Ray Bradbury’s best-selling science fiction masterpiece about a future without books takes on a chillingly realistic dimension in this film classic directed by one of the most important screen innovators of all time, the late Francois Truffaut. Julie Christie stars in the challenging dual role of Oskar Werner’s pleasure-seeking conformist wife, Linda, and his rebellious, book-collecting mistress, Clarisse.
Montag (Oskar Werner), a regimented fireman in charge of burning the forbidden volumes, meets a revolutionary school teacher who dares to read. Suddenly he finds himself a hunted fugitive, forced to choose not only between two women, but between personal safety and intellectual freedom. Truffaut’s first English language production is an eerie fable where mankind becomes the ultimate evil.
Fahrenheit 451 8.0
The time: the future (unspecified) The place: America (location unknown)
Based on the Ray Bradbury novel, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ takes us into a world of grand-scale censorship and a mass media-dominated populace. While Bradbury has gone on record stating that he only wanted to discuss the impact of television on the reading of literature, his vision was very much a portal into the 21st century, where people are more and more “connected” by technology and yet more “distant” from their lives and each another.
The core of the story is about a man who is part of an emergency unit that burns books (which, in this reality, are outlawed!), and how he starts seeing another side of the life he was socially conditioned to accept. Troubled by the state his spouse is in, even though she has fully integrated society’s dictates, he starts wondering if knowledge and individual thought aren’t actually worthwhile. His intellectual curiosity piqued, he begins to ask questions and also decides to start reading the very books he is tasked on destroying.
‘Fahrenheit 451’ tackles the old idiom that “ignorance is bliss” – and it’s as timely a topic as ever, now that we have an overwhelming information age, wikiality and opinion journalism passing off as fact-based reporting. It also brings up the individual’s complicit role in that downward spiral, by pointing out how easy it is to be complacent and choosing to swallow what one is told without question or even a hint of incredulity. Furthermore, the film begs the question: what does it take to be happy?
So the story certainly has a socio-political edge, and it’s hardly surprising that François Truffaut was so compelled by it that he spent six years trying to get it made; it’s a thought-provoking and challenging tale. And, being the filmmaker that he was, Truffaut also naturally challenges his audience: with his editing choices and the construction of his film, he forces the viewer to pay attention and, despite the fact that these techniques make the film look severely dated, manages to get its points across.
On the downside, however, are the acting and the production. The film is weakened by what appears to be a pretty low-budget: while some of the set designs were probably tailor-made, many elements are reused bits from everyday items – and it shows. As for the acting, the two leads are pretty wooden and relatively unpalatable (it’s not the case for all the cast, so it’s likely not Truffaut’s fault). Julie Christie is hard to watch as she sleepwalks through her dual roles, and Oskar Werner, who (it is claimed) purposely scuttled his performance to anger the director, couldn’t be less charming.
Still, in the end, the story and the theme overcome any weak points that this production suffered. Even if it is an unusual hybrid of Ray Bradbury and François Truffaut, ‘F451’ has not only become a literary classic, but it remains a standout science fiction film.