Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is a film that pleased almost no one when it was released. Truffaut fans felt it lacked the spontaneity and warmth of his previous films. Science fiction fans were puzzled by the lack of futuristic technology. Today we’re more sympathetic to the virtues of this unusual Truffaut movie, which was his first color film, his first studio film, his only English-language film, and his only venture into science fiction.

Just two years later, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would portray another version of the future that lacked human warmth. In retrospect, Truffaut’s emphasis on the societal rather than technological ramifications seems a better fit for the theme of intellectual repression, which is at the center of both the book and movie.

The story is told through the eyes of Guy Montag (played by Oskar Werner), a fireman who doesn’t put out fires — he starts them. Firemen in the future destroy books because the written word is banned. No one is allowed to own or read books. In a wonderful conceit, the opening credits are read to us, as though the rules have spilled out from the story onto the medium itself. Nowhere on the screen will you see a printed word.

In an interview published in the book Françoise Truffaut by C. G. Crisp, Truffaut said he was drawn to the story because of his affection for reading and concern over institutional censorship:

The theme of the film is the love of books. For some this love is intellectual; you love a book for its content, for what is written inside it. For others it’s an emotional attachment to the book as an object. . . On a less individual and intimate level, the story interests me because it is a reality: the burning of books, the persecution of ideas, the terror of new concepts, these are elements that return again and again in the history of mankind. Once, they were expressed cruelly, openly. Now they are manifested more obscurely, more discreetly, but more dangerously.

The critics didn’t care much for this film in 1966, though Ray Bradbury praised Truffaut for having “given a new form to my book while remaining true to the spirit of it.” Today most film historians view this movie as a flawed work with cinematic elements that don’t always succeed. Bernard Herrmann’s restrained musical score and Nicholas Roeg’s color choices that pit conformity (red and black) against pseudo-individuality (yellow and blue) are perhaps too subtle. And while the characters too-often fail to connect emotionally with the viewer, the film does have its share of emotionally satisfying ideas and images.

Odds are you’ll savor the ending and find comfort in Truffaut’s optimism that the creative impulse will endure.

Fahrenheit 451
(1966; directed by Françoise Truffaut; cable & dvd)
MCA Home Video
List Price: $14.95

Monday, June 14 at 3:45 a.m. eastern (late Sun. night) on Turner Classic Movies