The faults of François Truffaut’s 1966 film Fahrenheit 451 are mostly the faults of Ray Bradbury’s novel on which the film was based. Bradbury’s book is about a future society in which books are banned and the job of firemen is to burn books. There are small communities of people living in hiding who memorise books in order to save them. Firstly it’s hard to imagine a society that bans all books – they would be banning books that supported their policies as well as those that opposed them. And secondly the idea of people memorising books stretches credibility. The book also (as is usual with Bradbury) demonises city life and idealises rural life.
Truffaut’s film is a huge improvement on the book. It lacks the cloying sentimentality that ruins so much of Bradbury’s book, and it has style. Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography is stunning, and the music (by the great Bernard Herrmann) works beautifully. There are very few of the usual science fiction trappings. Truffaut doesn’t need them – although the world of Fahrenheit 451 looks like the contemporary world the people in this world are clearly different and it’s obvious we’re dealing with a society that has changed dramatically. Not everybody likes Oskar Werner’s performance as the hero, Montag, but I think it’s very effective. He’s clearly not comfortable with his life or his job or the society he lives in. He knows he doesn’t quite fit in, but he doesn’t know why. I think he brings out the character’s isolation and alienation very well. . I’ve been reading Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider, a study of the outsider in literature, and Montag fits the profile of such an outsider perfectly. He is haunted by feelings of unreality. He feels cut off from the rest of society. He feels cut off from his own wife. There’s a crucial moment in the film when Montag asks his wife where they first met, and she can’t answer him. This really drives home to Montag his sense of unreality. It also shows that for people in this book-less society the past has no meaning. But Montag cannot live without a past. And when he goes to the fire station and the pole that is supposed to whisk him up to the upper level of the station won’t work for him. It doesn’t recognise him, it’s as if he no longer exists.
Julie Christie plays two roles. As Montag’s wife Linda she really is disturbingly determined to be normal. Cyril Cusack as the fire captain is both avuncular and chilling. The best way to enjoy this movie is not to worry too much about the plot – it’s the images and the moods that are important, and that’s where the film’s real strengths are. It’s still a very good film. Highly recommended.