“It was a pleasure to burn.”
With those words, Ray Bradbury opens his 1953 novel, which still startles with the wisdom of its warnings over a half-century later.
François Truffaut adapted Bradbury’s novel into a film in 1966. The novel and film are centered around the story of Montag, in an unspecified future time where firemen are called to burn books, and their dangerous ideas, rather than put out fires.
Though the basic structure and plot elements are the same, Truffaut makes several alterations that serve to introduce dramatically different thematic elements from Bradbury. While the novel is a poetic masterpiece, and has been accepted as a literary classic, transcending the boundaries of the science fiction genre ghetto, the film has not enjoyed the same reputation. It is a qualified success, not on the level of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and not as as successful in its aims as its source material.
Truffaut’s film was made at Pinewood Studios, in England, and on location in France. Though there are no specific references to the location, the casting of British actors Julie Christie and Cyril Cusack, and Austrian Oskar Werner, gives a distinctly European feel to the production. Altering the setting from Bradbury’s indistinct American city to a vaguely European one is not an entirely neutral proposition. Werner’s thick German accent in connection with scenes of book-burning might conjure the specter of Nazism, whereas the original book was produced at the height of McCarthyism.
Werner’s casting is probably the biggest misstep in the film, in my opinion. Though a fine actor, his accent and shock of blond hair (Montag in the book had soot-black hair) causes him to stand out from the rest of the cast from the first line of his dialogue, when it should become apparent that he is different from his fellow firemen, and indeed from his society, in a more gradually revealed fashion. Truffaut had very difficult relations on the set with Werner, some of which he chronicled in his “Journal of ‘Fahrenheit 451,'” which was published in three installments in Cahiers du Cinéma. I am grateful to critic Richard Brody of The New Yorker, who kindly pointed me to the English language editions of these diaries, found in the following three issues of Cahiers du Cinéma in English, from 1966: one, two, and three. Werner apparently became quite a diva after his success in 1965’s Ship of Fools, and made Truffaut’s work incredibly difficult, to the point where partway through shooting he had given up on him:
I thought of an idea that would have worked well in Fahrenheit 451 but which I shan’t carry out, having lost my interest in Oskar Werner.
Two days prior to this diary entry, he records that Werner had inexplicably gone to a barber in town and had his hair cut short, disrupting the continuity of his appearance. But worse than these potential sabotages were the very nature of his performance, which suggests that he might be an immigrant. With his voice suggesting that he is not a native of the area he inhabits, his integration into the society is in question. He is an outsider from the start, which undermines the transformation he will take when he rebels against the social order.
Truffaut, a poor speaker of English at best, seems to have been unaware of how the different accents of the cast might play to the ear of a native speaker. Early during filming, he wrote that
Whereas the voices of “solid” English actors grate on my ears, Cyril Cusack’s Irish brogue delights me almost as much as Oskar Werner’s Austrian accent. For several days now my fears about the British aspects of the film have been allayed.
So he apparently was concerned with the film seeming too British, which is borne out by comments suggesting that he wished his treatment to be evocative of France during WWII. In fact, he said that the scenario was written “with the Occupation and the Resistance constantly in mind.” Nevertheless, the specter of war is only hinted at in the film, while war, and specifically Atomic war, is the pervasive backdrop for Bradbury’s novel. The novel ends with the destruction of the city by unspecified warplanes. It isn’t even certain from my reading of the text that the planes are enemies.
The themes are further altered by the semi-rural setting. Bradbury’s novel is explicitly set in the city. Montag travels by a subway to his home, which remains in the city. In the film, Montag’s daily commute is by a suspended monorail, one of Truffaut’s only concessions to a “futuristic” ethos. This monorail was a working prototype called SAFEGE, that had been built in Chateauneuf, Paris, France. Though a picturesque and beautiful location, the quaint suburb where Montag lives appears more like an idyllic countryside more than anything we associate with urban life. This is a dramatic departure of emphasis from the novel, because it is repeatedly emphasized that Montag has been deadened to awareness of nature until he begins to be awakened by his encounter with a neighbor girl, Clarisse. In an early episode, she speaks to him about this blindness:
“I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never see them slowly,” she said. “If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say, that’s grass! A pink blur? That’s a rose-garden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs are cows. …”
The emphasis of book-Montag’s world is not merely on burning, but also on speed, technology, war, and automation. People recklessly drive fast cars, and in fact Montag is nearly killed by one later in the novel, and Clarisse reportedly is killed when hit by a speeding car. The relatively leisurely pace of the scenes on the monorail, which arrives to deposit the characters in their charming suburban landscape may depict a certain banality of existence, but nothing like the intensity and speed of Bradbury’s city setting.
The characters in the novel live recklessly fast lives as well, popping pills, listening to their “Seashells” (earbud radios) and watching wall-sized TVs that cover three or four walls surrounding them in a single parlor. Much of this is adapted into Truffaut’s film as well, but he chose to employ a retro aesthetic as a means to making the film have a more timeless quality. Again from his diary on making the film:
Three years ago, the concept of Fahrenheit 451 was an SF film, set in the future and backed up by inventions and gadgetry and so on. Now that we’ve had James Bond, Courrèges, Pop Art – and Goddard, by God, yet – I’ll cut off at a bit of a tangent too […] Obviously it would be going too far to make Fahrenheit 451 a period film yet I am heading in that direction. I am bringing back Griffith-era telephones, Carole Lombard-Debbie Reynolds-style dresses, a Mr. Deeds-type fire-engine. I am trying for anti-gadgetry–
This was probably a good choice on Truffaut’s part. Nothing ages faster than visualizing the future. Nevertheless, his depiction of the wall-TV is inevitably disappointing to a viewer today. The TV in Truffaut’s film amazingly resembles the type of flat-panel TV that is ubiquitous in our homes today. To a viewer in 1966, when a big TV meant a huge cabinet to contain it, this might have seemed impressive, but it hardly matches the immersive experience Bradbury depicts in the novel, where noisy interactive reality-TV literally surrounds the viewer, who in turn begins to perceive the broadcasted Soap-opera characters as a “Family” more real than those in their own life.
