Chapter no 10

Fahrenheit 451


e finale, with the fine Bernard Herrmann score, shows the Book People moving in a snowfall through the woods, whispering the lines from all the books they have remembered. is ending has never failed to move audiences.

e film ends on this high note, and one leaves feeling you’ve seen more than was really there.

—Ray Bradbury




Arthur Knight (1917–91) was a highly influential motion picture historian whose survey of movie history, e Liveliest Art: A Panoramic History of the Movies (1957) became a leading film studies textbook. He wrote regularly for e Saturday Review and Playboy, and taught in the film program at the University of Southern California from 1960 to 1985. Ray Bradbury was an occasional guest lecturer in these classes, and together Knight and Bradbury formed the core leadership of the Writers Guild of America, West, Film Society during the 1960s. Knight was a dedicated opponent of censorship, and his December 3, 1966, Saturday Review analysis of François Truaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 demonstrates a deep understanding of the challenges involved in translating Bradbury’s novel into film.


Arthur Knight

Although Ray Bradbury is often described as a science-fiction writer, he himself tends to shy from that label, preferring to be known simply as a writer. ere is more than ordinary justification for this view. Bradbury is enormously enthusiastic about writing, but not enthusiastic at all about the brave new world he fears the scientists and geneticists have in store for us.

Like George Orwell, he projects the more alarming symptoms of today’s sicknesses upon a wall a few decades or generations away, where, magnified to super life-size, they scarifyingly dominate the entire landscape, blotting out the human spirit, exorcising our most cherished human values. But where Orwell in his angry works seemed to call for action now to prevent the world from slipping into Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bradbury often conveys the impression that already it is far too late. His nostalgia is for the small-town America of back porches and rocking chairs, of fresh-mown lawns and nearby woods in which to ramble. For him, science is no panacea, and he seems to embrace science fiction writing as a kind of “Mene, mene, tekel . . .” of things to come.

All of these qualities are abundantly visible in Fahrenheit 451, François Truaut’s vivid and imaginative adaptation of one of Bradbury’s best, and best-known, works. It postulates a not-too-distant time in

which books are outlawed enemies of the state: they stir dissent and unrest; they make people unhappy. For a placid, non-questioning, utterly passive populace, the books must be destroyed.

Montag, the hero of this story, is one of the destroyers, a fireman-in-reverse whose job is to start fires. (Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper turns to ash.) Meeting a teacher who reminds him disturbingly of his own wife, Montag begins to wonder about the job he has been doing so unquestioningly. If books are so bad, why do people jeopardize their careers to read them? If books are so dangerous, why are some people willing to give up their lives for them? For an answer, Montag rescues a copy of David Copperfield from the pyre, reads it clandestinely, and is denounced by his wife to the government. e fireman finds refuge in a community of subversives who read and memorize books to preserve them for the future.

is, of course, is Bradbury the humanist, the writer who holds that man truly exists only when he is exercising all his senses and exerting all his faculties. But the Orwellian strain is present as well in the omnipresent television screens with their uninterrupted flow of tranquilizing pablum, in the drab uniformity of the people’s costumes and their responses, and in their dead apathy to news of war and disaster. Truaut embraces Bradbury and Orwell with equal enthusiasm—which means that there is some ambivalence within the film itself. Logically, the book burners are quite right; and if happiness is to be equated with wall-to-wall television, soma pills, and (Bradbury’s favorite panacea for transportation snarls) high-speed monorails, then indeed who needs books? On the other hand, because Bradbury lacks Orwell’s political bite, the book burners remain peripheral to the theme of totalitarianism even while occupying screen-center; they are but one singular manifestation of a larger danger that is surely sensed but never shown.

As a film, Fahrenheit 451 moves slowly but intriguingly, setting its intellectual snares for Montag, fashioning a world that we all know could exist but should not. Oskar Werner, his accent unaccounted for, makes of Montag a reluctant hero, a sensitive man drawn ineluctably, irresistibly to the world of books. Julie Christie, also unaccountably, plays the dual roles of teacher and wife—which, as it turns out, is neither a plus nor a minus. But Truaut, working for the first time in color, continues his romance with the motion-picture camera, playing with slow motion, maskings and movements, and constantly keeping the screen as alert and




aware as Bradbury’s own sensibilities would dictate. e resultant film is highly original, thought provoking, and at the same time distressingly superficial. e dangers that lie ahead are not from the book burners, but from those who may direct them; and somehow Fahrenheit 451 never gets around to this.



