There are two things I can say right off the bat when talking about this film. Firstly, it is perhaps one of the best literary adaptations I have witnessed to date, although that should be no surprise considering it was in the ever caring hands of Francois Truffaut. Secondly, I am pretty sure that Tommy Wiseau of The Room infamy took all his acting cues from Oskar Werner, particularly in the manner of uttering names. Although, this adaptation of Ray Bradbury's canonical novel is sadly one of Truffaut's lesser works, it manages to exude so much of the style and substance we have come to know and love about the director, managing to make it one of my favorite of the director, second only to Shoot The Piano Player. It captures all the greatness of a dystopian nightmare while still managing to be cinematic, understated and surprisingly fresh. It is no small matter to make a film about a person who burns books and exists in a society that has, essentially, become inundated with mind-numbing television programs whose vague dialogue and open-endedness manage to blindly lead the "cousins" of some unnamed future city into believing that they are happy with meaningless dribble on a flat screen television, one of Bradbury's more eerie visions to prove true and other consumerist oriented items. Friendship is a vague thing in this film and deservedly so, because Truffaut's reimagining of the work, emphasizes the separated nature of this paranoid world in which reading a book is a crime, on the grounds that to engage with written work is to invariably cause one to be sad. Firefighters now cause fires as opposed to putting them out, although an argument could be made as to them putting out the fires of revolution through censorship. This film somewhat serves as a counter to Godard's vision of what television would do to society, and as I have mentioned far earlier in this blog, Godard and Truffaut had a rather unfortunate falling out only years prior to this films release. Truffaut sees a world where we can still escape conformity through the memories of wonderment, while Godard manages to see all going to hell via mass technologies, something he makes contentiously clear in Film Socialisme. I am always in the favor of Truffaut's vision because it has a care and earnestness for human success and, honestly, who can stand to be as virulently depressed as Godard all the time.
For those of you not terribly familiar with the novel, let me first suggest reading the book before even continuing on with this description and if you have already had the pleasure of engaging with Bradbury's work the plot should be a nice refresher. We are shown a firefighter named Montag (Oskar Werner) whose job as stated earlier is not to put out fires, but to burn books, donning a badge that reads 451, the temperature at which paper ignites. He is, as the story begins, the ideal employee and up for promotion, something that makes his wife Linda (Julie Christie) quite happy, because it means that they will, amongst other things, be able to finally get another wall unit with which to watch more television shows. Things seem aligned to work perfectly until Montag is approached by a woman named Clarisse (Julie Christie) who confronts him about the reasons behind burning books and asks him if he had ever actually read one of the books he is so quick to destroy. While Montag is initially quite dismissive of this suggestion, a growing concern for what makes these books so cherished causes him to crack into a copy of David Copperfield, an act that changes him forever, causing him to become filled with an insatiable desire to read, an act that leads to a distancing from Linda. Montag, nonetheless, continues his job all the while secretly reading, until he witnesses a woman choose to die engulfed with her books rather instead of living in a world without them. This realization that books do reflect something much larger than words on a page, Montag can no longer contain his desires and even while he is forced to watch his house burn down, he steals a book and flees to the outskirts of the city. There he finds a commune of people who have dedicated their lives to memorizing a book, thus the words on the page possess a living identity, he reencounters Clarisse while memorizing The Collected Short Stories of Edgar Allen Poe. The film closes with the members of the group walking back and forth reciting the books they have committed to memory.
I mentioned that it was a rather bold act to make a film version of a book that is essentially about a society becoming disconnected from the written word. Of course, Bradbury's concern was more with television and even more so a society that censors all things that could make them reconsider their social place. Yet, Truffaut manages to use the film as a provocation of what the novel already was and creates it is in such a jarring and intense manner that it does exactly what good literature should and what bad television fails to do, it incorporates thought provoking moments throughout and Truffaut a film scholar at heart uses his medium as much as a form of literature as any great author. Furthermore, there are momentary tricks and brilliant cinematic doublings simply not possible in the book The obvious one being the playing of both Linda and Clarisse by Julie Christie, which suggests that it is not infidelity that drives Montag away from Linda, but a desire to escape monotony and a fascist oppression. Similarly, we are able to witness the actual act of book burning, which while describe quite magnificently by Bradbury in the text, helps with its literal incandescence on a screen. Various other tricks throughout the film, whether they be edited zoom-in shots or the reversal shots allowing for Montag and other to slide up a fire pole ad layers of filmic metaphor and emphasis on the absurd world in which this dystopic state exists. I would argue that this is not necessarily an alternative work to Bradbury's original, but almost a add-on to the ideas professed in the novel. Truffaut clearly has a close attachment to this fascist idea of censorship and wants to attack it in his own artistic medium.
Key Scene: While the book burning moments are intense, nothing is quite as well executed as Montag's first moments of reading David Copperfield.
This is how a literary adaptation should be made and it is now one of my favorite Truffaut works, perhaps in need of a push out of obscurity. Cinematically and metaphorically it serves as everything one should desire from film. Getting a copy, all be it a bit pricey, is a must.