Threatened Individualism: On François Truffaut’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’

Fahrenheit 451 1966 Movie - Film Essay

Fahrenheit 451 is a sociopolitical satire, based on Ray Bradbury’s 1953 book of the same title. Characteristic of a French New Wave director, François Truffaut provokes the film’s audience into self-reflection. He presents a variety of threats to individualism and creativity in the turbulent 60s: authoritarian states; the increasing prevalence of television and mass media; the impact of modernistic art and architecture. Truffaut strategically weaves together the elements of setting, cinematography, pop culture and biblical symbolism to rebel against any force which threatens individualism.

Together with Jean-Louis Richard, Truffaut wrote Fahrenheit 451’s screenplay about the evolution of Guy Montag (Oskar Werner), a fireman who dutifully hunts for and burn books on behalf of a government which has deemed books a social vice, leading to inequality and unhappiness. By ridding society of books, Montag and his fellow firemen extinguish the flames of independent and creative thought. Yet, when a book-loving schoolteacher, Clarisse (Julie Christie) questions Montag’s profession and his satisfaction with it, she awakens Montag’s curiosity and rational thought. He rebels against authorities, starts reading books and evolves into a thinking person. Montag falls out of love with his empty-headed, TV-addicted, pill-popping wife, Linda (also Julie Christie). The intellectual stimulation that Montag elicits from reading transcends into a shared cult-like obsession with books. In the end, Montag escapes to a wilderness of book lovers who memorize novels for posterity, with the hope of one day being free to reprint them. He does so after his wife leaves him and his own fire department squad destroys his home and books. It is unclear whether Montag will achieve happiness.

Fahrenheit 451 Film Movie 1966

At the start of Fahrenheit 451, Truffaut presents a montage of TV antennas emblazoned against bold color backgrounds. This may be likened to Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Diptych” (1962), an emotionless presentation of many color and black and white variations of a Marilyn Monroe photograph. The original image of this manufactured star was made for mass reproduction. In Fahrenheit 451, this aesthetic feature sets the stage for Truffaut’s commentary on the superficial nature of society. As pop art grew in popularity, it detracted attention from the masterpieces of the ages which reflect the unique vision and inspiration of each classic art master. It is, therefore, fitting for Truffaut to allude to pop art as he presents the rise of television pulling people away from classic books containing the philosophies, aspirations and innermost thoughts of history’s greatest minds. He correlates pop art and television as threats to individualism, freedom of thought and creativity.

Establishing a repetitive, mechanistic tone and texture, modernist architecture fills virtually every frame of Fahrenheit 451. The sterile setting drives a sense of bland conformity. This is reminiscent of Le Corbusier who regarded houses as machines for living (Towards a New Architecture, 1923). Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg shoots Montag’s neighborhood block of identical houses from side angles yielding an infinite mirror effect. The house interiors have only the bare essentials for food and sleep, with minimal kitchens. There are no town squares outside the linear corridors that go from one block to the next. The absence of a city center lessens opportunity for communication and the spark of creativity. The city setting conveys a sense of forced equality and assimilation.

As television replaces reading in the lives of Fahrenheit 451’s characters, it spews out the naïve vacuous pabulum also found in today’s reality show programming. Linda expresses to Montag how wonderful it is that she has been chosen for an appearance on a popular TV show, “Family,” and invites him to share in her excited speculation as to whether she could become an actress. Montag is far less gullible as he responds, “Oh, Linda. They must have phoned all of the 200,000 Lindas in the whole country.” Unlike the rest of the 60s characters, Montag has a sense of reality as expressed by Andrew Oldham in Why I Hate the Sixties (2004). Oldham affirms it is possible to go to a party and pick out any random person and make him or her a star. Truffaut’s attack on TV culminates when Montag is stunned to view his own mock execution broadcast live to the nation. A fellow book person explains to Montag, “They can’t keep the viewers waiting much longer… the show must go on… anybody will do to provide them with their climax.” With Fahrenheit 451’s ending that falls short of “happily ever after,” Truffaut revokes television’s propensity or duty to succinctly tie up loose ends.

Fahrenheit 451 Film Movie 1966

Throughout both the foreground and background of Fahrenheit 451, Truffaut emphasizes the characters’ self-absorption via a hyper-sexual form of narcissism in a society lacking real love. In the course of his daily commute, Montag witnesses fellow passengers kissing their own reflections in the window, embracing their bodies and touching their legs. Even Linda, his wife, is shown to be fondling her breasts, while looking directly at a mirror. This is a sign she is unfulfilled in a quest for never ending satisfaction. During Montag and Linda’s rather mechanistic love-making, a melancholic Bernard Hermann score plays similar to the score of Vertigo (1958) when Scottie attempts to artificially create the perfect woman. This music is a discrete clue that there is no real substance behind these acts of love.

Montag’s life and career is a progression of empty acts before he starts to read. Truffaut emphasizes this linearity through the cinematic effect of mass ornament. Examples include the firemen sliding down the fire poll, getting on and off the fire truck in unison and then parading in their pursuit of the enemy, books. This robotic nature is also enhanced by Bernard Hermann’s score. The music is always in sync with the firemen’s movements, with a sense of factory assembly line repetition, like that found in Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” (1937). During each book destruction, the men go into a wild frenzy. Similarly, modernist architects and developers of the 60s were excited to evict long-standing residents of older, sentimental homes, in order to demolish them and erect sterile high-rises.

Fahrenheit 451 Film Movie 1966

Repetitive linearity continues as Montag spends every day riding the monorail, going to and from work on the same linear track, with a blank expression on his face. Roeg effectively uses POV shots to help create a sense of linear tunnel vision, with characters never viewing their surroundings or thinking outside the box. A tunnel POV shot shows Montag escorting Clarisse to school. The hallways are extremely tight. As Clarisse encounters one the students, the child treats her like an intruder and looks for another teacher. Soon after, a comparison scene occurs in which Montag wife’s, Linda, is walking down her household corridor in a linear POV shot. Linda encounters Montag reading books and immediately reacts with alarm. This demonstrates society’s intolerance for anything off the rails.

Truffaut also incorporates biblical symbolism to tell his tale. During a book raid, when a fireman grabs an apple from the kitchen table of an invaded house, Captain Beatty knocks the apple from his subordinate’s mouth as he takes a bite. It is as if the fireman is taking a bite of the apple of knowledge of good and evil from the Garden of Eden. Captain Beatty rejects any pursuit of knowledge. In contrast, in the land of the book people, a man freely takes repeated bites of a juicy apple. Another biblical reference is the crossing of the river to enter the land of the book people. Those who pursue books, and knowledge, are reborn and saved, as if they experience a baptismal cleansing of new birth in a river.

Fahrenheit 451 Film Movie 1966

Yet, even upon Montag’s arrival at this book lover’s paradise, there is still a sense of melancholy which lingers over the final scenes. Linearity reappears in Montag’s life. Everyone is shown moving from the left and right of the frame, wandering back and forth, rehearsing and retelling books. The book people forgo their own individuality, not even retaining their own names. Viewers may conclude that it isn’t books or the eradication of books that is problematic, nor even pop art or modernist architecture. Rather, viewers may be inspired to look at their own lives and evaluate whether they are able to be creative and freely express themselves.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.