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Non-Review Review: Fahrenheit 451

It always struck me as strange that there should be such a fuss about adapting Fahrenheit 451. After all, a book about how great books are, and how they are inherently superior to anything that any other media can offer (film and television included) seems a strange choice of subject matter for a big-budget science fiction film. Still, Francois Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation isn’t all bad… just a little strange.

Book 'em, boys...

The basic plot, for those unfamiliar with Bradbury’s iconic science fiction story, is that books have been banned. Montag is a “fire man”, but that doesn’t quite mean what it does to you or I. Montag goes around burning books. In this film, this is somewhat heavy handed, because he’s played with a heavy Austrian accent by Oskar Werner and walks around dressed entirely in black – as if the rather obvious mid-twentieth century fascist parallels weren’t strong enough already, with the use of “informers” to rat out suspected book readers.

It’s your standard science fiction dystopia and it’s rather stylished rendered. The use of bright primary colours for backgrounds and nifty motor vehicle designs (as well as some dodgy “jetpack” related special effects) make it obvious that the film is the product of the sixties, but that’s not a bad thing. The style and design of the film are warm and engaging, and suit the subject matter – the use of bright colour in contrast to the oppression taking place. There are some other nice touches which hint at an almost surrealist style to the film, especially with a quick cut to a Charlie Chaplin look alike when Montag is discussing “tramps” populating the wilderness.

Burning curiosity...

Being honest, I do wonder why Oskar Werner was cast in the lead role, though. It isn’t that he gives a bad performance – he’s entertaining and emotive, which is what you need. However, his heavy accent is quite distracting. Not least of which because the film seems to have relocated Bradbury’s novel from America to England, and everybody else has such clear and crisp diction. There’s a moment in the film where, discovering the joys of reading, Montag cracks open a dictionary to find the meanings of words that have faded from use – however, the power of the scene is undermined by the fact that Montag simply might not know the words because he’s not a native English speaker. It’s a small complaint, especially when Cyril Cusack gives such a delightful supporting performance.

The movie is solidly constructed, and relatively well-paced. There were a string of movies produced through the sixties and seventies built around the idea of a futuristic fascist society, so Truffaut’s film needs to come us with something that allows it its own particular style or identity amidst those many similar films. I think it succeeds, if only because it feels so consciously “pop”, like the fascist future by way of Andy Warhol’s nightmares.

Too hot to handle...

There are also some nice moments in there concerning reality television (again, as with films like Rollerball, it was way ahead of its time). Indeed, the movie also seems to land some pretty major and scathing criticism of soap operas, as people gather around the cathode ray tube to watch a really banal two-person drama about the stress of organising a dinner part – in which the audience at home is asked to speak to the television, when prompted by the characters. “I gave all the right answers!” Montag’s wife boasts, happy with herself, seemingly unaware of the fact that the show isn’t real and that it doesn’t reflect her life (in fact, she’s so deluded that she things she’s starring in show by speaking to her television).

However, while these are valid criticisms of those particular types of shows, I find it fascinating that the story is so centred on making allegations about entire forms of media. The film never addresses the issue of government or authority, or who is holding this power or outlawing books, so it seems very much to be a discourse in which “books are good” and “television is bad.” Which seems, to me, to be a very precarious argument, much like all those criticisms we used to hear about the internet being the root of all evil. You get the sense that Bradbury’s problems were with television itself, not with particular shows or production methodologies, but the very idea of television as opposed to film.

Take it as red...

The suggestion the film seems to make is that any book is inherently superior to any television show. It’s not just the burning of high literature which is tragic – for every copy of Jane Eyre or Catcher in the Rye, Traffaut is honest enough to include a M.A.D. Magazine digest or a book of Spanish crossword puzzles. One could make the argument that these sorts of books are just as vacuous and empty as any banal reality television.

While the movie suggests that the “book people” are keeping culture alive by memorising the works of Shakespeare or Jane Austin, what of scripts for films like Citizen Kane or It’s a Wonderful Life? Surely those stories are just as deserving as preservation? And why do they memorise plays as books, why not keep them alive by performing, rather than reciting, them? What of paintings like Guernica?

All burnt out...

Then, perhaps, I am wandering off the beaten path. You could argue, and you’d be entirely right, that the story is one about the horrors of censorship and the impact of “dumbing down”, but I’ve always been fascinated by this belief held that books are an inherently superior artform. Stories and ideas exist outside the written word, and are important to preserve in any way possible – however, the key point of Fahrenheit 451 seems to make is that books have a monopoly on them. It seems a strange observation to make when these people plan on keeping books alive by putting them inside of people – which is an acknowledgement that ideas are transient and can take any form. I’d argue it’s better for Shakespeare to survive while being acted out, instead of dictated. Still, that’s beside the point.

It’s a nice little film, stylishly made and with some nice big ideas. It’s well made and clever, too. I especially like the decision to read the credits aloud, thus underscoring how the written word has been made obsolete. It’s quite clever. It’s very 1960’s, but that’s certainly not a bad thing.

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