Sunday, 11 June 2017


34. “Books disturb people – they make them antisocial.”


I don’t know if it was because of the fractious political times we currently live in that I was able to find a blu-ray copy of this film in the supermarket in the next town up, but the fiftieth anniversary of “Fahrenheit 451” appears not to have come at a better time than this.

Ray Bradbury had written the original novel in 1953, perturbed by the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Joseph McCarthy, and how they could lead to the burning of books – the title is derived from the temperature at which paper should start to ignite and burn, reflecting the political climate at that time. The novel has been subjected to censorship, over its themes and use of swear words, leading to suppression in a few schools, and an expurgated version being printed, which was stopped when Bradbury was informed it had become the only version available. This unthinking irony, however, was not lost on Bradbury, who considered himself to be a “preventer of the future,” instead of a predictor.

Having a film made of “Fahrenheit 451” is in itself an irony, except when it is co-written and directed by a French New Wave director that set out to challenge the staid, literary nature of films made in the 1940s and 50s. It was the film critic François Truffaut, writing about the “certain tendency in French cinema,” that turned into Truffaut the “auteur,” his artistic vision in this film expressing itself on top of Bradbury’s story base. Despite this, Truffaut was a lover of books, and this film, where bettering yourself through books is a theme, was also about bettering his craft of filmmaking.

From the startling opening title sequence that has no titles, zooming pictures of TV aerials accompanying the spoken credits, Truffaut’s camera is left free to document the insidious nature of the Firemen’s tasks in burning the books, from uncovering shelves from behind a TV screen, to setting up a brazier, to rehearsing the use of flame-throwers, and indiscriminately upturning people’s belongings in a park – when one person may be implicated, Bernard Hermann’s music takes a characteristically dramatic turn, and the screen size closes in on them, but when it is realised it is a false alarm, the techniques retreat. Truffaut also reverses the film to show one fireman putting on his fireproof clothes, as if to show how alien his job is about to become.

The most impactful scene is at the house of a book collector, where their entire house, contents and all, is to be burned. We go through the motions of the throwing of books into a pile, then being prepared to be burned. Their owner does not want to leave, and is given a count to ten to leave before the burning she starts. On “9,” she takes out a box of matches…

I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but the lead character is shown reading from a wordless comic strip in two scenes – just like the film, the strip can produce ideas without need of words. Perhaps, like the people that allowed the burning to go on, they couldn’t see the woods for the trees.

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