Fahrenheit 451

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 11/07/05 16:48:55

"Fahrenheit 451: The temperature at which paper burns."
3 stars (Just Average)

A minor classic of 20th-century dystopian fiction (e.g.,"The Handmaid's Tale," "A Clockwork Orange," "1984," "Brave New World," "We"), Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" has been adapted for film only once, by French filmmaker François Truffaut ("Jules and Jim," "Shoot the Piano Player," "The 400 Blows") almost forty years ago. Critics and audiences reacted with either indifference or outright hostility to Truffaut's first (and last) English-language film. Unfortunately, "Fahrenheit 451" suffers from languid pacing, a loosely structured script, and low-key performances (all of which make "Fahrenheit 451" a difficult watch for most viewers). On the plus side, "Fahrenheit 451" constains striking production design, arresting imagery, and a lush, effusive score by Bernard Hermann ("North by Northwest," "Vertigo," "The Man Who Knew Too Much").

Like Bradbury’s novel, Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is set in a recognizable near-future, but one in which all books have been banned, due to the dangerous ideas they contain and the independent thought they foster. To that end, books are banned and lawbreakers are threatened with imprisonment (or worse). Law enforcement takes the form of fire brigades. In Bradbury's dystopia, firemen are tasked with book burning (fireproof buildings have otherwise made “firemen” obsolete). Mass entertainment brought into living rooms by interactive television sets and over-the-counter drugs are used to keep the population pacified and social interactions to a minimum.

Guy Montag (Oskar Werner), a fireman seems unmoved by the prospect by the prospect of a promotion offered by his superior (Cyril Cusack). His wife, Linda (Julie Christie), obsessed with the television programs she watches incessantly, can't wait to purchase a second wall-mounted television set with Montag's promotion bonus. Linda also uses drugs to control her moods. On his way into work one day, Montag meets Clarisse (Julie Christie again) on the monorail that takes him to and from work every day. Clarisse, it seems, sees through Montag's facade and pushes him to confront hard questions about his identity and his role in an oppressive, repressive society.

Over the course of Fahrenheit 451, Montag's behavior radically shifts, in no small part due to his repeated encounters with Clarisse and the seduction posed by the books he comes across. He rebels, taking one book, Charles Dickens' David Copperfield home one day, voraciously reading it in one sitting. One infraction leads to another, with Montag struggling with his inner doubts about the career he's chosen for himself, his status-conscious wife's disapproval, and his superior's increasing suspicions about his erratic behavior. Montag is ultimately tempted into open rebellion by his encounter with an old woman and a secret library.

Montag's personal and external journey ultimately takes him into contact with the "Book People," individuals who save books by memorizing them completely. Whether Montag finds sanctuary or is captured by the powers-that-be or their representatives is better for patient viewers to discover for themselves. Suffice it to say that a nationally televised manhunt foreshadows Stephen King's The Running Man, as well as the less lethal reality shows that have flooded the airwaves over the last five years, plays a significant role in Montag's future (i.e., whether, in fact, he has one).

It's in the final twenty minutes, after the passive Montag is finally stirred from inaction, that Fahrenheit 451 becomes compelling viewing. Whether it's the not-so-subtle digs at network television (or the need for closure, even if manufactured, and therefore untrue), or finally, the vision of the sanctuary of the Book People reciting books to themselves and one another as snow falls near a lake, Truffaut gives his lyricism free reign. Certainly, the preceding scenes are meant to evoke a cold, antiseptic, humorless world (aided by the modernist production design and Truffaut’s decision to use a desaturated color palette), but they also tend toward the episodic, the superfluous or the repetitive.

Given Fahrenheit 451's fairly straightforward anti- censorship theme, it could have benefited from more external conflict instead of the interior conflict it relies on. Truffaut also gives the romantic subplot involving Montag and Clarisse little screen time. It's one aspect of the script that could have benefited from expanded or one or two more scenes (or simply better tighter, more cohesive scenes).

"Fahrenheit 451" suffers from the same problems a younger Truffaut once criticized in the pages of "Cahiers du Cinema," an approach to literary adaptations that places fidelity to the source material first and foremost, with the unique demands of cinema a distant second. Perhaps Truffaut treated "Fahrenheit 451" too seriously, as a great work of art with a profound theme. Truffaut would have been better served by taking the more free-form, associative approach that made "Shoot the Piano Player," an adaptation of a melancholic crime novel by pulp writer David Goodis, far superior to "Fahrenheit 451." Unless the much-delayed remake actually gets greenlit by a Hollywood studio, for now Truffaut’s film will remain the definitive version of Bradbury's novel, if only by default.

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