Fahrenheit 451

WHAT DOES BIG BROTHER WANT?  Big Brother wants people to be happy, and books don’t make people happy.  They are filled with lies, made-up stories, silliness, sophistry and fake drama.  Why do so many people insist on being unhappy?

  Montag (Oskar Werner) burns books for a living.  He’s comfortable and respected, but he is also is bored and mopey.  He craves intellectual stimulus.  His wife, Julie Christie, is a babbling idiot and the TV is filled with political fiction, propaganda and nonsensical gibberish.  He finds his desired stimulus in the form of sexy neighbor Julie Christie (again with the sexy neighbor — if there were not attractive women in futuristic dystopias, there would never be any rebellion at all!) and, less cinematically, in the pages of Charles Dickens.  When that turns out to be asking too much, he wants to get out of town and keep the literary flame alive.

WHAT DOES THE REBEL GET?  A whole heap of trouble.

DOES THE SOCIETY CHANGE THROUGH THE ACTIONS OF THE REBEL?  Not to any measurable degree.  But the protagonist does find a way to rebel that has some positive effect and yet adheres to the letter of the law.  Wait — the rebels want to adhere to the letter of the law — and that’s their brilliant idea?  What the hell kind of movie is this?

NOTES: Handsomely produced and well-intentioned, it’s hard to get excited about this movie.  There is no drama or conflict to its argument, there is no “other side” to it — who would make a movie promoting the burning of books?  This is not to say that there should be an “other side” to a movie about totalitarianism, but even The Matrix allowed that there would be some people who would be happier living in pink goo with an electrode in their brain.

Wait a minute — why are some of the day’s leading cinematic lights making a movie that encourages people to spend their time reading books?  Obviously the position of film in the minds of the world’s teenagers was in a much more secure position at the time.

Truffaut (wait — this lumbering, earnest, dour, leaden, humorless, stilted movie is directed by Francois Truffaut? [author shakes head vigorously, Bugs-Bunny style]) itseems, made this movie about reading books in order to indict what he saw as a greater evil — not book-burning or totalitarian government but television.  One day, mark my words, there will be a video game about a society intent on destroying films.

The occasional sparks of cinematic interest, like subtle use of backwards-motion and the dead-end double-casting of Julie Christie as Idiot Harpy/Sparkling Intellectual don’t do much to raise the pulse of this movie.  Its heart is in the right place, it’s just not beating very strongly.

By the end of the movie (spoiler alert!) Montag’s wife has left him, he’s burned his supervisor alive and he’s on the run from the law.  He finds a commune in the woods (commune in the woods!) where the people memorize books in order to keep them alive until the dark ages lift.  I always liked that idea, a little community where each person’s job would be to memorize a book.  I always felt that if it came down to it, I would pick Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.
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18 Responses to “Fahrenheit 451”
  1. popebuck1 says:

    I think the awkwardness is due in part to Truffaut uncharacteristically directing a film in English – when his English wasn’t too strong. Heaven knows, none of his other movies are quite so peculiarly stilted. (Though maybe that was his idea of making a “sci-fi” picture, too.)

    But Ray Bradbury himself wrote the screenplay! And he liked the speech he gave Montag’s boss so much (where he explains how the whole society came about, and admits that he OWNS tons of books – but never ever reads them, just on general principle!) that he went back and wrote it into later editions of the book!

    • Todd says:

      Well, number 1 on the list of things that don’t work in the movie is all the goddamn explaining. The very first scene, a long, long expository scene where the “good” Julie Christie interviews Montag about his life and times and why he does the things he does and what he thinks about them and gosh, was the world always like this, all done in one long traveling shot, is just cinematic death. Similarly, Montag’s boss’s speech is just that — a speech. Truffaut’s lack of English notwithstanding, why did a master of behavioral cinema sit still for such uncinematic writing? And what in God’s name possessed Bradbury to insert a plug for his own book at the end of the script, elevating his writing to that of Dickens and Bronte and Chaucer?

  2. popebuck1 says:

    I just checked IMDB, and my information was incorrect – Truffaut himself co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Louis Richard. Bradbury DID go back and insert a version of the Montag’s-boss speech into the book after the movie came out, but he didn’t write any of it.

    According to IMDB: “Director Franį¯Šs Truffaut was so eager to begin filming that he and co-writer Jean-Louis Richard wrote the screenplay before they had fully mastered English. Ultimately, Truffaut was disappointed in the awkward, stilted English-language dialogue; he was much happier with the French-dubbed version, which he supervised.”

