A group of black-clad men, adorned head to toe in streamlined, shiny fabric, hurry from their Spartan headquarters to attend their next job. After sliding down the gleaming firehouse pole, they mount a racy, red engine, alighting to a seemingly ordinary home. As they descend upon the dwelling and its occupant, the minimalistic furnishings betray an illicit, unseen secret. Whilst the inhabitant escapes, his belongings prove the source of much interest, with books hidden in light fixtures, radiators, coffee tables and even a hollowed out television.
The men, proud of their haul, are firemen, although not in the sense that most will recognise. In another world and another time, their job is to start blazes rather than put them out, with the reclaimed contraband fuel for their fire. Each is dedicated to their task, a numeral embroidered on their chests as a symbol of their duty. That figure is 451, the auto-ignition point – in the Fahrenheit temperature scale – of their confiscated cargo.
Indeed, Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel of oppression and rebellion takes its name from this number, as it explores the impact of a society left without words. Of course, his characters speak them – some in abundance, some in more measured exchanges – however few instances exist of their written form. In fact, printed stories – be they fictional or factual – are outlawed, and their published receptacles sought for mass disposal. Instead, television is championed as the medium of choice, with reading condemned as anti-social.
The seeds of this dark dystopian future were first sewn in the short story Bright Phoenix in 1947. Four years later, Bradbury expanded upon his vivid vision in The Fireman, a novella published in Galaxy Science Fiction. It would take two more years for the entire tale to materialise at twice its length, under the iconic moniker of Fahrenheit 451. Originating as a book – and receiving serialised publication in three issues of Playboy magazine – it would endure over the decades, becoming the author’s lasting legacy.
Despite a prolific career that traversed the fantasy, science fiction, horror and mystery genres, Fahrenheit 451 would remain the work for which Bradbury was best known. Among his credited 27 novels and more than 600 short stories, not to mention countless plays (of both the staged and filmed variety), it became synonymous with his name, overshadowing his other works. The sole film adaptation to date shared the same fate, enhancing his impact upon popular culture. In their wake, his screenwriting on Moby Dick and efforts on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone became less lauded, with his influence on the page and screen largely reduced to one powerful, permeating effort.
More than five decades after the feature first reached cinemas, François Truffaut’s screen translation remains a cult favourite, despite its variance from the book. Although Bradbury approved the changes made by the director and his co-scribe Jean-Louis Richard (a future collaborator on The Bride Wore Black and Day for Night), the difference is discernible, yet it still stands out as a serious, subtle and satisfying sci-fi offering. Indeed, upon release, reaction was mixed, however time has favoured the intelligent, immersive film. Today, it earns its place in the annals of genre history, inspiring a wealth of imitations.
His first feature in colour and only effort in the English language, Fahrenheit 451 appeared a stark departure for the French critic turned auteur. After adolescent drama The 400 Blows, crime thriller Shoot the Piano Player, ménage à trois movie Jules and Jim and romance The Soft Skin, his diversion was a source of controversy, however similarities exist between this and his earlier material. In the stylised setting and intimate interactions, his sensibilities are apparent. The contemplation of lost souls cast as outsiders against an unhelpful world also remains a recurrent thematic strand.
Accordingly, as the novel did before it, the film focuses on Guy Montag (Oskar Werner, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) as the embodiment of law and order. A fireman slowly becoming dissatisfied with his station and status, he is conflicted in his feelings for two women. His obligation to his complacent wife Linda drives his adherence to the excepted world order, however a chance encounter and ensuing conversation with daring young school teacher Clarissa opens his mind to other possibilities. That both are played by the same actress – Julie Christie, of Doctor Zhivago fame – only complicates his dilemma, as he struggles to choose between responsibility and happiness.
Every element of Truffaut’s interpretation of Bradbury’s tale is precise, perceptive and potent, starting with the opening credits. Over colourful shots of television aerials emanating from an array of houses, a voice announces the film’s title, cast and crew, in the first instance of the feature’s eschewing of the written word. From there, the director lets no instance pass that doesn’t reiterate the film’s terrifying, totalitarian battle against personal freedoms. In the midst of the striking statement upon the importance of reading in the face of filmed entertainment, as well as the incursion of homogeneity in opinion, he invests emotion and meaning into events, plus a sly sense of humour (as references to Cahiers du Cinema, Moby Dick, The Martian Chronicles and the titular book itself prove).
Bernard Herrmann’s swelling, sweeping score, too, heightens the resonance of the restrained, riveting effort. A perfect complement to the concise yet courageous content (and exquisite imagery of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, before his own helming fame with Walkabout and The Man Who Fell to Earth), it enhances the foreboding, frightening nature of the actions depicted, and deepens the visceral sensation of Truffaut’s humanistic handling of Bradbury’s story. In fact, the marriage of all three masters of their respective art forms is perhaps the film’s most astounding achievement, even amidst its evocative, absorbing presentation of the underlying parable. Deserving of its enduring status as the epitome of its author’s career, Fahrenheit 451 is among the finest examples of page to screen sci-fi adaptations.