Pauline Kael on François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury’s idea of censorship lacks depth. But even worse is the on-screen depiction of the renegades’ solution to book burning—to have people “become” books. An issue intended to be serious becomes comic at the thought that people might devote their lives to some of the volumes shown burning on-screen.
Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1966)

The Book’s Censorship Metaphor Does Not Work—but the Movie Is Worse

Bradbury’s idea of censorship lacks depth. But even worse is the on-screen depiction of the renegades’ solution to book burning—to have people “become” books. An issue intended to be serious becomes comic at the thought that people might devote their lives to some of the volumes shown burning on-screen. Kael also objects to Francois Truffaut’s flat direction and the actors’ deadpan delivery; an issue that provokes such passion in real life, should also seem passionately important on-screen.

by Pauline Kael

There are some rather dumb—but in a way brilliant—gimmicks that have a strong, and it would almost seem a perennial, public appeal. Books or plays or movies based on them don’t even have to be especially well done to be popular: readers and audiences respond to the gimmick. Sometimes this kind of trick idea is so primitive that it’s particularly attractive to educated people—perhaps because they’re puzzled by why they’re drawn to it and so take it to be a much more complex idea than it is. Frankenstein is one of these fantastic, lucrative “ideas”; The Pawnbroker is almost one. A classic example of the use of one of them is Albert Lewin’s 1945 movie adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Even the basic notion of Dorian Gray’s remaining young and fresh and handsome while his portrait aged with the ravages of his evil soul wasn’t sustained in the production—Hurd Hatfield’s Dorian was never really young: he looked waxy and glacéed from the outset; and the other characters didn’t age any more than he did. But audiences responded to the appeal of the idea, anyway, and are still responding to it on television re-runs and still arguing about how it should have been cast and carried out.

Dumb but Brilliant

François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 isn’t a very good movie but the idea—which is rather dumb but in a way brilliant— has an almost irresistible appeal: people want to see it and then want to talk about how it should have been worked out. Fahrenheit 451 is more interesting in the talking-over afterward than in the seeing. The movie is about a society in which books are forbidden, not censored or rewritten as in Orwell’s vision of 1984, but simply forbidden, burned. Book lovers run off to the woods where each memorizes a book and they become a living library. It is in the difference between the movie’s simple gimmick-idea and Orwell’s approach to censorship as an integral part of totalitarianism that we can see some of the weakness of the idea. Stripped of the resonances of politics and predictions and all those other repressions and forms of regimentation which are associated with book burning, the idea is shallow: it operates in a void. The strength of the idea is that in removing book burning from any political context, in using it as an isolated fearful fancy, it turns into something both more primitive and superficially more sophisticated than a part of a familiar, and by now somewhat tiresome, political cautionary message.

Of course, a gimmicky approach to the emptiness of life without books cannot convey what books mean or what they’re for: homage to literature and wisdom cannot be paid through a trick shortcut to profundity; the skimpy science-fiction script cannot create characters or observation that would make us understand imaginatively what book deprivation might be like. Among the books burned are Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, who also wrote the book of Fahrenheit 451. This decorative little conceit has the effect of making us more aware than ever of the coyness and emptiness and inadequacy of the central conceit. The idea that one of the book people at the end might be devoting his life to preserving a text by Bay Bradbury (or No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which we also see in flames) is enough to turn the movie into comedy. The next step is to imagine all the jerks we’ve known and what they might give their lives to preserving—Anthony Adverse? Magnificent Obsession? The Robe? The Adventurers? Valley of the Dolls? We have only to think about it to realize how absurd the idea is. Why should a society burn all books on the basis that books make people think and so disturb them and make them unhappy? Most books don’t make people think, and print is not in itself a danger to totalitarianism. That is a crotchety little librarian’s view of books. Print is as neutral as the television screen. And so we’re back from the primitive appeal of the gimmick, to the Orwell vision of censorship and terror. And yet such is the power of the gimmick that I swear I heard people in the theatre murmur at the astuteness of that nonsensical explanation for book burning. You’d think they’d never read a book, they’re so willing to treat books as magical objects. And that is, of course, how the movie treats them: the gimmick turns books—any books—into totems, and this is part of the gimmick’s appeal to educated audiences, probably a stronger appeal than a more rational treatment of the dangers of censorship could make.

Liberal Hysteria

Book burning taps a kind of liberal hysteria and the audience supplies the fearful associations: Hitler, McCarthy (who was the inspiration for the book, which was published in 1953). A woman who taught at Berkeley dropped in on me once and saw a book burning in the fireplace. She pointed at it in terror. I explained that it was a crummy ghost-written life of a movie star and that it was an act of sanitation to burn it rather than sending it out into the world which was already clogged with too many copies of it. But she said, “You shouldn’t burn books” and began to cry. It’s because of this kind of reaction, and because we don’t think of book burning in a vacuum but of the historical horrors of taking away peoples’ treasured possessions, of burning part of them, and of burning them, too, that the buggy little idea behind this movie is not easy to dismiss. Frankenstein preyed upon both our most primitive fears that man should not play God and our rather more sophisticated anxieties about scientists messing around with the order of things. The Picture of Dorian Gray brought back our childish fears that the bad secret things we did would show on our faces, as well as the more sophisticated fear, and perhaps envy, of all those beautiful people who could get away with murder, who could be ruthless and rotten and it would never show on their ingenuous faces. The banal suburban look of the future in Fahrenheit 451 affects us at childish levels, too. The characters don’t seem quite grown-up, and the notion of how to save books is peculiarly naïve—as in a fairy tale. The book people are a kid’s idea of how to keep literature alive. They have no concept of carrying on a living literary tradition, of writing books, or of using books for knowledge or even against the state, but of turning themselves into books—as in a kids’ game. Their notion of literature is a neighborhood library, and the book people at the end are coy and harmless eccentrics—bookworms.

