Fahrenheit 451 (1966) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

“Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night,” have you set my books alight?

Fahrenheit 451 is a cautionary and prescient tale of the evils of censorship. Stemming from the horrors and oppression of World War II and the Communist scandals of the 50s, it speaks of a society that has outwardly squelched subversive dialog. But what lies just below the surface?

First Impressions

Adapted from the novel by Ray Bradbury the trailer presents little clue about the films content. It’s “the film of tomorrow with the stars of today.” The announcer states the film is a love story, but contrasts that statement with some shots of a flamethrower burning a bed. There’s some apparent action sequences, and the male lead, Montag, is under suspicion of something leading to a manhunt. Other than this, the trailer lets the audience know that Julie Christie stars in a dual role, that this is based off the novel by Bradbury with Francois Truffaut as the director.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.


Sci-Fi Saturdays

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 title card.

The Fiction of The Film

Fahrenheit 451 tells of Montag (Oskar Werner) who is a fireman. However this is a future where firemen are no longer employed to put out fires. Now they start them; burning books which are illegal. Montag and his engine company visit a man’s apartment and discover many books hidden in the furniture, under clothes and other secret places. They collect them all, take them outside and burn them in front of the onlookers. Montag’s Captain (Cyril Cusack) intimates that he has a promotion headed his way.

On the monorail ride home Montag talks to one of his neighbors, Clarisse (Julie Christie). She asks him what the 451 on his collar means, and he explains its the temperature that book paper catches fire. At home his wife Linda (also played by Julie Christie) is busy watching her television show called The Family with Cousin Claudette. She is more interested in the show than Montag’s news of a promotion, except when she realizes they can purchase another wall TV.

After work the next day, Montag returns home to find Linda passed out, in an apparent drug overdose. The medics come and give her a blood transfusion which increases her libido. Montag has secreted a book from his job called “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. He begins taking time from work, having clandestine meetings with Clarisse, and staying up late to read more books. Linda catches him one night and is shocked and frightened by his behavior.

Fahrenheit 451

Captain Beatty informs Montag that he is due for a promotion after his exemplary performance at the days book burning.

The firemen are called to an older home where a woman inside chooses to commit suicide by lighting herself on fire, rather than be arrested and have her books destroyed. The firemen burn them and the house anyway. Despondent, Montag returns home where Linda and some friends are watching TV. He pulls out a book and reads them an excerpt, causing one of the ladies, Doris (Ann Bell), to burst into tears which she says is due to her forgetting the beauty of the words. The other ladies take it as sheer cruelty that he made her cry and they leave.

That night Clarisse’s house is raided but she escapes. Montag breaks into the Captain’s office to find information about the raid, but is caught. He investigates Clarisse’s house, seeing her once again and helping her destroy evidence of other subversives. Linda reports Montag to the fire department, just as he is about to quit. The Captain asks Montag to go on one final raid – which ends up being his own house! He is forced to pull out all his books and burn them. A nosy fireman named Fabian (Anton Diffring) that is often paying attention to Montag, sees him secret another book. When the Captain calls him out on it, Montag turns the flamethrower on the Captain, killing the man, and then torches his own house.

Montag escapes the dragnet setup by the police and wanders into the woods looking for where Clarisse may have gone. He discovers a colony of other dissidents, led by a man who introduces himself as “The Journal of Henri Brulard” by Stendhal (Alex Scott). He shows Montag video of the police killing a man they claim to be Montag, thereby satisfying the need for justice, and the short attention spans of the viewers. Montag is told that every person in the commune is known by a different book title, as they commit a book fully to memory and then destroy the book. That way it can never be taken from them. He chooses a book to memorize, in case one day the world changes and books are allowed once more. Until then, they wander in the wilderness, as libraries of a different sort.

The only way to be happy is for everyone to be made equal.” – Captain Beatty

Fahrenheit 451

Newspapers in this world are made up entirely of cartoon imagery, as printed material is forbidden.

History in the Making

Fahrenheit 451 was Ray Bradbury’s second novel, after The Martian Chronicles, published in 1953, and arguably is his best known work. The story in the book appears to be very similar to the filmed version by François Truffaut, differing in details and character names, but submitting to the same overall themes and plot. Both versions of the story exist in a dystopian future where books are censored and book ownership is punishable by the destruction of property. The film does not show what occurs when a person is caught, as the first character flees, and a second commits suicide. Presumably the punishment is imprisonment and possibly re-education. This world is not a favorable place to live for intellectuals, or at least thinking and inquisitive people.

Since this is a series of articles devoted to science-fiction, the question arises: is dystopian fiction sci-fi? Dystopian fiction is included with the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction genre. Basically it describes a world that is damaged or “bad” (literally speaking) where the society is oppressed and life is usually hard for some portion of the population. It often has a totalitarian or fascist government, or contains similar themes. Sometimes it’s an evil corporation, or megacorporation, that stifles the lifestyles of the protagonist. And even still, as with the apocalyptic subgenre, it may have included a disaster of some kind, man-made or natural.

