Firemen don't put fires out; they start them. They burn books,
all books, at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. One day, Montag, a rising
star at his local station, begins to question his work. As
he becomes an illegal reader, he drifts further away from
his wife Linda and finds himself attracted to Clarisse, a
woman who also believes in the written 'world'. But his colleagues
would dispute Fahrenheit 451's status as a classic
sci-fi novel. But as a film? A new feature-packed region 1
DVD asks us to take another look.
its release in 1966, François Truffaut's adaptation of Ray
Bradbury's book was panned. It was the French director's first
film in English, and many felt that his difficulties with
the language helped make the end result soulless. There were
further attacks on his decision to cast Julie Christie in
a dual role where, critics claimed, the only real difference
seemed to be the length of the characters' hair.
But the coup de grace was delivered by Bradbury's fans,
who moaned that the Frenchman had ditched important elements
from the original, ranging from its backdrop of impending
war to the Mechanical Hound that narcotically exterminated
'evil' readers to, perhaps most important of all, the ambiguity
of the ending.
Nearly 40 years later, claims are being made for the film's
rediscovery and elevation alongside the novel in the sci-fi
pantheon. In truth, they do not all stand up. It is obvious
that Truffaut did have problems with the switch from his native
A director renowned for simplicity and economy - and who had
a self-professed hatred of science fiction - here sometimes
seems to struggle with the material. Some scenes fail outright
or slump suddenly. After this experience, apart from dropping
the occasional exchange in English into films such as Day
for Night and The Story of Adele H, Truffaut spurned
other Hollywood offers. He regarded Fahrenheit 451
as a failure until his tragically early death in 1984.
the good in this film far outweighs the bad. In a pre-2001
era, when even supposedly thoughtful sci-fi movies opted for
bombast and Day-Glo sets, Truffaut held to the more subtle
approach that had made him a leader of France's nouvelle
vague and box office champion in the world's arthouses.
technique is established early on. Truffaut's future is not
that different from his then present, in terms of how characters
dress and speak, and the look of their surroundings. It's
almost a parallel rather than a future society.
we get a mixture of 1960s Pierre Cardin/Mary Quant and early
Barrett-style housing. While these homes have wall-sized TV
screens, the presenters on them stick to the received pronunciation
that prevailed on the box at the time. And it is all lit in
oppressively realistic tones by Nicolas Roeg (later to direct
Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth).
The three lead actors give carefully shaded performances.
Oskar Werner (Montag) may not have been on speaking terms
with Truffaut by the end of the shoot, but proves absolutely
perfect as the man who goes from burning novels to becoming
a walking book. Werner's speciality was repressed characters,
so even though he was a last minute choice, he knew the role.
His ghostly frame adopts an occasionally halting delivery
and awkward movement that beautifully signal Montag's inner
Cusack, the veteran Irish actor, got the 'fun' part, as the
Captain of the Fire Station. Any reader of the novel will
know that the Captain/Beatty has to be convincing when he
sets out his world's reasons why books are dangerous, even
a source of depression. Make him a pantomime villain and you
have failed. Cusack is anything but. He is the serpent - only
this one doesn't want you to eat the apple.
Christie makes the parts of Linda, Montag's indolent and drug-ridden
wife, and Clarisse, his bookworm mistress, distinctive while
also playing on their essential similarities (an accident
of fate that arose when no second actress could be found before
shooting began). This duality is not in the novel - its Clarisse
is much younger, a mere teenager for Bradbury, and disappears
early on - but Truffaut and Christie invent from necessity
to underline the point about the cancer within this filmic
dystopia that could threaten our society. Ultimately, ignorance
or knowledge is an individual choice - open the bottle of
pills or open a book.
concentration on the contemporary appears to have been his
'key' to the story. By bringing the tale as close to his own
time as possible, he found himself more able to overcome his
dislike of the genre and then concentrate on themes of personal
and intellectual freedom, while filming his own love letter
to literature. This 'contemporary' approach has also, most
likely, been the reason why the movie's reputation has grown,
as we have got closer and closer to the nightmare.
can read the book and envisage another distant world - three
atomic wars have passed by the time the novel begins - but
in the film, the parallels today to a society where sanitised
'interactive' TV quells a population, and where questions
are deflected by spin and other forms of 'presentation', are
more closely drawn and thereby more obvious and chilling.
There is talk of a new film adaptation, currently earmarked
for Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, but
Truffaut's version still does the job. In fact, it does it
so well that book and film today feature together on a number
of high school curricula in the US.
the DVD, Fahrenheit 451 is handsomely presented by
a new anamorphic transfer and a crisp 2.0 Mono Dolby Digital
soundtrack - showing off yet another brilliant Bernard Hermann
score - with subtitles in French and Spanish. But it is the
extras that make this a particularly desirable disc (so be
warned that an earlier 'vanilla' version is also still in
40-minute documentary looks at the making of the film, with
important contributions from Bradbury, producer Lewis Allen
and editor Thom Nobel, as well as a Truffaut specialist. Two
other featurettes, each about 15 minutes, look in greater
depth at, respectively, the original novel and composer Bernard
Hermann's work on the film.
All three are packed with detail that enhances the viewing
experience and a further benefit is that the film is now so
far in the past, the contributors feel free to be extremely
candid - particularly on the Truffaut-Werner rift. Truffaut's
detractors, however, will get a greater surprise on hearing
how Bradbury has warmed to the movie and now backs many of
the structural changes the director made.
feature commentary, featuring all the documentary contributors
as well as Julie Christie and the DVD's producer, suffers
from often covering much the same ground as the documentaries,
although Christie's often passionate attacks on the role of
the media today and repression within 21st Century society
do again highlight that this is a story that still has much
Finally, there is a good collection of stills and an alternative
credit sequence. In both the original film and this 'option
two', no written titles appear, but the credits are spoken.
It is just that, in one case, the job went to a man and, in
the other, to a woman.
aficionados might not be too surprised to find that the whole
package was overseen by Laurent Bouzereau - also the man behind
discs for Spielberg and Lucas, as well as reissues of classics
such as Laurence of Arabia. He does not get a name
check on the box, but given that he is becoming the imprimatur
of high quality for this format, maybe he should.
classics, in particular, Bouzereau seems to concentrate on
films for which he has some personal passion - here, he even
recounts a tale in the commentary of the time he saw, but
was too scared to speak to Truffaut. As such he plays that
vital role of enabling you to look at a film with fresh eyes.
Ironically, this disc is the kind of interactive TV that does
make you think.
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