For American art-house audiences who are both more liberal and more bookish than the larger public, book burning is a just-about-perfect gimmick. Yet even at the science-fiction horror-story level, this movie fails—partly, I think, because Truffaut is too much of an artist to exploit the vulgar possibilities in the material. He doesn’t give us pace and suspense and pious sentiments followed by noisy climaxes; he is too tasteful to do what a hack director might have done. One can visualize the scene when the hero, Oskar Werner, reads his first book, David Copperfield, as it might have been done at Warner’s or MGM in the thirties, how his face would light up and change with the exaltation of the experience— the triumph of man’s liberation from darkness. Well, ludicrous as it would have been, it might have been better than what Truffaut does with it—which is nothing. Truffaut is so cautious not to be obvious, the scene isn’t dramatized at all, and so we’re left to figure out for ourselves that Werner must have enjoyed the reading experience because he goes on with it. Soon we’re left to figure out for ourselves why he has gotten so addicted to books that he’s willing to kill for them. It would, no doubt, be obvious to have an adulterous romance between Werner and the girl who goads him to read, but Truffaut doesn’t supply any relationship to help define their characters. And if he feels that too much characterization is wrong for the genre, couldn’t he at least give them actions that would define their roles in the story? Yes, it would be too much of a movie cliché to have Julie Christie play the two roles of the wife and the book girl in sharply contrasting styles; but Truffaut makes nothing out of her being so much the same in both roles. It hardly helps us to see what books mean in human life if her range of expressiveness is as narrow for the book girl as for the bookless, pill-head wife. The book girl’s language is just as drab and she doesn’t show any of the curiosity or imagination that might indicate that books had done something for her. Couldn’t she have some quality that would help us understand why Werner reacts to her suggestion that he read a book? And shouldn’t he have something that sets him apart, that makes him a candidate for heresy?

The Book People Should Show Their Love of Words

If the reply is that in this movie the books represent the life that is not in the people, then surely it is even more necessary to see that the book people have life. Shouldn’t they speak differently from the others, shouldn’t they take more pleasure in language? Couldn’t they give themselves away by the words they use—the love of the richness of words? It’s all very well for the director not to want to be obvious, but then he’d better be subtle. He can’t just abdicate as if he thought it would be too vulgar to push things one way or another. Criticism, in this case, turns into rewriting the movie: we can generally see what was intended but we have to supply so much of the meaning and connections for ourselves that it’s no wonder that when it’s over we start talking about how we would have done it.

There are a few nice “touches”: the loss of memory by bookless people so that they have no past and no history; their drugged narcissistic languor; and there is the rather witty hit about the chief book burner (Cyril Cusack) seeing the proof of the worthlessness of books in the fact that writers disagree. But these touches are made to pass for more than they should because there aren’t enough of them. The movie is so listless we have what we should never have in a gimmicky thriller: time to notice inconsistencies. People know how to read; why are they taught? Why are the book people hiding libraries in town instead of smuggling them to the woods? (Do they have a secret lending library?) Why are we shown the hero revealing his guilt to his co-workers (in scenes like his inability to go up the fire pole) if it doesn’t lead to any consequences? Why are we shown an antagonism between Werner and another fireman (Anton Diffring) which never develops into anything functional in the structure? Why is it so easy to escape to the woods? Couldn’t Truffaut or anyone think up a better contrivance to bring the book girl back than the need to retrieve an incriminating list of names (of people who memorize books!)? The actions in this movie don’t flow from the theme; O.K., we can accept that if, at least, they’re ingenious. But they’re not. Still, all the holes in the plot would just make it seem lacy and airy if the movie had rhythm, if it moved purposefully, if the moods surprised us or intrigued us. Why doesn’t it?

True, this film is the first Truffaut has made in a studio, the first in color (which slows down and complicates shooting), and it was made in England, with English technicians, and in English (thought Truffaut does not speak the language), which helps to explain why the timing and inflections are off in the dialogue and why the script sounds as if it were written by the bookless people. In other words, he has been totally uprooted and separated from his earlier coworkers. Business conditions made him a refugee, struggling against the same pressures of speed and efficiency and fixed shooting schedules that made the great refugee directors of Europe into modestly talented hacks in Hollywood in the thirties and forties, and so we cannot expect the spontaneity of Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim. But not even a little bit of it? Truffaut wanted to make Fahrenheit 451: why then, even allowing for the hurdles of language and technology, isn’t it more imaginatively thought out, felt, why are the ideas dull, the characters bland, the situations (like the hero breaking into the chief’s office) flat and clumsy? Why is the whole production so unformed?

I would offer the guess that it’s because Truffaut, in his adulation of Alfred Hitchcock, has betrayed his own talent—his gift for expressing the richness of life which could make him the natural heir of the greatest French director of them all, Jean Renoir. Instead, he is a bastard pretender to the commercial throne of Hitchcock—and his warmth and sensibility will destroy his chances of sitting on it. (Roman Polanski and dozens of others will get there before him.) Truffaut can’t use Hitchcock’s techniques because they were devised for something tightly controlled and limited and because they are based on coercing the audiences’ responses (and, of course, making them enjoy it). Hitchcock is a master of a very small domain: even his amusing perversities are only two- or three-dimensional. Truffaut has it in him not to create small artificial worlds around gimmicky plots, but to open up the big world, and to be loose and generous and free and easy with it.

SOURCE: “The Living Library: Fahrenheit 451” in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1968) by Pauline Kael, Curtis Brown, Ltd.


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