Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Jean-Louis Ricard and Francois Truffaut, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury
Starring: Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring
Running Time: 112 minutes
Genre: Science-fiction, satire, drama
Summary: In the near future, reading is highly illegal and all books are banned, on the grounds that they "make people unhappy", and firemen are employed not to fight fires (all homes are fireproofed) but to find and burn illicit stashes of literature. The populace are kept docile by pills and endless bland, interactive television, as well as magazines containing dull pictures and no words. Montag (Werner) is a fireman who lives with his wife Linda (Christie), who wants nothing more than a second wall-mounted TV screen. One day, Montag meets a strange young woman named Clarisse (Christie again) who asks him whether he has actually read any of the books that he burns. Out of curiosity, Montag smuggles a novel home and begins to read, soon finding himself hooked on the joys of literature, and questioning all the ideals and convictions by which he has lived his life.
Opinions: The idea of Francois Truffaut, one of the leading lights of the New Wave movement in French cinema, filiming one of the works of science-fiction legend Ray Bradbury is an intriguing one, and Fahrenheit 451 is arguably Ray Bradbury's best novel and is definitely a modern classic. However this is not one of Truffaut's best films. Bradbury is not an easy author to adapt to another medium, his poetic turn of phrase while reading well on the page tends to sound unconvincing when spoken. Also this was Truffaut's first and only English language movie, and he claimed it was his "saddest and most difficult" film-making experience. This was mainly due to his antagonistic relationship with Austrian leading man Oskar Werner, with whom Truffaut had previously worked with on Jules and Jim (1962). Originally Terence Stamp was cast in the lead, but he dropped out because he thought that Julie Christie's dual roles would overshadow him. Werner wanted to play his part as more conventionally heroic, while Truffaut wanted a more hesitant performance. Truffaut thought that Werner's performance was "robotic" and wanted him to play it as if he was just discovering the books for the first time, sniffing at them and wondering what they were, but Werner commented that since it was a science-fiction film he should play it as a robot. Werner gives a very stiff performance and it's very obvious that he is uncomfortable with the English-language dialogue. By the end of shooting Truffaut and Werner were not speaking to each other, and Werner had his hair cut before shooting his final scenes in order to create a deliberate continuity error. Julie Christie does fairly well with her two roles, having long hair as the sedated Linda Montag and sporting a fetching pixie cut as Clarisse, who provides much of the film's heart. Cyril Cusack also does well as the slimy Fire Chief, Montag's boss.
The future world of the film was shot on location in Britain, which viewed today makes it look a very old-fashioned future. The production is very much a product of it's time, and does look and feel inescapably late sixites. The director of photography, incidentally, was Nicolas Roeg who went on to become a noted director in his own right. However the film has many evocative images and some elements work very well. For example the opening credits are spoken rather than appearing as on-screen text, helping to introduce a world without the written word.
Look out for copies of the novel Fahrenheit 451 as well as Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and an issue of Cahiers du Cinema, the influential magazine which Truffaut used to write for, among the burning books.
The adaptation is fairly faithful, although Truffaut was unhappy with what he felt was the stilted and unnatural English dialogue and preferred the French dubbed version. However most of the film's dialogue problems are more to do with the source material. It's no masterpiece but contaisn enough interesting stuff to make it worth checking out.
The title, incidentally, refers to the temperature at which apparently book paper catches fire and burns, although in reality it is 340 degrees Centigrade (842 degrees Fahrenheit).
Cyril Cusack and Oskar Werner in Fahrenheit 451