Fahrenheit 451 (1966) – Francois Truffaut

The 101 Sci-Fi Movies brings us this Ray Bradbury adaptation, by legendary French director Francois Truffaut.

A world where the written word and books are outlawed because they disturb people, create feelings of longing, joy, sorrow… I wouldn’t get along very well there that’s for sure. I love my books.

Truffaut creates the world right from the beginning, there are no opening credits to read, the titles are spoken instead.

The world the film is set in is bland, people are dull caricatures of everything that makes us who we are, both good and bad. They lose themselves in mindless television, a steady stream of pills and drugs. Everyone is equal, and everything is mundane.

Oskar Werner plays Guy Montag, a fireman, who along with his companions, hunt down and burn illegal materials in the form of novels, books, poetry, any and all things that are created from the written word.

Because the written word is not equal, the experience one takes from a book, is unique to that person, the simple meaning of a word can have different connotations for people, and if that happens, then the experiences and existence of civilization is not equal.

Julie Christie takes on the dual role of Montag’s dull, and drugged, wife Linda as well as the criminal Clarisse, whose entire family is seemingly embroiled in books, keeping hidden one of the largest libraries some of the firemen have ever seen.

Montag becomes tempted, however, and finally spirits a book home, and is entranced as he stumbles through the opening words of Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield.

The further he progresses down the path of literacy (though this raises an interesting question… despite never having had a book in his hands before, and writing being banned… how could he read at all?) he begins to see that his life and the lives of those around him are not as full, or interesting as they could be. They are all existing not living.

His potential promotion is stripped away from him as he falls more and more under the spell of the written word, and his own rediscovered individualism.

Truffaut, working from Bradbury’s source material has crafted an intriguing film about the power of the written word, and humanity’s power of imagination, and also our acceptance of complacency (everyone except those on the outskirts of society seem happy to live this banal existence).

I’m troubled by the film’s ending, there is hope in the fact that the words of the stories and books live on, but, the loss of the physical copy of it bothers me. Montag learns from Clarisse that somewhere, up north, there is a colony of ‘Book People.’ These people have memorized a book each, and become that book, and then pass on the tale through rote and memorization to an apprentice or offspring.

That’s all well and good, but what if the book dies accidentally? And as the tale gets passed down, from generation to generation I am sure there is going to be loss of text, even with memorization.

In a little nod to the original author though, I got a chuckle out of one of the Book People being The Martian Chronicles. That was a nice touch.

Truffaut created a nicely realized world, informer boxes, wall screens, a benign totalitarian state. and I was enjoying all of it… until towards the end of the film when Montag is being hunted by his own, and there are a trio of him pursuing him with some sort of hand-held rockets, the special effects on this sequence actually knocked me out of the film. The rest of the film worked nicely, a rather dated look at a futuristic world, with phones in every room instead of having a portable one, the hanging train track, the interactive television.

The one thing that troubled me is the way Montag’s character worked, one moment he’s doing his job, and the very next he’s started smuggling books home, there’s no real struggle with temptation he simply does it. Once he becomes engrossed in the world of books his performance is much more understandable. Perhaps that’s the point though. Before hand, Montag is almost an automaton, he does his job, and lives his life, done and done, it’s not until he brings a book home that he becomes more emotional and, well, human.

So read a book! And stop ignorance and the possibility of a banal existence, there are worlds out there to discover, all at our fingertips! (And there’s your PSA for the day!)

What did you think about it? What is your favorite Truffaut film? What’s your fave book?

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