1966's Fahrenheit 451 carried with it the prospect of an exciting meeting of minds; a story adapted from Ray Bradbury's excellent fifties dystopian novel of the same name and directed by the now-legendary French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut (The 400 Blows; Jules and Jim). The film isn't as dynamic as this combination may have promised, but it remains an enduringly relevant tale, preserving the book's warning as to the perils of culture "dumbing down".
Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman at an indeterminate time in the future. In Fahrenheit 451, this carries quite different connotations; firemen start fires rather than put them out, wielding flamethrowers and carrying out ritualistic, public book-burnings. Society fears and distrusts books, claiming they spread "lies" about "people who never existed", false philosophy, and stories devised to make people sad, angry and anti-social. One day on the way to work, Montag has the root of a dangerous question planted in his head by free-spirited neighbour Clarisse (Julie Christie): "why?". Are books harmful, has he read them, why does he burn them? Soon he begins to question the ethics not only of his job, but more broadly the nanny state within which his and everyone elses lives are so tightly dictated.
The first half of Bradbury's tale is intelligently reconstructed. The viewer is on the periphery of a fascinating world; an unseen yet omnipotently controlled authoritarian society with odd quirks and contradictions few living in it challenge or even seem aware of. Its dystopian suburbia is attractive and impressively-realised; marking the prosperous locales with vivid colour and defining the city outskirts with stark, brutalist architecture; it acts as a precursor to A Clockwork Orange's more visceral, violent vision of the future - which is praise in itself. The director exercised some artistic license on the picture, most evident in his brave move to cast Julie Christie as both Montag's neighbour Clarisse, and his wife, Linda.
The two are diametric opposites, and one critic's suggestion that the two differ little more than in the changing of the actress's hair-do is perhaps a little unfair. Books come to represent imagination and curiosity, and by openly rejecting both, Linda's the perfect unassuming zombie, to be easily manipulated. Her hazy, shallow demeanour and materialistic nature are effectively conveyed by the actress, whilst the beige/brown outfits, walls and furnishings she's enveloped by hint at her utter conformity and humdrum existence. She symbolises a great irony that is not lost on Truffaut; the criticism of books being seen as anti-social and subversive tools is continually undermined by Linda being glued to television sets around her house, or taking massive quantities of drugs.
Perhaps the film's deftest scene is a delivered with a rare dash of humour. Linda believes she's been selected to star in one of the television shows she's so hooked on. The characters on screen come up with a dilemma, then direct a question at her (or as Montag more accurately proposes, anyone and everyone called Linda), but before she is able to reply with anything more than a mumble, they claim that she is right and plough on, bringing to light, in a quietly jovial moment, the absurd illusion of an individual's value.
Julie Christie cuts a more chirpy and likable, though perhaps less distinctive figure in Clarisse. The character's role is reshaped to appear more film-friendly, whereas in the book she's more of a muse than a mistress, her participation less involved, her fate rather more ambiguous. The dual-casting points to Clarisse as a "thinking" version of Laura, or perhaps the wife Montag wishes he had. Christie's performances won't live long in the memory, though for what it's worth, she juggles her two relatively unchallenging roles without major incident.
For the musical score, Truffaut enlisted the services of Bernard Herrmann, a long-time collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock. Herrmann reprises the lush, panicky string accompaniment he used to such memorable effect on Psycho, though here the racy tempos seem somewhat ill-fitting. A subtler, more invasive sound would have fit the cerebral atmosphere more aptly.
The closing stages of the novel made for some breathlessly tense action but in the film, such sequences are disappointingly brief and incidental. Attempts at a poignant and poetic ending also fall flat, even with a clever instance of Cinéma vérité showing a child struggle to commit a book to memory as an older, dying man recites it to him. Dialogue is inconsistent, perhaps in part due to Truffaut's limited grasp of English and apparent unhappiness with stony-faced Viennese actor Oskar Werner over his interpretation of Montag. Werner is fine playing the "unthinking automaton" in the beginning, but slightly less reliable when shows of emotional instability are called for later on - there's no question, he paints a much more muted figure than the book. Montag's Captain, played by the very watchable Cyril Cusack, gets to spout some of the best and most (if you'll pardon the pun) inflammatory dialogue, as he positively delights in rambling about the worthlessness of literature and how people are drawn to fire. Many of the monologues from other characters lack clout however, appearing listless and preachy rather than inspirational, with some rather hammy tertiary performances. The film is also guilty of becoming hypnotised by its own martyr-like book burning scenes, developing a rather heavy reliance on close-up shots of classic works receiving the flaming treatment.
