Truffaut worked on the adaptation for Fahrenheit 451 for several years before he was able to bring it to the screen. A highly personal film, he chose to work with the very best in cinematography (Nicholas Roeg, who would become to be a visual and weird director), scriptwriting (his partner that had helped write every other screenplay with him up to this point) and acting (Julie Christie was a star about to become international and Oskar Werner was a man with whom he had worked with before in Jules and Jim). His vision was complete and his intent clear. A making of a masterpiece was all but inevitable. So why didn’t it become one?
This can be answered in several ways, but I guess I should detour here to explain the plot. Set in some undefined future, firemen are not used to put out fires, but rather to make them. In particular their job is to set fire to all sorts of reading material, and only visuals are the accepted mode of entertainment. However there are several dissidents that choose to hide books and to read them in secret. Eventually they are captured and sent off for re-education which is implied to be tortured. One of these dissidents becomes a fireman who meets an interesting woman who introduces him to the world of literature. He begins to see his world with a clearer eye and his secret becomes harder and harder to conceal. He is found out eventually, but escapes just in time in order to come into a commune where people are known more by their favorite books than by anything else.
Not necessarily a visual book, Truffaut had a couple of obstacles to tackle. The first being that it was a very English novel, but Truffaut did not speak English. In order to solve that problem, he learned enough English in order to translate the script and employed only people who were multi lingual, mainly Julie Christie and Oskar Werner. Oskar Werner proved to be another problem. He saw the character very differently than Truffaut mainly he played the character with more distance than what was comfortable with Truffaut. This created a rift in their relationship and by the time production wrapped, they were not talking. In fact to get back at Truffaut, Werner purposefully cut his hair in a way that would create a continuity problem for him in the last couple of scenes. Werner’s performance is so obviously in conflict with the rest of the performances, that it makes the film uneven.
It makes me sad that I did not think this film was very good. Truffaut seemed to have such a passion for the original novel and worked so tirelessly to have it made that I feel sorry for him to have produced such an inferior product. Werner’s performance is perhaps the most obvious regrettable choice, but it is not his only bad choice. Julie Christie is a great actress, but it seems that she must have forgotten her talent at home. The striking reds of the fire engine and the fire itself clash so obviously with the very sixties decorations. It seems to drag on and on and the most striking scenes in the book seem to be played down in the film so much so that you can barely tell it is a significant event in this fireman’s progression.
This film is the first disappointment that I have had in Truffaut’s filmography so far. I hope it will be my only one. I also hope that you do not think ill of me for putting down this film… I do it only to be truthful and take no pleasure in it.