When François Truffaut Made a Film Adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

The pro­tag­o­nist of Ray Brad­bury’s Fahren­heit 451 is a “fire­man” tasked with incin­er­at­ing what few books remain in a domes­tic-screen-dom­i­nat­ed future soci­ety forced into illit­er­a­cy. Late in life, Ray Brad­bury declared that he wrote the nov­el because he was “wor­ried about peo­ple being turned into morons by TV.” This tinges with a cer­tain irony giv­en that the lat­est adap­ta­tion was made for HBO (2018). That project, which one crit­ic likened it to “a Glax­o­SmithK­line pro­duc­tion of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,” will prob­a­bly not be the last Fahren­heit 451 movie. Nor was it the first: that title goes to the one Nou­velle Vague auteur François Truf­faut’s film direct­ed in 1966, though many count that as a dubi­ous hon­or.

A con­tem­po­rary review in Time mag­a­zine mem­o­rably called Truf­faut’s Fahren­heit 451 a “weird­ly gay lit­tle pic­ture that assails with both hor­ror and humor all forms of tyran­ny over the mind of man,” albeit one that “strong­ly sup­ports the wide­ly held sus­pi­cion that Julie Christie can­not actu­al­ly act.”

Truf­faut bold­ly cast Christie in a dual role, as both pro­tag­o­nist Guy Mon­tag’s TV-and-pill-addict­ed wife and the young rebel who even­tu­al­ly lures him over to the pro-book lib­er­a­tion move­ment. Though some view­ers see it as the pic­ture’s fatal flaw, Scott Tobias, writ­ing at The Dis­solve, calls it a “mas­ter­stroke” that ren­ders the near­ly iden­ti­cal char­ac­ters “the abstract rep­re­sen­ta­tives of con­for­mi­ty and non-con­for­mi­ty they had always been in the book.”

It’s easy to imag­ine what appeal the source mate­r­i­al would have held for Truf­faut, the most lit­er­ary-mind­ed leader of the French New Wave; recall the shrine to Balzac kept by young Antoine Doinel in Truf­faut’s auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal debut The 400 Blows. By the time he went to work on Fahren­heit 451, his sixth fea­ture, he’d become what the Amer­i­can behind-the-scenes trail­er calls an “inter­na­tion­al­ly famous French direc­tor.” But this time, cir­cum­stances con­spired against him: his increas­ing­ly frac­tious rela­tion­ship with Jules and Jim star Oskar Wern­er did the lat­ter’s per­for­mance as Mon­tag no favors, and the mon­ey hav­ing come from the U.K. forced him to work in Eng­lish, a lan­guage of which he had scant com­mand at the time.

Truf­faut him­self enu­mer­ates these and oth­er dif­fi­cul­ties in a pro­duc­tion diary pub­lished over sev­er­al issues of Cahiers du Ciné­ma (begin­ning with num­ber 175). Yet near­ly six decades lat­er, his trou­bled inter­pre­ta­tion of Fahren­heit 451 still fas­ci­nates. New York­er crit­ic Richard Brody calls it “one of Truffaut’s wildest films, a cold­ly flam­boy­ant out­pour­ing of visu­al inven­tion in the ser­vice of lit­er­ary pas­sion and artis­tic mem­o­ry as well as a repu­di­a­tion of a world of uni­form con­ve­nience and com­fort­able con­for­mi­ty.” Today we may won­der why the paraso­cial rela­tion­ship Mon­tag’s wife anx­ious­ly main­tains with her tele­vi­sion, which must have seemed fan­tas­ti­cal in the mid-six­ties, feels dis­com­fit­ing­ly famil­iar — and how long it will be before Fahren­heit 451 gets re-adapt­ed as a binge-ready pres­tige TV dra­ma.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Truf­faut Became Truf­faut: From Pet­ty Thief to Great Auteur

Ralph Steadman’s Hell­ish Illus­tra­tions for Ray Bradbury’s Clas­sic Dystopi­an Nov­el Fahren­heit 451

Behold Sovi­et Ani­ma­tions of Ray Brad­bury Sto­ries

Why Should We Read Ray Bradbury’s Fahren­heit 451? A New TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion Explains

Ray Brad­bury Reveals the True Mean­ing of Fahren­heit 451: It’s Not About Cen­sor­ship, But Peo­ple “Being Turned Into Morons by TV”

How the French New Wave Changed Cin­e­ma: A Video Intro­duc­tion to the Films of Godard, Truf­faut & Their Fel­low Rule-Break­ers

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Phil Nichols says:

    Nice lit­tle arti­cle. Just one mis­take in para­graph 3: “Ray Mon­tag”??? Should be “Guy Mon­tag”, of course.

    Oh, and Truf­faut did­n’t just have a poor grasp of Eng­lish in 1966. He had a life­long strug­gle with it. For­tu­nate­ly, both Julie Christie and cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er Nic Roeg were flu­ent French speak­ers, which made his time on set a lit­tle bit eas­i­er. (And Ray Brad­bury’s wife was a teacher of French, so was able to trans­late Truf­faut’s let­ters to Brad­bury!)

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