As a youngster with a post-Star Wars interest in sci-fi, but with no access to actual films other than random tv screenings, reading about them in actual books was one of the few ways to get educated. Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451, sounded great; my novel has a lurid picture on the cover of a mechanical dog, venom dripping from a single retractable spike in its mouth. No such creature appears in this 1966 film, the technology to realise such a creative image didn’t exist back them. Armed only with a bungalow, a French monorail and some helmets, this vision of the future may not have rivalled 2001 for visual whoomp, but then again, Bradbury’s notions of where we’re headed are hardly ‘gosh-wow’ dream fuel.
This kind of sci-fi isn’t for kids; Oskar Wener plays Montag, a fireman, which is to say a man who starts fires, and the fuel on the end of his flame-thrower takes the form of books. Books have been deemed to be the root of all unhappiness and evil, and banned by the authorities, so all copies are illegal, and Montag begins to wonder why. He’s caught between two poles; his wife Linda (Julie Christie) leads a vapid existence, endlessly entertained by her interaction with her home video walls, while his neighbour Clarisse (also Christie, with a different hairdo) has a literary bent. Will Montag go with the unfamiliar, or sink back into his brainless life, and will he get caught by his suspicious boss (Cyril Cusack).
What I didn’t appreciate as a youngster is how well Trauffaut manages to suggest an illiterate culture; even the credits here are spoken. Montag reads, but reads comics, and internet’s simulation of choice is predicated by the bland interactive soap-operas Montag’s wife watches. This tone is caught in an adult way, while more exciting elements, like the flying policemen, are poorly imagined; Truffaut’s heart doesn’t seem to be in the space-opera angle. This version also suffers from the struggle to realise the ending; a secret society of readers who have memorised their favourite books might sound good, but looks kind of Monty Python on screen.
Werner, Christie and Cusack all do good work here, and Fahrenheit 451’s ultra-drabness makes a real point; the future may not be so bright we have to wear shades after all, in fact, it may be so boring that we have to watch tv to find any meaning. We should be reading books too; like Orwell, Bradbury understood that whoever controls the past, controls the future, and despite its dated flaws, and they are many, this crude, abridged version just about gets the message over the line.