François Truffaut had had a wonderful career. This self-educated film buff directed The 400 Blows, along with twenty-some other movies, founded the French New Wave movement, developed the auteur theory, and acted in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He wrote movie reviews, books, and screenplays. But in any ambitious career, there is bound to be some failures. His adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one such failure. According to IMDB, Truffaut and fellow screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard wrote the screenplay before they had mastered English. Perhaps this fault alone would have domed this movie, but it was only one of many faults.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966), like its namesake novel, is about a dystopian society that had outlawed books. To enforce this ban, the firemen of the future hunt down and burn books. One such fireman is Guy Montag, played by Austrian actor Oskar Werner. Montag has a secret: He reads the books he was ordered to burn. British actress Julie Christie plays both Linda Montag, Montag’s wife, and Clarisse, a young woman who shares Montag’s secret obsession with books. They must keep this secret from The Captain (Cyril Cusack), Montag’s superior.
Though a talented cast, they approached this work with little enthusiasm and no passion. Perhaps Werner was too uncomfortable with English to convey emotion in that language. Perhaps Truffaut instructed Christie to recite Linda’s lines with a wooden tone, in keeping with the theme that a society without books is a population of dull, lifeless idiots. Regardless the cause, the dialogue was monotone. Since the emotional groundwork was never laid, the few burst of emotion that came sounded forced and unrealistic.
Though, with few exceptions, the movie was faithful to the novel, it failed to create the same sense of dread I had experienced when reading the novel. Along with faulty pacing—the scenes felt rushed, underdeveloped, unconvincing—I believe the absence of a backstory hampered the story. How did a free society degenerate to this dystopia? Bradbury answered that question in his novel, but Truffaut ignored it in the movie. The backstory was essential to connect the world I know to this future world. Without that connection, the movie lacked the it-could-happen factor.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is an important novel about the dangers of censorship. When moviemakers went to adopt the book for a movie, it deserved serious thought and effort. Instead, this movie felt rushed and insincere. It was as if the director and actors, once they signed on the dotted line, regretted their decision and rushed through the work just to get it done and behind them. Read the book; avoid the movie.