The 1960s, specifically the mid-1960s, was a time that dystopian films rose in popularity. Films such as The Last Man on Earth, Alphaville, Seconds (next week’s film) and the ever-popular The Planet of The Apes, along with Fahrenheit 451, all showed troubling societies of one level or another. The popularity of subject matter of this sort at this time in history can be linked to the rise of the counterculture of the time, which included the hippie movement but was primarily an anti-establishment group, the Civil Rights, and women’s movement. These groups were all a reaction to the need for change in the predominately white and patriarchal society in Western culture. Hence, dystopian films primarily upset the status quo for the white male protagonist. It wouldn’t be until much later that the effects of these cultural upheavals will transgress to depict the effects on women and minorities in similar films. But from this point, the popularity of dystopian films went from a couple of films per decade to dozens, rising to new heights in the 21st Century with works such as The Hunger Games, and the Purge & Divergent franchises.

Fahrenheit 451

A large flat screen TV on Montag’s wall predicts the future of the medium, which also acts as a two-way communication device.

Genre-fication

After exploring what dystopian fiction is, can Fahrenheit 451 be considered sci-fi? I believe it can based on the further conceits of what makes sci-fi. Over the last year, Sci-Fi Saturdays has been examining all types of science-fiction films, which depict many different facets of the genre. Most commonly the films take place in or about space, and sometimes in the future. But they can also deal with alternate realities, possible futures or re-imagined pasts. Fahrenheit 451 is set in a not too distant future where “the powers that be” have decided to outlaw and censor books. It’s a future that seemed as close in 1966 as it does today.

Unfortunately the film version, while beautifully shot by Nicolas Roeg (director of last month’s 31 Days of Horror selection, Don’t Look Now), appears to be a dated concept of what a 60s version of the future looks like. Films of this time would vacillate between a strongly designed futuristic world, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a film like Soylent Green, which is shot using available materials in a slightly futuristic setting. Fahrenheit 451 uses a strikingly European setting, complete with a monorail, to depict its future world. But other props and settings are purely of the time it was created. It does present “futuristic elements“ for the time, which as a modern viewer I nearly missed.

While the characters of Fahrenheit 451 shun the reading of books, they still have newspapers. But these papers are made up of drawings and cartoons to depict what is happening. Instead of reading about the news even on an internet of sorts, they get all their entertainment from television. Linda watches a large flat screen TV in her living room, which also functions as a two-way communication device as well. It took me several moments to realize that this television (flat screen, wall mounted, large) was a futuristic element. It looked and worked so much like the screen I was watching the movie on I nearly missed it. One evening her favorite show hosts a game where the characters ask her, Linda, for help. She answers them, presuming they could hear her, feeling proud of herself for doing so well when they congratulate her by name. She is so happy that she was personally invited to compete. Montag scoffs at her indicating that most likely everyone named Linda was invited to participate. But the idea that the populace could interact with their entertainment was something seen as futuristic at the time. Linda also has a small portable TV screen, the size of a large phone, with an earbud attachment so she can watch in bed.

Fahrenheit 451

The Captain reminds Montag to burn every book they find. He seems to like his job too much!

Societal Commentary

Generationally, new forms media can often be perceived as something ominous, misunderstood, and scary. Often new types of media are initially shunned, as the older generation fears it will make current media obsolete. Television will kill cinema, radio will kill newspapers, and comics will kill books. It’s all been feared, and yet, these types of media still exist. This rise of the new media as a centerpiece of a film that deals with penalties for reading any type of print says a lot about the time when it was made. The film comments on this by not having traditional credits. It seems weird initially that the opening credits are spoken while tinted images of television aerials are shown. That is, until you realize that in a world where reading is forbidden, that this is exactly how the opening of programs would occur. A small but powerful detail relating to the world of Fahrenheit 451.

Let’s get down to the meat of this film, which is that books have been banned. The history of destruction of printed materials is a storied one, from tales of the burning of the Library of Alexandria to modern tales of the Nazis burning books that are deemed too subversive. Inspired by these histories, Bradbury crafted a world that embraced television and new media, providing small bite-sized pieces of entertainment for the masses whose short-attention span couldn’t handle longer or more thought-provoking essays. The film makes a point that the destruction of any type of book can be a dangerous policy to enforce. The firemen are shown destroying Chaucer, Dickens and Whitman, but they are also seen burning “Lolita” by Nabokov and a copy of “Mein Kampf” by Hitler. The Captain gives the explanation that he finds all books make people unhappy. The amazing stories that show the ordinary reader how uneventful their life is or the confusing texts that decry one philosophy is better than another. The arrogant egotistical tales of the autobiography, ascribing one person over another. It’s very much for the good of society, he thinks.