Fahrenheit 451 ultimately does no disgrace to its source material but, in a somewhat ironic twist, comes to highlight its own theme of written literature proving a more articulate medium to that of the screen. Middling performances from its leading lights, along with an inability to graft out a punchy, meaningful ending mean it comes off second best, yet Truffaut's elaborate sets and at times beautiful compositions remain a highlight. So poignant is the story, that even now it's difficult not to be in some way moved or disconcerted by the image of history's works being systematically eradicated. Worth watching, but the book's still better.
Francois Truffaut's film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel is set in a future where books are prohibited and firemen are employed to go round burning them. The novel has been lauded as an excellent look at a potential future where censorship has gotten out of hand and society has started to control us through the media of television, interacting through our TV sets and never having to leave home. Reading is forbidden, the punishment severe.
Oskar Werner plays Guy Montag, a rather timid and uncertain fireman who seems to be the least dominant character in his own home, as his wife Linda (Julie Christie) does what she wants and often gets him to do her every bidding. When he meets Clarisse (also played by Christie), he is struck by how much she resembles his wife, and indeed becomes infatuated with her, not least because she condones reading in all its forms. Slowly but surely, through debate and persuasion, Montag starts to realise that reading is good, and even starts sneaking books home instead of burning them.
The tension does mount somewhat in the film, but throughout it I did feel like I was waiting for something to happen. The acting was decent enough, with Werner giving a good enough show of a man torn between his duty and his heart. Christie was quite eccentric in her dual role, although I'm not entirely sure I got the significance of that, unless it was down to the need to have someone visibly identical playing the two roles. There's decent enough support for these two leads, although it does focus on them more than anything else, and I felt like this was a lot for the two of them to take on their shoulders. Despite them doing a good job, I can't say they stood out in any way, nor could I say I was particularly impressed by them.
Truffault's direction was very artistic, the use of cinematography not lost on me as the zooming and panoramic scenes were mixed with the slow facial shots and the clever avoidance of Linda's face most of the time. It showed her as an unimportant character in Montag's mind, whereas Clarisse was almost always face on when she was on screen. Very cleverly done. As was the use of music, played regularly throughout the film, adding to tension and dramatics for the majority of the film. The problem was though, that the dramatics needed to be a lot more dramatic to have the sort of power that the story deserves. Essentially, it is a very intuitive look at a future society, and the fact that technology is threatening to take over books in our time is something to rather marvel at seeing as this film of 1966 was showing that then, nearly 50 years ago.
But a concept is not enough to make a great film - without execution there's disappointment, and that is ultimately what I felt here. Rumour has it that Truffault and Werner were at loggerheads for a lot of the film, and this could be why the tension present is clearly misplaced. Instead of it transferring out of the film and into our laps, it remains very much inside the film, giving the impression that it's never completely comfortable with itself, and therefore not really appealing to me, despite a very promising idea and a director with the skills to pull it off.
Overall then, a lot of disappointment with this film. I was very surprised, as it made it into Empire's Top 500 Films of all time, and usually these are at least films I can say are worth a watch but nothing more. Here, though, I can't honestly say that Fahrenheit 451 even reaches up to that standard, definitely resulting in disappointment as the credits rolled. It was all just a bit flat and uncomfortable with itself, and this translated onto screen. Perhaps I'll fare better with the book. Not recommended.
Starring: Oskar Werner, Julie Christie
Director: Francois Truffaut
NB: This film / book is to be remade, and due for release in 2005.
Firstly in reviewing this film I had to do what many had failed to do, and separate it from the book by Ray Bradbury. The book is a true masterpiece which many film reviewers seem to confuse with what is not the best film in the world. Maybe its their disappointment at a less than perfect cross-over from text to film, but hopefully that maybe put right by the release of a new version of the film next year.
