Oskar Werner   Montag
Julie Christie   Linda Clarisse
Cyril Cusack    Captain
Anton Diffring    Fabian

Directed by François Truffaut. Written by François Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard, David Rudkin and Helen Scott (based on the novel by Ray Bradbury). 1967. Running time: 111 minutes.

"Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?" Czech author Milan Kundera asks in his novel Slowness. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that all our machines nowadays work much faster. Instead of getting things done faster so that we can free up some more free time for ourselves, it simply means that thanks to word processors, e-mail, the Internet, networks, etc. things have to be done faster. Period. If our machines were truly meant to make things easier for us, they would have been slower.

Rock band U2 has summed up our society's zeitgeist when they sang "you miss too much these days if you stop to think." Not thinking seems to the aim of the game. When last did you stop to think? When last did you curl up one lazy morning with a thought-provoking book, for example? Not some example of airport literature, but something that, well, made you think. "Let's not have any more of that," the perpetually six-year-old cartoon character Calvin tells his mother after reading just such a book. "It complicates things."

The future world depicted in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 novel caters our more juvenile and base instincts - a world in which mental six-year-olds are the unseen legislators. It is an authoritarian world in which ALL reading is prohibited - never mind just literature deemed subversive or undesirable by the government.

In 19th century Russia the Tsarist state didn't bother banning Karl Marx's Das Kapital. Too academic to truly inflame passions, they reasoned. Ha! Little did they know - in 1917 Russia became the first country in the world to be based on Marxist socialist teachings. The totalitarian government in Fahrenheit 451 (the title refers to the temperature at which the pages in books catch fire) doesn't even want to take the chance. After all, reading is thinking with someone else's mind and the last thing any totalitarian government wants is a thinking and informed populace. Once you stop to think, you'll probably find that there are many things wrong with the world around you. Why take the chance at all?

Thus, in a future world in which firemen are no longer necessary because of a radical new technology that allows houses to be fireproofed by applying a thin translucent film over their interiors, the role of the firemen is changed to those of book burners. Obviously, as Heinrich Heine said, "where they burn books they will also burn people" and dissidents are treated harshly by the government. One such fireman one day reads from one of the books he was supposed to have destroyed (it turns out to be the Bible). Slowly he rebels and finds that he has to flee society as such.

Reading Fahrenheit 451, which was written in 1954, today one is struck by the prophetic nature of the book. Of how Bradbury predicted many of our current social trends by no doubt keenly extrapolating the trends of the time in which he wrote it. Forget about the Stalinist type of dystopia depicted in Orwell's 1984, Bradbury predicted the future (our present) much better as the following quotes, as spoken by the Fire Brigade chief who epitomises this future society, shows:

On the current There Is No Alternative (TINA) political spirit of the day:
"If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. […]"

On the current information overload on the Internet and in society, the low quality of information found on the Internet:
"Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damn full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy."

On why Hollywood keeps on making crud like Batman & Robin, The Postman and so forth:
"So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motor-cycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I'll think I'm responding to the play, when it's only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don't care. I just like solid entertainment."

On the neglect of Bachelor of Arts degrees and the rise of "job oriented" training:
"School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?"

The blandness encouraged by Political Correctness:
"Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, […] the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the […] sex-magazines, of course. There you have it […]. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick [….]."

The encouragement of sports at schools and the disparagement of academic excellence:
"With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally 'bright', did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against."

Taking the above criticisms of American popular culture into consideration, it should then come as no surprise that Bradbury's novel was made into a film in 1967 by a French director, the legendary Francois Truffaut. After all, French intellectuals have complained long and bitterly about the negative effects of so-called "American cultural imperialism" on their own Old World culture. However, in what can be considered typical French intellectualism, Traffaut didn't take Bradbury's conclusions at face value and instead depicted the dissidents in his movie to be just as fanatical as their nemesis firemen.

Recently Mel Gibson wanted to film Fahrenheit 451 again. However, plans fell through as Gibson insisted on more action in the screenplay (what can one expect from the star of the Lethal Weapon weapons?). After all, there are scenes in the novel in which the dissident fireman is chased around by a mechanical robot hound and the police. However, such an action movie would have been the very antithesis of the novel's intentions. It would have ended up as a typical product of the same culture bemoaned in Fahrenheit 451. Luckily plans for such a remake were abandoned. Not that that the book's message does not have to be told - in fact it is more relevant now than ever. Luckily we still have Truffaut's film and Bradbury's book, which one critic has labeled "subversive." That it is, and we should be glad that we are still allowed to read it. That is, if we can find the time . . .


Copyright © February 2000  James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page



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