Fahrenheit 451



Notes: Universal. 1 hr. 52 min.
Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Truffaut (his only English-language film, 5 years writing script) and Jean-Louis Richard
Story (from the 1953 novel): Ray Bradbury
Produced: Lewis M. Allen
Special Effects: Charles Staffel
Music: Bernard Herrmann

Montag: Oskar Werner
Bibliophile Clarisse: Julie Christie
Wife Linda: Julie Christie
Captain: Cyril Cusack
Fabian: Anton Diffring
Man with Apple: Jeremy Spenser
Book Woman: Bee Duffell
Wincing Mealy-Faced Boy: Mark Lester, pre-Oliver

Summary: The credits are spoken rather than printed — rather innovative in creating the effect that it is assumed we are no longer literate.

A phone tip-off warns a young man disgustingly eating an apple to run. Sirens and uniformed “firemen” are on the scene finding books that have been stashed away (Don Quixote is in the overhead light; The Moon and Sixpence is discovered in the round-up). Obviously tv is authorized. There’s no dialogue here, just the ravaging and shots of children looking on as the officers burn the pile of books.

Montag, often being talked to in the third person by his superior, is our main character. We learn that 451F is the temperature at which paper takes fire and that words are distrusted by the authorities, who prefer fear and math (Montag lives in “block 183”). On his way home on the monorail (in which the car rides underneath the rail), he meets a woman who looks like his wife only with short hair, and they discuss his occupation. He burns books. Well, it’s a job. Is it true that firemen used to put out fires? Books are dangerous rubbish, making people anti-social. People read because it’s forbidden maybe, that’s all. The woman is a teacher on probation.

At home, Montag’s wife Linda has consumed the pills which seem to function as nourishment in this society and is watching tv. In fact, she hopes for them to attain a second “wall-set.” The sense of “family” is a televised one, and everyone is addressed as “cousin.” Montag’s wife, a self-deluded aspiring actress, has been called to take part in a “play,” consisting of contrived televised dialogues interrupted by the actors turning to the camera and asking what “Linda” thinks. Usually she can guess what the intended answer is, and she congratulates herself, but even if she doesn’t answer, “Linda” is complimented on her wisdom in the teleplay. Montag later mentions the likelihood that thousands of Lindas were called today for the same program, as he “reads” a newspaper consisting entirely of pictures.

After a discussion about a promotion with his supervisor, in which the latter mentions the fortuitousness of sports or anything that keeps people busy and therefore happy, Montag discovers his wife overdosed and makes a call. “‘Poisoning’ listening,” says an operator. The paramedics replace her blood and say she’ll be hungry tomorrow (implying for more than just food).

The tv shows an undesirable being surrounded and having his hair cut. Montag has begun stashing away books and at night uses the wall-set light to read David Copperfield (“Chapter One: I Am Born”).

The authorities patrol a playground where we begin to see that people often fondle themselves in this society. The teacher has been fired and she and Montag watch as a man hesitatingly drops a tip-off in a streetcorner Informant Box. The two visit the school where the children are heard mindlessly reciting math tables. Each child runs away from the teacher.

The firemen discover an entire secret library and gather up Othello and Madame Bovary, Neitzche, Robinson Crusoe, Aristotle, and Mein Kampf, a book on Dali and one on lung cancer and hundreds more. But novels cause tears and suicide, the latter proven by the fact that the woman of this house refuses to leave but somewhat triumphantly strikes a match and goes up in flames with her books. We realize that this house had no tv antennae.

Montag’s teacher is wanted by the authories. Her uncle is one of the “Book People” who live in the woods. Montag, having been caught snatching books, becomes a renegade and seeks them out. A jet-pack-supplied search squad fails to capture him, so tv broadcasts a fictional capture of him. He meets the Bookpeople, a tribe of which each member is known as the books he or she has committed to memory. For example, one person is introduced as “Wuthering Heights,” another as “The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury.” In an age of darkness otherwise, the Book People perpetuate an oral culture. We see a dying grandfather helping his grandson learn his book. Montag’s task is the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The final scene is of these people milling about mumbling their individual books.

Commentary: Fahrenheit 451 is filmed in that sterile, limited, antiseptic but somehow grimy (what I call) Lorimar color. You know, no greens or yellows, just a washed-out portion of a dingy partial rainbow.

It’s easy enough to present uniformed authority figures as horrifying, but the fact that they retain the name “firemen,” representative of the trusty local civil servants, is a nice twist. Montag’s German accent and look aids in the stereotypical but appropriate Aryan model of totalitarianism.

It’s easy enough to present math as the representative evil or amorality of emptiness and tv as mindless, but the nice twist is the phony “interactiveness” of this depiction where being an “actress” or even earning self-congratulation means supplying “the right answers.” Witness the Millionaire show.

We now have graphic novels; the film anticipated “graphic newspapers” (and check out the front page of the weekend edition of the Seattle Times, and probably most others now that I don’t subscribe to — not headline stories, but rather a pictorial index of the crap coming inside the paper).

Despite all this, the film provides a final undermining of its supposed anti-anti-literacy message. The final scene is one of madness and schizophrenia. The Bookpeople have no identity or even name other than that of their book. And they finally just wander aimlessly, mumbling to themselves in another non-mathematical form of rote memorization. Hmm. So now what am I supposed to do?