In Bradbury’s novel, all the technology he depicts reinforce the theme that men and women are becoming mechanized, automated, and indistinct from the machines that are supposed to serve them. Books in Bradbury’s view offer the antidote, because they are the repository and transmitter of the great ideas and ideals of humanity. In other words, books represent what makes us human. Truffaut seems less concerned with the mechanization of humans, and more with the antisocial isolation that apparently occurs when mindless rejection of books, and the truths contained in their stories, occurs.
In several odd scenes we see monorail passengers or park visitors hugging themselves, stroking their fur coat, or even kissing their own reflection, in a disturbingly unselfconscious public display of physical narcissism. For Bradbury, abandoning the life of the mind leads to mechanical and reflexive behavior, and a deep unhappiness masked by an insatiable search for pleasure through distraction. For Truffaut, the absence of the inner life as represented by books, leads to an intensely self-focused desire for sensuality and superficial satisfaction of the animal passions. As he explained it, he had
[…] an idea that could be expressed visually in different small details that could be inserted here and there. I hit upon narcissism. Quickly I had a bust of the Captain made in plaster and placed beside his desk. […] In the sequences in the overhead suburban train, I shall show a passenger who strokes [her] cheek with the wrist like a child asleep, another kissing her own reflection in the window.
The idea that pervasive technology might be used by a perpetually warring police state to placate and control the population is distinctly minimized in the film. The Mechanical Hound, which threatens and ultimately chases Montag after he commits his crimes, functions as a warning to the ways in which society can substitute technology for conscience and responsibility. This is entirely absent from the film, like the atomic bomb. Likewise, the “male nurses,” as Truffaut calls them in his diary, which come to the aid of Montag’s wife after a drug overdose, are explicitly mere technicians in the novel. They employ a frightening snake-like robotic device to clean the poison from the insides of the victim, in a dehumanizing mechanical process that is memorably described in the novel, but only hinted at in the film.
Truffaut’s film sustains an interesting conceit that begins with the opening title sequence, where the credits are spoken aloud rather than printed in words on the screen. Other than the words seen in books which are burned or smuggled home and read by Montag, this is a world without text – everything is either numbers, symbols, or pictures. It provides a neat cinematic means for demonstrating the dearth of books in this world (even Montag’s newspaper is comics strips with no word balloons or captions), but of course it begs the question, how could Montag read the books he smuggles if there are no words elsewhere? Bradbury’s novel does not contain this logical gap – Montag’s wife has a script to read along with the TV program, and there are rule manuals at the fire station. It is not that there are no words, but that there are no ideas, no poetry, and no stories containing significant truths, outside the vapid and incoherent lives of the TV “Family.”
Truffaut’s film was made around the same time as his famous book on Hitchcock, and his assistant during the making of this film in English, a language he did not speak well, was Helen Scott. Scott was also his interpreter during the Hitchcock interviews for his book. (A review of Kent Jones’s 2015 documentary about this meeting and the book can be found here.) Hitchcock’s influence can be found throughout the film, including in a matching dissolve between Werner and Christie’s characters, which echoes a famous shot in The Wrong Man. There is a nightmarish tracking zoom shot in the school of the type pioneered by Hitchcock. And most notably, Truffaut employed Hitchcock’s greatest musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, to score the picture. The score is striking and effective throughout, and evocative of both his score for Vertigo and Psycho. Of additional note to film buffs, the cinematographer on this film was Nicholas Roeg, who went on to a very successful career as a director himself.
One of the most notable changes, which Bradbury himself apparently approved of, was the decision to alter the role of Clarisse, the little girl who opens Montag’s mind to the world of ideas and nature. Truffaut has her survive until the end of the film, joining Montag in exile among the “book people,” those who become books by memorizing them and passing them down through oral tradition. Remarkably, he also chose to have both Montag’s wife (Linda in the film, Mildred in the book) and Clarisse played by the same actress, Julie Christie. This conceit almost works, but is again diminished in strength by Oskar Werner’s performance. Truffaut wrote that Werner was “overplaying the misogyny” of Montag towards the wife, whom he wanted to view more sympathetically. Werner then attempted to make a Clarisse more of a love-interest for Montag, which was strictly opposed to the intentions of Truffaut. Truffaut’s conception was in line with Bradbury, who described a “love affair not with the girl next door, but with a knapsack of books.” Clarisse was to open his eyes to a worldview in opposition to the sad existence of Montag’s wife, not to oppose her directly as a rival for his affection. Though Truffaut described the way he would edit the film to counter those aspects of Werner’s performance, the impresssion is still left if only due to the contrast of the way he treats the women.
So Truffaut’s film, while imperfect, and not wholly realizing its aims, is still interesting, technically sound, and often beautiful to watch. The rousing and memorable score by Bernard Hermann, and excellent performances by Cusack and Christie, mostly offset the issues caused by Werner’s performance and the questionable choice of semi-rural setting. It is definitely a film that deserves to be seen more widely, and is a fascinating counterpoint to Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece.
This post is tardily submitted as part of the Beyond the Cover – Books to Film Blogathon, hosted by Now Voyaging and Speakeasy blogs.