Fahrenheit 451

(UK - 1966)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring, Anna Palk
Genre: Sci-Fi
Director: François Truffaut
Screenplay: Jean Louis Richard, François Truffaut, from Ray Bradbury's novel
Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Runtime: 112 minutes

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A really bleak picture of the future is painted here, with government regulation turning almost all the citizens into mindless zombies. The communist like premise is that the only way people can be happy is if they are all the same, but really it just makes them lifeless. The film specifically focuses on the elimination of all books (literature being the symbol of freethinking), as the main character Montag (Oscar Werner) is a fireman. In this world where homes are fireproof (although seemingly this is forgotten later on), firemen go around burning all the illegal books they can unearth. Julie Christie plays two roles. She's the useless wife who (like most others we assume) lives on government medicine that breeds complacency and for substanceless "interactive" (much like today's "reality") television. Also, she's the traditional schoolteacher who is fired, we think, because those methods are no longer acceptable.

This cautionary tale was adapted from a classic Ray Bradbury novel. Now that I've read Bradbury's fine work, which has a 1984 kind of eerie fortelling of the future, the film is that much more of a disappointment. Truffaut pretty much only adapts the first third of the book, which is really only the catalyst for getting the Montag character to realize he isn't living and try to do something about it. As far as the movie is concerned the source material, or what was used of it since Truffaut and co. believed the director is the author, is the weak point. It doesn't give us much to think about because it's so obvious that the world is terrible, and in such cases we know the road the movie will travel. It's no surprise that Montag is converted to the world of books, and thus rebels against his employers and tries to change things.

There is an important lesson to be learned from the core of the film, but it would have been much more interesting if it wasn't so black and white. With the extreme example everyone agrees this society is awful and dismisses it as something that can't happen. In reality, while I'm not saying it will come to this, there is a slow and insidious erosion process that is rooted in politics and the media. Granted this was made 35 years ago, when a critical thinker wasn't categorized as an elitist snob so often, but mindless, pointless, and substanceless garbage is all over television and the theatres because people keep watching and paying for it. At the same time, a film that might actually persuade someone not to use drugs like Requiem For A Dream is not granted an R rating, and thus not shown in most areas. Consider that the type of person who would go out of their way to get to see the movie is much less likely to use drugs in the first place. It's not just movies that are "too intense," it's the whole idea that the must see films are not the ones that make you think at all, they are the pointless effect laden action flicks that aren't good and have nothing to say. This is not to say that every action flick is bad by any means, but just look at the difference between John Woo's Hong Kong flicks where he dealt with important themes like friendship, brotherhood, loyalty, honor, sacrifice, and redemption. He retained his exceptional visual style when he went to Hollywood, but that was about it.

Due to the anti-intellectual uniformity of the world, it's no surprise that the performances aren't too lively. The problem here is that almost no character gives us much reason to care about them. The human books are nothing to aspire to because your whole life is keeping every word of the book stored in your head. That's not the fault of the actors that play them, but while it's nice that there's some people who care enough to do it, this life might even be less desirable than the one they escaped from. The most "likeable" is probably the woman who goes up in flames because, while we can debate the stupidity of her action, she dies with what she believes in.

One wonders why it was deemed necessary for Julie Christie to play two roles (she's usually annoying enough in just one since she tends to plays her iconography of a spoiled rich woman). They have opposite points of view and different hairstyles, but otherwise there is not much difference between them here. That's a great loss from the book, where you had a young adult full of life and brimming with energy and exuberance in comparison to a brainwashed middle aged zombie. Neither woman is in the book all that much, the young one is a major character only in the effect she has on Montag.

Obviously some people will get into the story more than I did, but even if you don't the film is still worthwhile due to the people behind it. This was Francous Truffaut's first English language film and first science fiction, so it's not his best work but he is a great director and his piece is still true to the new wave. Truffaut wisely got a strong crew to back him up, most notably cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (who went on to direct such classics as Walkabout and Bad Timing) and composer Bernard Herrmann, fresh off a dispute with Hitchcock (Herrmann's score for Torn Curtain was rejected on studio advice, ending their partnership and resulting in Hitchcock never quite generating the same level of intrigue and suspense).  The two do the best work, and their combined effort makes the film consistently compelling. Some people think the film looks dated today, but I'll take the intellectual artistry of Truffaut & Roeg over fake looking CGI effects any day. Either way, there's no denying Herrmann's score is one of his great accomplishments, which is to say one of the greatest in all of film. It's exceptional in showing the emptiness and loneliness of this world.

The beginning is brilliant with the zoom ins on the antennas, each shot in a different shade, giving off the audio signal of who is behind the movie since written word is essentially banned. In the end, it's footage like this that, along with the overall message, that makes this a worthwhile viewing experience.  



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