Guy Montag is a firefighter who lives in a lonely, isolated society where books have been outlawed by a government fearing an independent-thinking public. It is the duty of firefighters to burn any on sight. The people, including Montag's wife, are drugged into compliancy and get their information from wall-length television screens. After Montag falls in love with book-hoarding Clarisse, he begins to read confiscated books.
While Isaac Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt and Robert Heinlein were happy to sell to Amazing Stories or The Magazine Of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Ray Bradbury was appearing in The Saturday Evening Post. His contemporaries were lucky to meet the geeks at sci-fi conventions and be plagiarised as tacky Z-features (Heinlein's The Puppet Masters was ripped off as The Brain Eaters), but Bradbury attracted serious literary attention for collections like The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. The film of his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 was directed by no
less than Francois Truffaut.
Perhaps because it was his first film in English and he suffered a major falling-out with his Jules Et Jim star Oskar Werner during production, but Truffaut himself was never very fond of Fahrenheit 451. Most people who have written about it find it a hard movie to like, either because they feel the sci-fi elements let down Truffaut's humanist vision or because the director doesn't stick closely enough to Bradbury's. One piece of acute criticism came from George Bluestone, who noted that Truffaut could never quite work up the horror necessary to convey Bradbury's nightmare vision of a bibliophile society because, for him, the cinema was the sacred art/entertainment form.
He would have made a much more passionate film if the premise had been a world which banned and burned movies (we do glimpse Cahiers du Cinema and Chaplin's autobiography going up in flames along with Sartre, Nabokov, Dickens and MAD Magazine). Bradbury's novel, like George Orwell's similarly-plotted Nineteen Eighty-Four, is less a credible depiction of a future society than it is an allegorical satire on the present. This means that its points about McCarthyism or 1950s vulgarity are well-taken, but a film adaptation has to take seriously a story that never really tries to be credible. Clearly, a fascist society based on the suppression of books is a ridiculous premise — totalitarian governments take mass media over rather than take them away.
Why does everyone in this book-hating world learn to read? How does a book-hating fireman know the names of famous authors? What about songs or plays? Who writes the scripts for the banal soap operas? And how come it is so easy to leave the city and escape to join the rebels in the idyllic countryside? —- an influential non-ending followed by George Lucas' THX-1138, Blade Runner and the film of The Handmaid's Tale. Nevertheless, the film has a quiet creepiness that remains effective even though its future vision looks almost quaint now with its 1966 sparkliness (courtesy of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg).
There is a hint in the double-casting of Julie Christie as fireman Montag's pill-popping zombie wife Linda and the crop-haired rebel teacher Clarisse (echoed by the more audacious dual role longtime movie Nazi Anton Diffring takes as Montag's nastiest fireman comrade and Clarisse's collaborationist headmistress) that we are not supposed to take everything we see literally. The best aspects of this horrid world are shown with a satirical streak that prefigures Terry Gilliam's Brazil: the ambulance men who talk like plumbers and call round to calmly pump the wife out after a drugs overdose; the pillar-box red fire station with a trundling fire engine that whisks flamethrower-wielding, black-clad firemen off to start blazes of books; the dissidents who are given away because their house features no actual television aerial.
Werner may be stiff in the Winston Smith role, but Christie is interesting twice, and Bee Duffell has a great cameo as the woman who'd rather burn herself than live without her books. The finale, after Montag has rebelled by turning his flamethrower on his boss, is also more poetic than believable, as the hero joins a country commune of "Book People", who have devoted their lives to memorising their favourite texts (Montag chooses Tales Of Mystery And Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe). The image of these muttering souls milling around in the snow is indelible, at once absurd and touching, acknowledging the bleakness of the present but expressing hope for the future.
From time to time, Mel Gibson makes noises about re-adapting the Bradbury book he would do well to reflect that, for all its problems, Truffaut's film is probably the best that could be found in the material and, in its best moments, one of the cinema's