François Truffaut, the champion of children and misfits, was the perfect writer/director to lead the way in bringing Ray Bradbury’s classic, “Fahrenheit 451,” to the screen. If Bradbury had tapped into the anxiety and conformity attached to the dawn of the television age with the publication of his novel in 1951, then by 1966, Truffaut was making the case with all the more evidence. To make the point in a fresh way, for the time, we begin with various close-ups of TV aerial antennas superimposed upon brash colors.
While the novel took its time and then subtly lured you into a book burning, the film jumps aboard a fire engine truck right away and we see the firemen in action. Each element of the novel, of course, is sped up for the sake of the film’s narrative which remains faithful to its visual medium while honoring the print medium. There’s one scene where our main character, Guy Montag, is literally reading a book, his finger slowing passing over each word, the camera closing in and gradually panning over each word. In fact, we see much more than books in flames. We see many titles, complete with covers and various spines. We linger over a book on the art of Salvador Dali as each page slowly turns.
In a society where those in control have outlawed books, and waste no time in ferreting out and burning books, it is best to forget how to think. But Guy Montag, a capable book burner, a fireman on the rise within the police state, cannot help himself and he thinks. Not only that, he reads books. He may have managed to remain a secret bookworm but a friendship he strikes up with Clarisse (played by Julie Christie), a young woman next door to him, sets him on a far more daring path. His wife, Linda (also played by Julie Christie), pales in comparison to the inquisitive and energetic Clarisse. What’s wrong with Linda? Well, she has no problem with the status quo. She embraces the worship of television. And she eagerly participates in interactive television, eerily familiar to whatever interactive thing you might be into today.
Julie Christie is impressive as both Montag’s wife and would-be mistress. And Truffaut does well with this psychological playing with the audience. We find ourselves both despising and cheering for two sides of a coin. With his wife, Linda, Montag is lost. With Clarisse, he is placing himself in great danger. But, in the end, should he choose risking death or risking remaining alive but dead inside? What is best, conformity or rebellion?
Ray Bradbury’s classic receives quite a fitting adaptation in this film. As we’ve recently seen with Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” a classic can be revamped to look and feel like a current dystopian franchise. As more of a wondrous fable than anything else, “Fahrenheit 451” offers something outside an easy category and that’s what Ray Bradbury intended it to be.