Based on his short story The Fireman, in the 1953 publication of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury predicted a futuristic world where television and mood altering drugs rule. Likewise, in Bradbury's nightmare, reading is not only banned by the government but firemen are also employed to burn any of the “antisocial” textual elements being hidden by citizens.
Seemingly inspired by not only the horrific Nazi book burnings of World War II but also the Cold War era of the 50’s that Bradbury worried was going to lead to books becoming extinct, the novel and indeed the resulting 1966 film from director Francois Truffaut seem timelier today.
And you're able to sense the immediacy within moments, given our current contemporary society where flat screen televisions similar to the ones he described adorn our walls and you can’t open a magazine or turn on the television without seeing an ad for medications designed to alter whatever seems to be troubling us from E.D. to allergies to depression.
In fact, Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont who is working on a newer version of the film was quoted on Wikipedia from an MTV source in saying that the book is “more relevant today than [when] it was published … [as] “George [W]. Bush has made this the most relevant piece of literature ever written.”
In his first film shot entirely in color and the first and only film recorded in the English language, director Francois Truffaut reunited with his Jules and Jim leading man Oskar Werner. Werner stars as Guy Montag, a hardworking fireman who begins to question his blind adherence to governmental laws after he befriends Clarisse (Dr. Zhivago's Julie Christie) his beautiful, free-thinking neighbor who loses her position as a schoolteacher due to her quintessential nature to ask "why."
Montag’s wife, also played by Christie, becomes horrified by her husband’s increasingly daring behavior when he makes the decision to read one of the books he’s asked to burn and finds himself forever changed by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield which propels him to rebel against what has become the dangerous fascist norm.
Beginning with a commanding credit sequence that sets the tone by having the titles read aloud by a narrator in keeping with the text-free setting (a la Altman's M*A*S*H), soon we feel so deprived of reading that we find ourselves not only reading the name of every book ready to be burned but also longing to go to our bookshelf once the film is completed to curl up with one of our favorites.
Incredible cinematography from director of photography Nicolas Roeg (who would later direct Christie himself in Don’t Look Now) along with a tense score from acclaimed Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrman adds to the film’s Hitchcockian feel which makes sense given its 60’s creation when Truffaut, who’d been working on his memorable book Hitchcock/Truffaut would eventually release his ode to the master of suspense, The Bride Wore Black.
Perhaps most indicative of Hitch’s Vertigo given a strategic dream sequence that echoes one Jimmy Stewart experiences in the aforementioned film along with his decision to have a leading lady play dual roles-- similar to the way Hitch utilized Kim Novak-- the film’s artistically superior style helps elevate it from its obvious shortcomings. Namely, it suffers a bit from its low Fahrenheit temperature via the inherently icy air and the stilted dialogue penned partly by the director who had struggled with the English language and “was much happier with the French-dubbed version, which he supervised,” (IMDb).
Recently, I hosted a screening of the film to coincide with the fascinating “Fighting the Fires of Hate” traveling exhibition sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. And in that particular showing held in a library, I was once again reminded of Bradbury’s love of libraries and books that prevailed to such an extent that his text “was written in the basement of UCLA’s Powell library on a pay typewriter,” (Wikipedia).
This love of the written word no doubt found a like-minded champion in Truffaut whose autobiographical Antoine Doinel series, that began with 400 Blows, also emphasized literature. Likewise, several of the books burned in the film were not only favorites of the director himself (and some speculate that they may in fact have been his books) but in viewing their destruction, the audience feels as outraged as he must have felt watching the pages curl up into ash at 451 degrees Fahrenheit since books seem like friends in the eyes of bibliophiles.
“When you burn books, eventually you burn people,” an attendee poignantly observed in our post-film discussion and it’s this terrifying realization in our increasingly televised world dependent on reality shows, youtube and iPods that makes the film, as Darabont noted, all the more timely today.