except for an anonymous few, have become media-controlled puppets, anesthetized and passive. It obviously had great potential as a science fiction film. At least French filmmaker Francois Truffaut thought so when he first purchased the novel in 1962. Later he sold the rights to Lewis Allen, an American producer, with plans to make the film in 1964 but it wasn't until 1966 - two years after he completed La Peau Douce (The Soft Skin) - that he was able to bring his vision to the screen.

From the beginning, Fahrenheit 451 (the title refers to the temperature at which paper burns) would prove to be Truffaut's most troubled and difficult production, a fact that is born out in his personal correspondence to friends and associates. In one missive (published in Francois Truffaut: Letters (Faber & Faber)), he debates the film's box office potential: "Pessimistic forecast: a nation getting ready to say yes to De Gaulle is a nation that doesn't give a sh#t whether its culture disappears or not, and therefore doesn't give a sh#t about Fahrenheit. Optimistic forecast: books are solid, visible and tangible objects; everyone knows them, everyone has them, buys them, lend and borrows them. Therefore, everyone is capable of being moved by a film that shows books burning in extreme close-up." Truffaut's correspondence also reveals actors under consideration for the lead - Charles Aznavour (who appeared in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, 1960) and Terence Stamp - and the director's rejection of Gore Vidal as a possible screenwriter for the film. But some suggestions came to fruition. "Lewis Allen had the brilliant idea of having Linda and Clarisse (in Fahrenheit) played by the same actress with two different hair-dos. That would solve all the problems that have been plaguing me for so long about their figures, their ages, their looks, etc. I gave my approval to the idea and, my goodness, how wonderful it would be if it were Julie Christie." The latter actress did, in fact, win the dual role and for the lead character of Montag, a dedicated fireman who begins to question his destruction of books, Truffaut's friend and star of his earlier feature, Jules and Jim (1962), was cast. Truffaut also decided to adapt the novel himself with assistance from Jean-Louis Richard.

It was an uphill battle from the beginning though and Truffaut was eventually overwhelmed by the challenges. For one, Fahrenheit 451 was his first film in English, a language he did not speak. It was also his first color film and involved the creation of some complicated special effects. Adding an extra layer of aggravation was Oskar Werner who disagreed with Truffaut's interpretation of his character. Werner wanted to emphasize the brutal, fascist side of Montag while Truffaut insisted on focusing on the fireman's vulnerable nature. The situation became so strained between them that Truffaut resorted to using Werner's double for some scenes and in many cases reducing the actor's on-screen time in the editing room (which accounts for some of the discontinuity in Montag's appearance).

Eagerly awaited by science fiction fans, Fahrenheit 451 was bound to be a disappointment for those who had read the book. Not only did Truffaut deliberately play down the futuristic aspects in terms of visual design but he omitted some of the most memorable aspects of the book such as the Mechanical Hound which tracked down subversives and killed them with lethal injections. But the filmmaker never set out to make a standard sci-fi thriller. As he stated in Truffaut on Truffaut, "Many science fiction works can be considered fairy tales for adults" and he aimed "to film fantastic things as if they were everyday, everyday things as if they were fantastic, and to mingle one with the other." In this regard, the film is extremely successful, combining sixties fashions with antique telephones and space age monorails into a strangely harmonious but timeless universe.

Nevertheless, when Fahrenheit 451 opened theatrically, critics were just as vocal about their disappointment in the film as the sci-fi fans were. Typical of the lot was Bosley Crowther of The New York Times when he wrote, "Holy Smoke! What a pretentious and pedantic production he has made of Ray Bradbury's futuristic story." Admirers of Truffaut, on the other hand, felt like he had sold out by making a big-budget Hollywood-financed film in color with an English cast. But there were a few favorable reviews such as Time's assessment: "A weirdly gay little picture that assails with both horror and humor all forms of tyranny over the mind of man...Fahrenheit 451 may not prove to be the flash point of the average moviegoer, but it should work up a gentle glow among the admirers of Director Francois Truffaut."

Seen today, the film remains a fascinating one-off in the director's career, incorporating some of his favorite interests (a love of literature) while attempting to broaden his range (shooting in color and an unfamiliar language). It's true some aspects don't work well (the Julie Christie dual role looks more like a stunt than a well-integrated concept) but here you will find some of Truffaut's most poignant images: a lovingly-photographed book bonfire devouring famous works by Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, J. D. Salinger, Cahiers du Cinema (the film magazine Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard both wrote for), and Mad magazine; the lyrical final shot in which "The Book People" wander amongst themselves in a wooded outpost, each one reciting a favorite book as the snow falls. Other distinctive touches include Bernard Herrmann's exhilarating music score, the opening credit sequence - broadcast over television antennas, Nicolas Roeg's fluid cinematography, and Cyril Cusack's witty, malevolent performance as the relentlessly duty-bound fireman.

Producer: Lewis M. Allen
Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard, David Rudkin, Helen Scott, Ray Bradbury (novel)
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Film Editing: Thom Noble
Art Direction: Syd Cain
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Oskar Werner (Montag), Julie Christie (Linda/ Clarisse), Cyril Cusack (Captain), Anton Diffring (Fabian), Jeremy Spenser (Man With the Apple), Bee Duffell (Book Woman).
C-113m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

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