Francois Truffaut’s film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 isn’t usually found on the top of French New-Wavers favorite Traffaut films (400 Blows and Jules and Jim usually occupy those spots), so as a film critic who isn’t too fond of the new wave, maybe that’s why I think of it as Truffaut’s best film and a bona fide science-fiction classic. It’s also the only Truffaut film, or any film made by a new wave director for that matter, that I’ve watched multiple times.
I think the distant and surreal approach of the new wave, while appearing stilted and fake when it comes to drama, work perfectly with science fiction. That’s why I think the best new wave films happen to be in the science-fiction genre. I’m a big fan of Chris Marker’s La Jetee, later remade as 12 Monkeys, and the only Goddard film I find remotely tolerable is Alphaville, his only quasi sci-fi effort.
But Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 has a special place in my science-fiction beating heart. I’m in a minority of people who loves the book and the movie equally for different reasons. A lot of the criticism laid on the film by the book’s fans, I happen to like. I think that the casting of Julie Christie in both lead female roles adds the perfect amount of lucid dream-like feeling and that Oskar Werner’s wooden performance actually works to complement Montag’s disorientation and disillusionment.
Apparently, Truffaut and Werner hated each other during filming and clashed constantly on how Montag was supposed to be portrayed. It might not have been Truffaut’s original plan, but I think the apparent lack of tone and consistency in his performance is perfect to disorient the audience.
One of the most eerie qualities of the film is how successful it was in predicting our docile, emotionally detached and tech-addicted modern world 46 years ago. For example, the TVs in the film look very similar to our modern day giant HDTV flat screens. Keep in mind that back in 1966, all televisions were in the square 4:3 format and were usually around 13 to 20 inches diagonally. The TVs depicted in the film are in the rectangular 16:9 format, like HDTVs, and are as big as the 50 to 100 inches we are accustomed to today.
Multiple televisions or screens of any sort in one household was also unheard of back then. Yet in Fahrenheit 451’s dystopia, there’s a flat-screen TV in practically every room. There are even small portable TVs. When I think about how many screens there are in total in my house today, on which I can watch movies or TV shows, I come to realize how on point this prediction was. We have one HDTV, one projector, two laptops and two iPhones. For those who doesn’t like math, that comes out to 6.
Another prediction depicts out current addiction to prescription pills designed to keep us docile and happy, free from all worries or independent thought. This can be found in scenes about Montag’s wife who does nothing but pop happy pills and watch TV. At one point, her addiction to the pills become so severe that she becomes unconscious because of an overdose. No problem though, the social workers inform Montag that she will sleep for a long time and when she wakes up, she will be happy and very horny.
The best scene in the film, in my opinion, is the speech given by Montag’s fervent captain (Brilliantly portrayed by Cyril Cusack) about why books are evil and they all must be destroyed. His main point is that books make people miserable and anti-social in a totalitarian society where everyone strives to be equally unresponsive and dull.
He points at novels, calling them made-up drivel, exciting adventures that makes the reader feel sad about their own existence. He calls writers self-obsessed narcissists, whose only motive in writing is to prove how much more superior they are to everyone else. He points to a lot of beloved classics that are cherished by generations but one final genius stroke from Truffaut at the end of the speech puts his fascist, bigoted and antagonistic speech into more of a grey area. “We must burn the books”, the Chief says. He holds up a copy of Mein Kampf: “All the books”.
As close as the book and the film were in predicting our modern world, at least we still live in a society where books exist. Well, for a while anyway, until the e-book market completely destroys it. But then we will still be able to read words on some kind of device. Considering the meaning of Fahrenheit 451, isn’t it a bit weird that the latest Kindle is called the Kindle Fire?