Universal Studio’s promotional bookmark was distributed for the 1966 release of François Truaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451is was Truaut’s first color motion picture as well as his first English-language production, and it took nearly six years to finance and film. e production credits on the reverse include Bernard Herrmann’s acclaimed musical score, the innovative and influential cinematography of Nicholas Roeg, and the dramatic pairing of Oskar Werner and Julie Christie. Werner had recently starred in Truaut’s award-winning Jules and Jim; Christie, who portrayed two roles in Fahrenheit, had just finished filming Doctor ZhivagoFahrenheit 451 was entered and shown at the 1966 Venice Film Festival.

François Truaut (1932–84) was an influential critic of the French New Wave cinema movement who would go on to become one of the movement’s leading directors as well. He had a high regard for Bradbury’s early works, and spent more than six years planning and creating his film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His comprehensive journal of the filming spanned the January to June 1966 shooting schedule and was serialized (in English) for volumes 5–7 of Cahiers du Cinema (1966–67). Many of the entries focus on the logistical challenges and the complex working relationships with the actors and crew, but a few passages combine to provide insightful commentary on aspects of Truaut’s vision for Fahrenheit 451 and the evolving film experience as it related to the actual novel.


François Truaut

Friday, January 14, 1966

. . . Fahrenheit 451 is the super-simple story of a society in which it is forbidden to read and to possess books. e firemen—who once upon a time put out fires—are responsible for confiscating books and burning them on the spot. One of them, Montag, on the point of being promoted to a higher rank, influenced by meeting a young woman (Clarisse) who questions the order of things, begins to read books and to find pleasure in them. His own wife (Linda) informs on him out of fear, and eventually Montag is brought to the point of literally burning up his own Captain. en he runs away—and you will only need to buy a ticket to one of the better cinemas to find out where to.

When I was a boy at school and we talked on Mondays about the films we had seen over the weekend, the two questions that always came up were:

  1. Is there a fight in it?
  2. Are there any naked women?

In respect to Fahrenheit 451, I can answer yes to the first question and no to the second, but without taking any special pride in it.

In point of fact, this film, like all those taken from a good book, half-belongs to its author, Ray Bradbury. It is he who invented those book burnings that I’m going to have such fun filming, which is why I wanted colour. An old lady who chooses to be burned with her books rather than be separated from them, the hero of the film who roasts his Captain— these are the things I am looking forward to filming and seeing on the screen, but which my imagination, tied too firmly to reality, could not have conceived by itself. . . . Ray Bradbury comes to my aid, providing me with the strong situations I need in order to escape from the documentary.

Sunday, January 16




. . . A science-fiction film makes everybody go creative, sometimes in the wrong way. Someone will say to me smoothly: “To show that the life of these people is dreary, I’ve made you a dreary what-have-you (a set design or dressing or costume).” e danger of these booby traps is enhanced by my own tendency to wave problems aside and say: “Leave it be—we’ll look at it later on.” I reckon that in this film we shall hit snags at every stage—a snag a day, a snag a set, a snag a scene; in short, a proper snag festival.

ree years ago, the concept of Fahrenheit 451 was an SF film, set in the future and backed up by inventions and gadgetry and so on. Now that we’ve had James Bond, Courrèges, Pop Art—and Godard, by God, yet—I’ll cut off at a bit of a tangent too, as when I made Jules et Jim a period film to bypass the danger—of Jim as a racing driver, Jules a fashion photographer and Catherine as a cover girl. Obviously it would be going too far to make Fahrenheit 451 a period film, yet I am heading in that general direction. I am bringing back Grith-era telephones, Carole Lombard/Debbie Reynolds–style dresses, a Mr. Deeds–type fire engine. I am trying for anti-gadgetry—at one point Linda gives Montag a superb cutthroat razor and throws the old battery-model Philips in the wastebasket. In short, I am working contrariwise, a little as if I were doing a “James Bond in the Middle Ages.”

