Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) is widely considered as a hallmark of the dystopian literary genre, and its science-fiction qualities that set the story in the unknown future only enhances the novel’s critique of absolute governance. More than a decade later, acclaimed French filmmaker François Truffaut directed his only English-language film, adapting Bradbury’s book to the screen. At this point Truffaut had established the beginnings of his oeuvre with notable works like The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962), none of which dealt with anything similar to the book-burning totalitarianism of the state featured so prominently in Bradbury’s world.
Science-fiction seemed like an area that Truffaut would never proceed into, and so his decision to adapt the most famous work by the author of classics such as The Martian Chronicles (1950) jarred with critics, leading to rather vituperative evaluations of the film version. Consider the following remark by critic David Wingrove:
"The film should never have been made. Bradbury's tale worked because it was in the literary medium; transferred to another medium the whole tenor of its argument (for film is, to a greater degree than literature, a passive medium) crumbled."
This comment suggests that the inherent qualities of cinema doomed Truffaut's project to failure from the start. In particular, Wingrove highlights "the whole tenor of [Bradbury's] argument" going down the drain. But let's take a step back to refocus on the argument of the novel. The state has banned literature and redefined the role of firemen, who are now responsible for burning books. Reading as an act is not completely forbidden, for firemen such as the protagonist Guy Montag carry around rulebooks that include the textual mission statement of the state fire department. Hence the system, in seeking to exercise total control over society, establishes a monopoly on information and its distribution. Key to Bradbury's critique of this authoritarian rule are the prominent references to sight and vision. Montag's wife Mildred represents the rest of society, for she cares little about reality and spends most of her time plugged into various visual media, particularly her three domestic wall-screens that every household owns.
She is an empty human vessel, incapable of holding a conversation with Montag or recalling where neighbors have gone. These wall-screens―referred to as "parlor walls"―are the prime example of state preoccupation with controlling the visual. This emphasis on surveillance is common to much of dystopian fiction: consider the constant visible presence of 'Big Brother' in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four (1949) or all the citizens of the One State who live in glass apartments in Zamyatin's We (1921). In addition to exercising utter authority on what society gets to watch and read, the state has conditioned its populace to frequently turn to visual media to stay content and satisfied. And the process has been succeeding immensely; the backdrop of Fahrenheit 451 includes frequent aerial bombing raids, but Mildred nor anyone else demonstrates any awareness of this conflict, and happily live within a pleasant but fabricated virtual reality.
Though critics have lambasted Truffaut's film for some major deviations from the novel―such as omitting certain characters or keeping others alive when they had disappeared early on the book―one should not overlook the director's faithfulness to the emphasis on visual domination. As the credits roll at the beginning of the movie, Technicolor shots of sophisticated surveillance equipment on house roofs immediately establish the sense of constant state scrutiny. They appear to be antennae, and one could link them to the ubiquitous wall-screens in each home, but this connection is important to the plot's dystopian qualities: these parlor walls are intimately associated with the ongoing watch of the authorities. People are expected to tune into their wall-screens and conditioned to enjoy it, thus allowing the state to keep a tab on its society.
Those who act in a contrary manner are considered dissidents, and the early disappearance of the teenager Clarisse clearly illustrates what will befall those with alternate worldviews. From his first encounter with her Montag learns about her eccentricities, such as deliberately riding back and forth on the train system to just "watch people." She complains about the stifling environment of school, where her curriculum discourages direct interactions between students and promotes film-watching and sports. Montag finds himself trying out seemingly normal actions that she has mentioned, including watching the morning dew on the grass or the moonlight from the sky. That he needs her reminders to start carrying out such simple tasks reinforces the total state domination of the visual. Though he is not as mesmerized by his household wall-screen as Mildred is, he has still been living most of his life on auto-pilot, until bumping into Clarisse. She doesn't stick around though, and her disappearance after the novel's first fifty pages shows the state isn't taking chances with social deviants such as herself.
Truffaut's film keeps her alive and changes her occupation to a teacher instead of teenage student. Nonetheless the emphasis on visual domination is still present in the adaptation, for Clarisse describes to Montag how many of her colleagues at school dislike her, because she tries so hard to "make classes fun." In trying to encourage social interactions amongst the students and feeling the cold-shoulder response, Clarisse highlights the extent that society has been conditioned to look down upon real-life contact. Instead everyone flocks to the parlor walls for their constant overdose of visual stimuli, reinforcing the successful assertion of total state control.
Finally, Truffaut's adaptation greatly emphasizes the strong allure of fire and public book burning. Bradbury begins his novel with Montag's view of the pleasurable sight of fire, and the satisfying feeling one gets in watching flames chew pages and turn them into black ash. These descriptions illustrate his utter subjugation to the visual allure of burning, explaining why he had never questioned his job and never doubted his responsibility of destroying literature.
The film captures the frenzy of raiding one's home to find secretly stashed books and then burning them, where long-shots focus on furious flames that eat up mountains of banned novels. Furthermore, the adaptation also highlights the public spectacle of burning; the first raid of the movie shows many residents exiting their homes and standing on their porches or balconies watching the destruction. The sight of such raids is enough to lure citizens away from their wall-screens, reinforcing the significance and visual allure of these public burnings. The assemblage of a crowd to view the burning links directly with Bradbury's novel, which describes people eagerly gathering around a "carnival" or "circus" of the incinerated books.
Fahrenheit 451 is a distinct work of science-fiction that presents a dystopian vision of unchecked state totalitarianism. The protagonist along with the rest of society have been content with their livelihoods, demonstrating the effective power utter dominance of the visual. Through constant surveillance, oversaturation of visual media, and the publicity of mass burning, the state controls what and how people see. François Truffaut makes significant adjustments to the plot in his film adaptation, but nonetheless maintains the dystopian vision of the novel by crucially emphasizing these visual themes. From there he has successfully transferred the anxieties of the science-fiction piece to the screen, gesturing at a hallmark criticism of an extreme form of total governance and unchecked consolidation of power.
Jonathan Lin is a Bookworm, Music Junkie, Cineaste, Tech Enthusiast, Gadget Guru, Blogger, Musician, Jogger, Dreamer, and in the Carleton College class of '13.
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