Thursday, January 16, 2020

Fahrenheit 451--Bradbury by Way of Truffaut

Montag prepares to burn.
Guy Montag is a "fireman" in a futuristic society--except that he starts fires as opposed to putting them out. To be precise, Montag (Oskar Werner) burns books since reading is forbidden by the government. Montag lives in a nice house in the suburbs with his vacuous wife Linda (Julie Christie). It's a mundane existence, but he doesn't question it until he encounters a neighbor, Clarisse (also Christie), on the train to work. A schoolteacher, she asks if Montag has ever read one of the books he burns.

That single questions sparks his curiosity, leading Montag to secretly confiscate a copy of David Copperfield. He reads it and becomes passionate about literature--any kind of literature. Soon, he is hiding books all over the house and taking significant risks to satisfy his irrepressible desire to read.

Oskar Werner as Montag.
Made in 1966, Fahrenheit 451 is the first adaptation of Ray Bradbury's popular 1953 science fiction novel of the same title. Bradley wrote his book in a library's basement paying ten cents per hour to use a typewriter. The title is the result of a phone call to a fireman, in which Bradbury asked him at what temperature paper began to burn. (Bradbury admits he used the given answer...without conducting any additional research.)

The film adaptation was an awkward proposition from the beginning. Critic-turned-filmmaker Francios Truffaut was chosen to direct and co-write the screenplay based on his international successes The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. However, it was an English-language production and Truffaut did not speak English at the time. He also frequently clashed on the set with his star, Oskar Werner, even though Werner had starred in the earlier Jules and Jim (1962). Their confrontations became so fractured that Werner had his hair cut during the filming, thereby creating continuity challenges for Truffaut.

The casting of the lead actresses also sparked a minor controversy. Originally, Julie Christie was supposed to play Linda only. Actresses such as Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg were considered for the role of Clarisse. Truffaut liked the idea of casting the same actress in both roles, as he saw Linda and Clarisse as opposites. However, Bradbury--who held a favorable impression of the film version--thought it would have been more effective to have different actresses in the parts.
Julie Christie as Linda and as Clarisse.
Taken as a whole, Fahrenheit 451 is a thought-provoking motion picture that seems cold and distant. Clarisse is the only character that evokes any kind of warmth. If the intent was to show Montag transform from an empty shell to a feeling person, then it simply doesn't work. Werner's character remains an enigma at the end, though he now devotes himself to keeping literature alive. Perhaps, the deteriorating relationship between Werner and Truffaut carried over into the actor's performance.

Interesting ideas abound, from a newspaper which contain only pictures to a class Montag teaches to novice fireman on where to look for hidden books. Even the opening credits are clever, in that they are read aloud and never shown on screen.

Truffaut turned to a former Hitchcock collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, to compose the score. It is one of the film's highlights, though the other worldly quality sometimes reminded me of his music for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Below is a clip from Fahrenheit 451, courtesy of our YouTube channel. The symbol shown repeatedly is a salamander, not a dragon.


  1. LIked the two roles/one actress Vertigo thing. Tippi Hedren was offered the lead, but Hitchcock turned it down. Intent as he was on destroying her career.

    One critic said had it been about preserving cinema, Truffaut would've shown more pasdsion.

  2. Agreed: This film is cold and distant. There are many admirable things about it – such as the opening credits, as you mentioned – and a person can respect it for its message. Yet, I have to resort to the cliché here: The book was better.

  3. I've not read the original novel, but now I'm wondering: if the society depicted has forbidden books, in fact any printed word, how does Montag and the other characters know how to read?