Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Smoke Without Fire: Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953 & 1966)

Books used to scare me. Ray Bradbury’s famed science-fiction masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 recently reminded me of why. Books are highly influential especially when you let them fester. I remember nights in elementary school spent past my bedtime re-reading line after line of Mark Twain, or Robert Lewis Stevenson, to the point where Long John Silver and “Injun Joe” would chase me in my sleep. These works were brimming with creativity and adventure and sparked a curiosity that was bewildering, but their painted words also had the misfortune of scaring me stiff. Bradbury’s novel was set in a future where firemen reek of kerosene and burn books rather than cherish their beauty. Upon reading it, for the first time, I, too, re-discovered my worn out love for the printed page. I also discovered, quite accidentally, that a film adaptation made in 1966 existed. Initially I thought the film’s existence alone was contradictory to the book’s divine message. But after watching the film, I realized I was both right and wrong.

The adaptation was the first English film from French New Wave icon Francois Truffaut and was harder to hunt down than any book a librarian could hide. Truffaut may be an unlikely choice for the material but he’s a child at heart and brings his own unique voice to the protagonist of the story.  Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman who has an inner curiosity awoken by a young woman who ignites a passion for discovery deep in his heart that burns hotter than the burning page.  There are shades of young Anton from Truffaut’s own masterpiece Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows (1959)) sprinkled throughout.  It’s just a shame the film can’t hold onto this blazing desire.

The film’s existence was problematic from the beginning and this is probably why the forty-five year old work was nearly impossible to find. A film, being a visual medium, based upon a book about literary censorship is counter-productive.  Truffaut, however, probably wanted the film to exist as the product of a world not unlike the one in Bradbury’s story.  He constructs the film in such a way that it is less of a cautionary tale and more an active commentary on the book itself. The title credits of his film are read aurally rather than as text on the screen and the closing credits never make an appearance.  The written word is an outlaw in Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966). People of the future read colorful comic strips without dialogue and watch a universal reality based television program that addresses the viewers directly.  Their future eerily rivals our present where reality television and comic book film adaptations have now become hot commodities. Thankfully, literature has not been outlawed yet. It’s just recently had the misfortune of being labeled elitist.

What Truffaut’s film captures beautifully is the passion and fear that books ignite beyond their powerful anti-censorship message. The urgency and downright need to rebel against conformity is just as important to Bradbury as his desire to illustrate why books are worth fighting for in the first place.  Truffaut, whether by choice or by studio/budgetary constraints, removes the former and spends most of the film diving into the latter. His emphasis was the underlying love of storytelling that existed at the end of the rusty train tracks out of the censored city limits. The film glosses over some of the novel’s more beautiful passages and removes some characters and pivotal plot points altogether (such as the character of Faber and his entire revolution against censorship subplot) but they never seemed a priority to Truffaut.  He is far more entangled in the concept of society abolishing books not because we read them, but because what we read helps shape who we are. It’s a simple concept that pumps blood through the arteries of Bradbury’s pages and Truffaut brought it to the forefront of his own vision. At the end of the railroad there is a community of book lovers who have each devoted their lives to a single book so that they can then burn them. A single reader internalizes and devotes themselves to the likes of Lewis Carroll, or Charles Dickins, then shares their tale without illegal evidence to burden them. The end of the railroad is where outcasts have been exiled, but it sounds like paradise. The story, as Truffaut sees it, is about embracing the very act of storytelling. Everyone has a story and the best of them will set fire to your soul. Stories were made to be told.

While the film is ambitious and Truffaut’s heart is in the right place, the medium has limitations that keep it from being a truly worthy adaptation beyond plot issues. Bradbury’s writing offers some wild imagery and fire is the cleansing agent of a sterilized society. While houses roast on a whim in Bradbury’s words, Truffaut’s film is afraid to set fire to anything. We can escape with Truffaut if we want to, but Bradbury doesn't want an exit. Films usually play it safe but this one had to play it safe.  Fire is an unpredictable and dangerous agent that is damn near impossible to tame and, as such, its presence is limited. What we’re now left with instead are two artifacts from a time: one a classic piece of literature and the other being a flawed but interesting attempt to capture the power of books using film. Both are stories about smoke without fire.

Words can be just as dangerous as any five-alarm fire.
 A novel doesn't have a cinematographer, that is, until we paint the picture in our mind. A book doesn’t have a director. We are the architects who bring to life a world that is inked on the page. Each and every page may be littered with hundreds of words, but the page is blank until we give into it. This is why books always horrified me. But this is also why I love them.

-- Andrew Dupuis is a devoted cinephile and graduate of Brock University's Film Studies program with an extensive background in Canadian and popular cinema. He is currently working on his first book.

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