Fahrenheit 451 (region 1 edition)

Starring: Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack
Universal Studios Home Video
RRP: $14.99
Certificate: PG
Available Now

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 are watching...

Few 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.

On 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 tongue.

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.

However, 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.

This 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.

So, 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 conflicts.

Cyril 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.

Julie 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.

Truffaut's 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.

You 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.

On 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 circulation).

A 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.

A 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 to say.

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.

DVD 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.

For 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.

Paul Dempsey

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