I’m an inveterate movie buff. Whenever I pass Sanity or JB Hi-Fi and spot a sign saying ‘3 for $20’, I can’t resist riffling through the rows of DVD cases in the hope of finding a treasure. Last Friday I came across a gem – François Truffaut’s film of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, wedged between a rather mundane rom-com and a very average thriller.
I was so shocked to find the classic film that I immediately clutched it to my heart, afraid some passerby might try to wrest it from me, like those rabid shoppers fighting over shoes at the Boxing Day sales. But nobody showed the slightest interest in my discovery. So I quickly chose another two, rushed up to the shop assistant and handed over twenty dollars.
I must have been fifteen or sixteen when I first read ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and I recall being mesmerised by the surreal world it posited, a place where books are illegal; where neighbours and work colleagues inform on those still harbouring the forbidden volumes; and teams of firemen are despatched to burn them.
It’s been my experience that the film of a book is rarely as good as the book itself, but this one is an exception. In the sure hands of director Truffaut the story transfers brilliantly from page to screen. For me, the most spine-chilling scenes feature the red fire truck with its crew in their black uniforms racing along the road to the accompaniment of a Hitchcockian musical soundtrack. Those images become an ominous refrain running through the film.
There are fine performances from quintessential Sixties actress, Julie Christie and wonderful Austrian actor, Oskar Werner, who made his name in Truffaut’s iconic ‘Jules et Jim’ a few years earlier. He plays fireman, Montag, while Christie has dual roles: as Montag’s Stepfordesque wife, Linda, whose happiness is predicated on tranquilisers and watching large screen TV; and as a young woman called Clarisse, who secretly reads books and encourages Montag to question the system.
Although the film was made in 1966, it hasn’t really dated. The locations are perfect – the firehouse is a monumental grey building that could have been designed by Albert Speer and there’s a Space Age suspended monorail speeding across a rural landscape. According to the Bonus Features the monorail scenes were filmed in France where a prototype had been built in 1959 and ran along a short track.
For those who aren’t familiar with Bradbury’s novel, the title refers to the temperature at which paper starts to burn. Why burn books? Because they introduce readers to fictional worlds and alternative ideas that can inspire them to question the lives they lead and the values of the society they live in. In a repressive society, that can only lead to dissent. And a totalitarian regime doesn’t tolerate dissent. Which is why the Nazis burned books in 1930s’ Germany.
If all this sounds rather bleak, let me assure you that Bradbury’s story isn’t without hope. There are those who flee the repression and establish a new society where books are both the focus and the raison d’être. I won’t spoil it for you by revealing exactly how this happens. But it’s something which will resonate with 21st century readers, who are witnessing the most dramatic changes in the production of books since Gutenberg invented the printing press.
We’ve all heard the doomsayers predicting the demise of the book. And although the days of print books may well be numbered, it doesn’t mean books as such are endangered. ‘Fahrenheit 451’ shows us that a book can take many forms, and ultimately it is the words and ideas that count, not the format in which they are presented.