    Which still doesn’t explain the horrendous amounts of undisguised exposition, which I assume would have the same content in the French translation.

    My best guess? Truffaut, working in an unfamiliar genre and in English, just had an off-day with this movie. As he himself said in “Day for Night”: “When I start filming, I hope to make a good movie. By the time filming is over, I’m just hoping to make a movie.”

    • greyaenigma says:

      New contest!*

      Name movies based on books that somehow disappointed… but then turned out to be written by the author!

      – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
      – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1977)
      – Fahrenheit 451

      Of course, there’s varying degrees of “written by”, as I understand it, Dahl was upset by the changes in the ’77 film. (I learned this through research after being challenged on calling the remake truer to the book.) And while HGttG was a disappointment in some ways it was still fun and brought a tear to my eye. (De mortuis nil nisi bonum.)

      * Not a contest.

      • popebuck1 says:

        “Willy Wonka” was in 1971, not 1977. And yeah, even though Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay himself, he always disavowed it afterwards. Which is weird, because I always loved that movie and thought it was SO wickedly funny! I think Dahl’s specific grievances had to do with the stuff he was forced to change from the book, due to the special-effects technology available at the time. (Stuff that they were able to correct in the new version, such as having Veruca Salt attacked by the squirrels instead of the geese.)

        She didn’t write it herself, but P.L. Travers was also upset at what Walt Disney did to her “Mary Poppins” books when they made the movie – apparently, the new Broadway version restores a lot of the darker material that Disney left out.

        • greyaenigma says:

          Oops. 1971. I was rushing.

          I also loved the Wilder version, and I’ve been meaning to re-watch it since the re-make came out, but my movie watching time is slim these days. It does make me wonder what DNA would have though of the final version of the Hitchhiker’s movie.

    • Todd says:

      Truffaut himself co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Louis Richard.

      That’s what I thought. Well then, I retract my complaint about Bradbury’s screenplay and heap all the blame upon Truffaut. That bastard, where does he get off, pretending to be a master filmmaker?

  3. greyaenigma says:

    Considering the attractive woman as the key to undoing dystopias, I’m remidned of Sheldon’s The Screwfly Solution, which deals with the same key in a distaff apocalyptic scenario.

    I really didn’t like this movie. (Of course, I wasn’t impressed with Alphaville or Solaris either, maybe I am American after all.) I should watch some more Truffaut movies to get the taste of of my mouth. At least I’ve got a copy of Close Encounters

    One day, mark my words, there will be a video game about a society intent on destroying films.

    Hah. Well, that gives me a project to work on.

  4. monica_black says:

    I never got past the first thirty minutes of the film because I adored the novel and the fact that they didn’t kill his neighbor (who’s name I can’t remember) irked me and I found that the beginning differed too much from the book.

    But I read somewhere that they’re doing a remake

  5. craigjclark says:

    This was the first Truffaut film I ever saw. Of course, I’m sure for a lot of Americans this is the only Truffaut film they’ve ever seen, so I’ve always been thankful that I got to see Day for Night on my local pay cable channel (remember those?) soon after. Sure, it was the dubbed version, but that was enough to make me think the guy actually knew what he was doing sometimes.

    Still, it’s hard to fault Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography. Julie Christie sure showed up in a lot of the films that he shot in the ’60s, didn’t she?

    • Todd says:

      This was the first Truffaut film I ever saw.

      Same for me, although I probably didn’t know it at the time — I was shown it in high school as a kind of reward for reading the book.

  6. ndgmtlcd says:

    Yes, I agree with your comments on the failings of this film, which I’ve seen several times, yet for me its greatest fault is that it does not convincingly depict a police state.

    Another fault is that there is practically no action, save for the shots where we see the fire truck off to work, a few book burnings and the last minutes of the film, after Montag burns his boss.

    This is supposed to be a movie about book burnings and a police state, but these two are never exploited fully, as the film drags on and on. In contrast, Spielberg gives us the essence of one of the most infamous police states (Nazi Germany) and its book burnings in a few action packed minutes in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.

    Despite all this any mention of the movie (or Truffaut, or book burnings in a future society) immediately brings to my mind Bernard Herman’s orchestral string piece for the fire truck movements.

    • Todd says:

      I think Truffaut was trying to get across the idea that, for the most part, everyone is okey-dokey with the whole police-state idea, to the point where they don’t even realize that it’s what they’re living in. But it’s true, dramatic stasis is one of the movie’s greatest flaws.

      Jeez, now with everybody piling on, I feel sorry for poor ol’ Fahrenheit.