François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is generally ranked so low in the director’s canon that if you genuinely like it the impulse is not so much to praise it as defend it. There’s no getting around that it’s an odd film which many people find laughable or boring or both. It was awaited in its day with high expectations, being the director’s first color film, his first English language film and his first (and last) venture into science fiction, albeit of the soft and low-tech sort favored by its story’s creator, Ray Bradbury.
Even dissenters agree that Truffaut delivered handsomely on the color part, though much of the credit there usually goes to cinematographer and controversial director-to-be Nicolas Roeg. The dialogue has been criticized as being stilted, but it’s only as stylized as befits a fable. There is a carelessness about the narrative but that didn’t seem to bother too many people in the case of Shoot the Piano Player (another Truffaut-adapted novel) — but then Fahrenheit 451 is a book that a lot of people have actually read.
It’s a vastly overrated book too, a rather silly cautionary tale written in the early ‘50s by someone alarmed by the spreading and insidious influence of television. Bradbury envisioned a future where everybody was kept brain-numbed by a wholly visual culture and books were burned as a matter of course — the title refers to the temperature at which paper bursts into flame. Its hero, Montag, is a fireman, a professional book burner whose curiosity leads him to join an underground society of "book people" who preserve the printed word by memorizing whole novels. With my luck, I’d be assigned something by Tom Clancy.
Truffaut imbues this Luddite fantasy with that blend of wistfulness and austerity which would come to full flower in mature works such as Two English Girls (1971). Oskar Werner is properly intense as Montag; Julie Christie, in a dual role, is effectively pathetic as both his drugged-out wife and his connection to the underground; and the whole thing is wrapped in one of Bernard Herrmann’s most exquisitely romantic scores this side of Vertigo.
That’s my defense and I’m sticking to it.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].