Wednesday, January 19

I have refused to authorize two writers to do a book about the making of the film. When they see this ship’s log of mine, they will probably

think it is the reason for my refusal. is is not the case. In fact, it is because whenever I work from a novel, I feel a certain responsibility towards the author. Whether it comes off or not, whether it is faithful to the book or not, the film of Fahrenheit 451 should only favour the sales of one book, the book from which it was taken. A book about the making of the film would only create confusion with Bradbury’s. To my way of thinking, the best idea would be to reissue the novel, illustrating it with stills from the film. . . .

Friday, January 21

. . . I knew that Fahrenheit had some shortcomings, as every film does. In this case it is the characters who are not very real or very strong, and this is because of the exceptional nature of the situations. is is the chief danger in science-fiction stories, that everything else is sacrificed to what is postulated. It’s up to me to fight that in trying to bring it alive on the screen.

One very unfortunate thing of which I had not thought at all is the military look of the film. All these helmeted and booted firemen, smart, handsome lads, snapping out their lines. eir military stiness gives me a real pain. Just as I discovered when I was making Le Pianiste that gangsters were for me unfilmable people, so now I realize that I must in future avoid men in uniform as well. . . .

Universal’s Hollywood lawyers wanted us not to burn books by Faulkner, Sartre, Genet, Proust, Salinger, Audiberti, etc. “Stick to books that are in the public domain,” they said, for fear of future proceedings.

at’s absurd. I took counsel’s opinion here in London and was told: “No problem. Go ahead and quote all the titles and authors you like.” ere will be as many literary references in Fahrenheit 451 as in all of Jean-Luc’s eleven films put together.

Wednesday, March 9

. . . e subjects of films influence the crews that make them. During Jules et Jim everybody started to play dominoes; during La Peau Douce everyone was deceiving his wife (or her husband); and right from the start of Fahrenheit 451 everybody on the unit has begun to read. ere are often hundreds of books on the set; each member of the unit chooses

one, and sometimes you can hear nothing but the sound of turning pages.




Wednesday, April 20

. . . Ray Bradbury gave me a free hand in adapting his novel, for he knew it would be dicult, having tried himself to make a stage play from it. Jean-Luis Richard and I worked on the construction for ten or twelve weeks, and, having finished the job at the beginning of 1963, we have often taken it up again since, tightened it, reshaped it, so as to get the story into 110 minutes and keep the budget down.

It will surely be an obeat film, especially for an English-language production, but within its strangeness it seems to me to be coherent. . . .

Tuesday, June 21

. . . Although the adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 was written a year before the screenplay of La Peau Douce, there are, strangely enough, a number of things common to both films, and if Montag’s wife is called Linda—and not Mildred, as in Bradbury’s book—it’s probably because the Jacoud aair was already in my mind. For the rest, Fahrenheit 451 will be more like Tirez sur le Pianiste, perhaps because in both cases we are dealing with an American novel, stocked with American material. I don’t know what the film will look like; I know it will look only remotely like what I have written about it here, since, quite obviously, I shall have spoken only of what was unexpected or impressed me, and not of what was accepted long ago either in my mind or in Bradbury’s. Now, on the screen you will see only what was in our two heads, Bradbury’s brand of lunacy and then mine, and whether they have blended together well. . . .



“Negative” might be a better description. Such glimpses of the posttotalitarian future as we can glean show a society just like our own, but with more decency and less television. Nobody ever says how these reforms are to be brought about. Further, no positive utopias, dramatizing schemes of political or other betterment, can be found in contemporary science fiction. Modern visionaries in general seem to have lost interest in any kind of social change, falling back on notions of self-salvation via naturopathy, orgonomy, or the psychic diagnostics of Edgar Cayce.



Bradbury’s Mechanical Hound was originally intended to anchor an unpublished story about a small town where the sheriff and his deputy use the Hound to track down criminals. Bradbury incorporated the story’s opening description of the Hound into his expansion of “e Fireman” into Fahrenheit 451. Only the opening page of this story has been located. From the Albright Collection; courtesy of Donn Albright and Ray Bradbury.

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