It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Words on Fire

A couple of nights ago, I sat down to watch François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. I was fairly sure I’d seen it before – I may even have read the book. Knowing the story is no guarantee I had done either, however. The central conceit – firemen who burn books rather than put out fires – is pretty much known by everyone. In the event, it turned out I hadn’t seen the film before – whatever images I knew from it must have come from stills or clips I’d seen. Nor had I read the book – a featurette on the DVD mentions the novel’s Mechanical Hounds, which I have no memory of at all.

I’m not a fan of Ray Bradbury’s fiction, and when I watched Truffaut’s Jules et Jim I couldn’t see why it was considered a classic – so my expectations for the film of Fahrenheit 451 weren’t exactly high. It was released in 1966 (a good year, for many reasons), so I fully expected it to look somewhat dated. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered why I’d bought the DVD – even if it had been in the sale…

But then I only had to remember Divine Intervention – a film I took several months to get around to watching since I didn’t expect to enjoy it. And I was so impressed, the film became a favourite. So no matter what my expectations, there was always the chance that Fahrenheit 451 would confound them.

There was only one way to find out…

Fahrenheit 451‘s opening credits were… interesting. No text appears on the screen – the film’s title, cast and crew are spoken, while the camera zooms in and focuses on one television aerial after another. A bright red fire engine then appears, speeding along a country road. It’s not a serious-looking fire engine, but more like one patterned on a child’s toy from the 1930s. Its destination proves to be one of those horrible 1960s concrete housing blocks – although the building looks disconcertingly new. Later, we see the fire station, a bright red building on a street that looks vaguely futuristic and yet still manages to seem somewhat grim and British and 1960s.

Something curious began to happen as I watched Fahrenheit 451. Yes, it does look dated. It makes no real effort to present a future world with any conviction, but instead seems to take place in a 1960s of the imagination. The central premise doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. The satire is so slight, it’s no more than a gentle poke in the ribs (although the cheap and nasty “interactive” television is amusing). Cyril Cusack’s avuncular Captain is disconcertingly, well, avuncular. And yet… I found myself drawn into the film. The mise-en-scène began to work for the film, rather than against it. Casting Julie Christie as Montag’s wife and as rebel Clarisse was a stroke of genius. The story seemed to forget its origins as a commentary on censorship (or apparently not), and instead turned into a paean to books and literature. By the time it had finished, I was a fan, and I’d decided that Fahrenheit 451 was a greatly under-rated film.

According to a documentary on the DVD, Fahrenheit 451 was a difficult project. It was Truffaut’s first English-language film, and he spoke the language poorly. It was filmed in colour and in England. The relationship between Truffaut and male star Oskar Werner also deteriorated as filming progressed – so much so that in the last few minutes of the film, Werner sports an entirely different haircut, which he’d had done to spite the director.

A remake of Fahrenheit 451 is apparently in production. According to IMDB, Frank Darabont (of The Green Mile) is directing and Tom Hanks is rumoured to have been cast as Montag. I think I’ll stick with the original…

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