Fahrenheit 451

WFTB Score: 4/20

The plot: Montag is a fireman, a job in which he visits houses and sets fire to any literature that he finds. Books are considered dangerous, causing unhappiness and subversion amongst the population, and those found hoarding them are destined never to be seen again. However, turned off by his soporific wife and fascinated by a bright, unconventional teacher who lives nearby, Montag begins to explore the literature himself, discovering a new world but placing him and those around him in mortal danger.

Although it is routinely labelled as science fiction, Ray Bradbury’s short novel Fahrenheit 451 is barely more an example of the genre than George Orwell’s 1984, using a vision of the future (and guessing at some technological advances that might be made in it) to make a contemporary point, in this case the importance of cultivating and maintaining the love of diverse literature in an age where vacuous television threatens to destroy the population’s capacity to think for itself. The point is as valid now as when the novel was written in the 50s or when François Truffaut’s film was released (although TV has been shown to have its benefits); however, given that film, like TV, is a visual medium and therefore part of the problem in Bradbury’s eyes, the novel’s defence of the written word was always likely to be best represented by the written word.

Nonetheless, Truffaut makes a clever start with the credits spoken over a profusion of TV aerials growing like weeds from houses, before sending Montag (Oskar Werner) out to an English estate to do their work under the leadership of captain Cyril Cusack, their bright red fire engine spewing kerosene over a barbecue of literature. In as much as he ever seems anything (see below), Montag seems quite content in his work, but a conversation with free-thinking neighbour Clarisse (Julie Christie) gets him thinking, in strict contrast to his conversations with his wife Linda (Christie again).

Linda talks about nothing except her relationship with ‘the family,’ the always-on television programmes that play on large wall-mounted screens throughout the house and offer an element, however empty, of interactivity. All Linda wants is to get a second screen in the main room for total immersion with her ‘cousins’ and pills to regulate her mood – even when these nearly kill her, the next day she is up and about with no reflections on her experience to offer.

When Montag and the crew find an old woman harbouring a large library of books and she chooses to be burnt along with them, he begins to question what secrets the literature holds and starts to read for himself, much to Linda and her friends’ disgust; the danger he puts himself in forces him to flee, eventually meeting up again with Clarisse and her group of ‘talking books,’ all of whom have memorised literature to be able to pass it on, safe from the torches of the firemen.

Although it doesn’t quite come together, it’s hard to criticise much of Truffaut’s vision of the future, even though some of the tricksy editing (jumping zooms, transitions to showing half the screen only) appears to exist solely for its own sake. The fire engine is quick, if a little Trumpton-esque to my British eyes; the trick with the firemen sliding up the pole is well executed, and the flat-screen televisions that feature in the Montags’ house are almost eerily prophetic. The use of the experimental Monorail is also a brave idea, even if scenes including it never quite match up with shots of where Montag and Clarisse live (they get off the Monorail in the middle of a (French) field!).

On the downside, the police informant boxes and bollards both look very silly, the never-specified location tells us much more about 1966 England than any dystopian future, and a ‘flying’ squad which looks for Montag late in the film when he is on the run is utterly hopeless; this dreadful effect is especially annoying since it takes the place of the Mechanical Hounds that were presumably too tricky to create for film, but are the source of a great deal of the tension in Bradbury’s novel.

This issue might easily have been overcome by the performance of Montag, who after all makes a huge personal journey from thoughtless book-burner to manic book guardian, discovering new universes, emotions and modes of expression every time he opens a new work. In Oskar Werner, however, Truffaut has cast a man who (for me at least) cuts the film dead. Speaking English adequately but stiffly, and portraying no emotion in either face or voice, Werner’s Montag remains as impassive and immutable as a firebrick, whether he is moved, scared, or turning his fireman’s torch on his colleagues.

The adequate efforts of everyone around Werner – Christie is perfectly good in two roles, even if the gesture is redundant – are completely ruined by his inertia. When he begins to read David Copperfield, we should get a sense that Montag is excited but scared of his own subversiveness: as it is, we only worry that he’s about to nod off at any moment. The fault must lie with Truffaut, who imposes a European feel on an English-language film (loading the screen with books featuring Jean Genet, Salvador Dali etc.), possibly without the experience of English to know when a scene is working and when it is dragging terribly.

Given the virtually unwatchable central performance, complaints about the lack of detail about why society has become like this, and who is in control, or the essential naffness of the ending (with people not reading to each other, merely reading aloud to themselves – who learns anything from that?) become rather piffling. Truffaut may be a legend of French cinema, of cinema worldwide in fact, but this English-language effort is a slow, dull trial to watch, hence the score. For all its many faults, given that it has some drive, purpose and a motivated central character, I would gladly watch the similarly-themed Equilibrium rather than Fahrenheit 451 any day. As there is supposedly a new version in production, I can only hope it will strike the right balance between making a point about modern culture and film-friendly action.

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