As with any of the basic rights of freedom, the freedom of speech, and even the freedom to think one’s own thoughts, are inalienable. The filmmakers seem to be saying that if you’re going to burn one book that people object to, you must burn all the books. The Captain makes no distinction between the works of Henry Miller or Adolph Hitler. It’s only that the scene where he holds up the copy of “Mein Kampf” that the audience may realize that their outrage at the burning of the “great” literary works depicted to that moment, might be switched to, “well it’s OK to burn that one.” And therein lies the trap. The stifling of one voice over another, that censorship, is what’s most dangerous to society. Better to be all encompassing as with the Captain, burning every book indiscriminately, rather than pick or choose which titles are “acceptable” and which are not. Even in today’s world, where citizens have access to large amounts of information on the internet, much of the content is curated and chosen by the owners of those websites. Free speech in this format is a phantom. Under the guise of free speech users take to forums or social media to make their voice heard, but they fail to realize they are truly only “free” at the whim of the website owner. And in a digital world, where there is ownership in name only, people might “own” a copy of a book on their favorite mobile device, but might soon find it missing for any variety of reasons, including the need to censor that material.

Fahrenheit 451

These flying rigs from the police are straight-up Sci-Fi, predating flying cops in films like “Minority Report.”

The Science in The Fiction

More today than before, the world presented by Fahrenheit 451 appears like daily life in the early 21st Century. The film presents a public whose attention span is limited to such a degree that the manhunt for Montag must be concluded within 6 hours of starting, lest people lose interest. The government or powers that be, setup a patsy, a fall guy, to be shot and killed on live television so that the public will have a conclusion to their “story.” These short attention spans seem to have manifested strongly today with the rise of popular social media sites, including Twitter. When the President of the United States can only address the nation in short bursts of 140 or 280 characters, it seems like some grotesque parody of the world the film predicts.

A curious question arises while thinking about the “dumbing down” of the society in which reading texts are forbidden. How does this technologically advanced society continue to function and grow? If reading is looked down upon as something that scares people or makes them unhappy, how does society not stagnate from lack of growth? The world had advanced communication devices, flying jet packs and other technological means of surveillance, so how is this information passed on to the next generation? Is it all on oral tradition as we see with the “book people”? If so, wouldn’t science and math stagnate, and slowly dry up? Within the course of a generation or two there would be now further forward movement in any new technology, causing the society to stagnate and possibly collapse. Maybe this is the way that the world progressed in The Time Machine, leading to a perceived idyllic world, where some people lived in harmony on the surface world – lacking in basic knowledge – while another race thrived below ground, having passed on their technological knowledge from generation to generation.

For all the technology that exists in the world of Fahrenheit 451, the biggest asset to the Firemen still lays with the public. The reporting of subversives by other members of the society creates a community that fosters mistrust and a certain loss of personal privacy. Citizens who choose to read banned materials must secret their activities from others, lest they be informed upon. Bradbury and Truffaut could not have predicted the digital footprints that “report” on the activities of a modern internet user. The myriad of tracking devices that follow users from site to site, informing companies more so than a government, of habits, pastimes, and perhaps subversive behavior. In this sense, Big Brother is more of an omnipresent digital presence than an authoritarian regime.

Fahrenheit 451

A sample shot of the book burning.

The Final Frontier

For a book about censorship, it’s curious that Bradbury’s version of the book was itself censored by his publisher Ballantine Books. In 1967, in order to comply with requests from high schools, Ballantine Books created an edition that expurgated curse words from the text as well as words such as “abortion.” The irony was not lost on Bradbury, who demanded that his original text be reinstated. Certainly an argument could be made that expurgating the author’s words is worse than fully censoring or removing the book from circulation.

The film is not without hope however. The final act depicts the enclave of citizens who have chosen to live outside the bounds of the oppressive society, causing no harm to others and living in peace. Each one of them adopts the name of some book and memorizes its text, so that one day, when a new society emerges, they are able to recreate the libraries that have been destroyed. As one of them points out, they have become internal libraries, keeping their content safe and hidden from the outside world. At this time, at least in this story, there’s no way for the censors to know what subversive thoughts lay inside the citizenry. The mind is the last refuge of the oppressed. Also of note, one of the books being “saved” by the “book people” is Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. A nice nod to the author.

Fahrenheit 451 stands as a cautionary tale, even if the method of its presentation seems dated by today’s standards. It contains strong imagery that illustrates the filmmakers thoughts on the themes and subject matter without overtly coming forward and stating it plainly. Montag’s characterization guides the audience through the film, showing the discovery of knowledge leads to more questions. And that these questions and the pursuit of knowledge are part of human nature.

Coming Next Week

Seconds

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