Fahrenheit 451

 

Despite quite old-fashioned, with sets and costumes that now look rather vintage, the film Fahrenheit 451, filmed in 1966, still does justice to the homonymous novel by Ray Bradbury, though betraying it several times. Through a less wordy synthesis, and a little more invention, Truffaut’s movie manages to convey the American author’s message with a rare effectiveness, just using the power of images and without the need for explanatory monologues. Like the opening credits, that are told by a voice-over and not written as usual (in a future society where books are banned), while a mass of television antennas appear to highlight how, in a show business society of pre-Debord  yet post-apocalyptic, images have replaced the written word. It almost anticipates to the fires that will follow. The plot of the film, as well as the book, is very simple: in a future when reading is forbidden, firefighters are bound to burn the books and, if necessary, their possessors; Montag, who according to the law of retaliation is just one of the firefighter, becomes an avid reader of the few books he manages to save, and, wanting to spread the contagion of reading, is reported and therefore becomes an outlaw. Hunted, he seeks salvation outside society.

Despite the production problems and the criticism that destroyed the film when it was released (when science fiction films were classified as B movies beforehand), Truffaut managed to complete a masterful adaptation, thanks to the music by Bernard Herrmann (composer borrowed from the beloved Hitchcock), never intrusive and fully functional, and to Nicolas Roeg’s photography – soon to-be director – with its elegant and soft mellowness and richness in color contrasts. But essential to the film are also the catatonic acting by Oskar Werner, perfect symbol of a society that’s been deprived of independent thought, and the performance of Julie Christie, both in the role of Mildred, Montag’s wife, and Clarisse, the young governess who instills the seed of doubt in the fireman, a dualism already highlighted by Bradbury when describing the similarity of the two women.
If anything, flaws can be found within the limits of the production: the three big wall screens of Bradbury’s novel, in which Mildred immerses herself in, become one screen, big for its time but nowadays ordinary; and the absence of the robotic mastiff that, in the literary version, becomes a real character, once again a metal and circuits symbol of the repressive society (but in 1966 the making of a credible mechanical dog would have been difficult even for Hollywood). In contrast, the missing monologue of Captain Beatty, Montag’s superior, is cleverly replaced by a series of  lines that fulfill its purpose; and the absence of Faber, the professor who helps Montag in his rebellion, is effectively surrogated by a greater incisiveness of Clarisse’s character, that we meet at the end of the film (but not in Bradbury’s masterpiece), in a romantic and credible corollary that Truffaut, a master in representing stories of  amour fou, could not miss.

The last missing element in the French director’s movie is the impending war, that in Bradbury is a constant presence, as in Orwell’s 1984, and that in the end turns out to be real and extremely destructive. But, if in the novel the new society revives from the ashes of the previous war (in fact the book was released in Italy with the title The years of the Phoenix), Truffaut cultivates a more naive hope and, perhaps, even a more noble one, giving us an ending that touches absolute heights of poetry, and that publicly aroused the admiration of Bradbury himself.

Fahrenheit 451 is a flawed and magnificent film. It’s not even remotely the best of Truffaut’s works, yet even today, through the power of images, it effectively communicates the discomfort caused by an absolutism that destroys without creating anything valuable in return, and the hope that change can happen but it will always be triggered from the bottom: institutions are too busy preserving themselves rather than taking care of salvation as well. Granger, a book-man, says in the end of the novel: «We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run».

Translation by Sara Sasso** (edited by Sara Di Girolamo)

[1] Guy Debord (1931-1994) was a theorist, writer, and filmmaker, whose best known works are his theoretical books, Society of the Spectacle and Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. In his analysis of the spectacular society, Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished, with such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected, and there’s also a degradation of knowledge, with the hindering of critical thought.