Now to get back to the actual 1966 version of the film that this review is supposed to be about. Now Truffaut a giant of French cinema took a book that was set in a future place not unlike that of the occupied France of World War 2. Strong overtones of a fascistic world, with democracy gone crazy and state control permeating every aspect of our lives. Here firemen burn books, Fahrenheit 451 being the temperature at which book paper burns. Taking the Bradbury book, Truffaut was obviously commenting on French life through the use of an English book, written about a future fascist state, and in so making a quintessentially French film, but in English! Confused?! Well quite! So it seems is this film. I understand that film was difficult to make, and almost never got made, and you can tell. The film feels uncomfortable with itself, and unfortunately takes away from the viewers feeling of discomfort with the subject matter.
The premise, (which is better covered in my review of the book) is a future society when all printed materials like books are banned. Free thinkers, in fact just simply people who dare to think for themselves are seen as a threat to the state. Conformity is the way forward, and the individual is hounded to the point of extinction. People watch huge screen TVs and interact with their favourite soap-opera (sound familiar?)
It is the job of the firemen to burn books, quite obviously turning our society on its head. They sniff out subversives who maybe hiding books. In the book they actually have sniffer dogs that hunt down those who possess books, this element as are many others are missing from the film. Montag (Werner) is married to Linda (Christie), he is a fireman and she spends everyday taking state provided drugs and watching TV. He comes across Clarisse (also Christie), a younger free-thinking version of his wife. She sparks something that hed hidden within himself, and soon he finds himself taking books instead of burning them, and even eventually reading them! There are consequences to this and Montags secret is not kept for very long, betrayal follows, and the whole machine of state control looms over Montag for his crime of reading and subsequently having thoughts that are not those of the state.
One of the notable things about this film which is slightly clever and a little un-nerving, is the lack of text. The titles are read out loud, when Montag picks-up a newpaper it is all pictures. The only text in the whole film is a glimpse when you catch a book burning, and right at the end when you see the words The End.
Fahrenheit 451 was a brilliant novel by Ray Bradbury which managed to be riviting and yet very thought provoking about the issues of state control and future censorship. What is more interesting about the film however, is that it is legendary French director Francois Trauffaut's only film he filmed in English. Oskar Werner stars as the protagonist, a fireman whose job it is to destroy books for a living as they are now banned by the state, however, he soon starts to secretly catch the bookworm bug and rebel against society. Julie Christie has a strange part as she plays both his wife and his mistress! The film is flat compared to the book, with the only saving graces being good production deisgn and stunningly vivid cinematography. Read the book, don't waste your time with the film. The film for me cheapened and toned down the innovative novel and left a damper impression, so I will do anything I can to stop this happening to anyone else who has yet to read the book.
wow, what an idea from Ray Bradbury, who would have the idea of a bleek future where the lives of the ordinary public are controlled by a domineering government. Hum, lets see, how about George Orwell's 1984. This is a basic ripp off of 1984, except it is nowhere near as good. There is not a much detail in this as 1984. The book is average, but basically a complete copy of 1984, with not as much detail, and a few new things added to make it seem not that alike. The film is even worse than the book, i suggest if you are interested, don't go to that much trouble to get a hold of this film.
The classic science fiction novel by Ray Bradbury was a curious choice for one of the leading directors of the French New Wave, François Truffaut. But from the opening credits onward (spoken, not written on screen), Truffaut takes Bradbury's fascinating premise and makes it his own. The futuristic society depicted in Fahrenheit 451 is a culture without books. Firemen still race around in red trucks and wear helmets, but their job is to start fires: they ferret out forbidden stashes of books, douse them with petrol and make public bonfires. Oskar Werner, the star of Truffaut's Jules and Jim, plays a fireman named Montag, whose exposure to David Copperfield wakens an instinct towards reading and individual thought. (That's why books are banned--they give people too many ideas.) In an intriguing casting flourish, Julie Christie plays two roles: Montag's bored, drugged-up wife and the woman who helps kindle the spark of rebellion. The great Bernard Herrmann wrote the hard-driving music; Nicolas Roeg provided the cinematography. Fahrenheit 451 received a cool critical reception and has never quite been accepted by Truffaut fans or sci-fi buffs. Its deliberately listless manner has always been a problem, although that is part of its point; the lack of reading has made people dry and empty. If the movie is a bit stiff (Truffaut did not speak English well and never tried another project in English), it nevertheless is full of intriguing touches, and the ending is lyrical and haunting. --Robert Horton, Amazon.com