Commies and Hippies: Fahrenheit 451

(This critique was originally written for course credit at Western Connecticut State university and the format reflects that. However, it is my expectation that the subjects and content appeal to readers of this blog, so here it is! Thank you to Dr. Oscar De Los Santos for your guidance.)

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Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 examined the ideas of an increased police state in the early 1950s and the attempts by the larger governments to control thought and ideology. Fifteen years later, Jean-Louis Richard and François Truffaut adapted the story in a world where the meanings of these things had drastically changed. As a result, while the original story remains focused, the combined result becomes a bit muddled, resulting in something that is looking to the past with one eye and the present with the other.

The interplay between characters is the driving force in Fahrenheit 451. Montag’s interactions with Clarisse set up the conflict; those with his wife establish the status quo and those with Captain Beatty set the stakes. The differences between these characters in the two versions establish each version of the story’s aim.

Mildred Montag’s name from the novel is changed to Linda in the film. While it is reasonable to believe that a thirty year old at the time Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 would be named Mildred, it is less likely that she would be at the time the film was released in 1966. Even in 1951, the name had been on a harsh decline for over two decades (per behindthename.com), which indicates that Bradbury may have been aiming for an anachronistic, dated (or out of touch) tone with the character. In addition to the “old” name, Bradbury is also unflattering in his descriptions of the character, using such terms as “veins and blotches”. The takeaway is that Mildred is not intended to be a particularly appealing character, even to her husband.

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Linda, on the other hand, is clearly a conventionally attractive woman. Julie Christie, who played Linda, was only 26, 18 years younger than her co-star Oskar Werner. Even more in her favor is that Christie also played Clarisse, the young woman whom both sources paint in a much more positive light. DVD Special Features from the 2003 version of the film indicate that producer Lewis M. Allen and director François Truffaut intended for Linda and Clarisse to be “two sides of the same coin” rather than being independent antagonistic and heroic characters, something that Bradbury described in a 2009 LA Weekly article as a mistake. While the most striking moments related to Mildred are about how Montag “remembered thinking then that if she died, he was certain he wouldn’t cry. For it would be the dying of an unknown,” that feeling is not explicitly described in the film. Instead, expansions to Linda’s role are of a sexual/enticing nature: her treatment after her suicide attempt makes her “hungry for all sorts of things” (referring to her sex drive), and leads to a heavily censored sex scene as well as a self-stimulation scene in a bathrobe. Contrasting Mildred against Linda seems to indicate that while Mildred is repulsive, a motive for Montag to discard his previous life in search of something new, Linda may be an enticement: a superficial yet undeniable benefit encouraging Montag to continue accepting life as it is and not to rock the proverbial boat.

Beyond these changes, the two versions of Mrs. Montag are relatively similar. Both spend their days watching television and listening to the radio, refusing to interact with the world in a meaningful way. The result of this media addiction is a mentality reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron; rather than being forced by the government to listen to distractions, Mrs. Montag distracts herself into ignorance.

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Clarisse McClellan’s role differs between mediums even more than Montag’s wife. In the Bradbury novel, Clarisse is a sixteen year-old girl. She attends school (when she feels like it), last appears on page 28, and is described as deceased on page 44 (though there are hints that she may not be as dead as she seems). She has very little screen-time, and fulfills only the role of calling Montag to action, performing some of the role of the Mentor archetype before it is picked up by Faber (who does not appear in the film) down the line. In the film, Clarisse is a twenty year-old woman; a teacher instead of a student. The audience is never allowed to believe Clarisse is dead, as Montag quickly seeks her out and speaks with her when she returns to her home. Here she tells Montag about the “Book People”, something that neither Clarisse nor Faber mentioned in the novel. She is primarily focused on her own path, and doesn’t provide as much general guidance or history to Montag as Faber does, but she does provide him with the goal of finding the Book People when the time comes.

With Clarisse being a slightly older character (and played by the older still actress who also portrays Montag’s wife Linda), the film is more comfortable hinting (using lingering camera shots and musical cues) at a potential romance between Montag and Clarisse, but this is never made explicit. Like the novel version of Clarisse, the film version is very much a free spirit, flitting in and out of Montag’s scenes with little regard to his choice and potentially representing the hippie culture that was rising during the release of the film (though not the novel).

Clarisse’s expanded role in the film does nothing but good for her character (Bradbury would later borrow this expanded role for the stage version of the story), but it does come at a cost: the character of Faber, who fleshed out some of the details of the sociopolitical setting and history, is completely absent from the film. This was the one character that Montag had undisputable advantage over (Faber describes himself numerous times as a coward) yet was valuable as a source of knowledge and wisdom in a way that the less experienced Clarisse couldn’t always be.

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Fire Captain Beatty, Montag’s boss, is a character that goes through more subtle changes. In the Bradbury novel, Beatty is often quoting or interpreting quotes from books. He is very clearly a well-read individual, shares his secrets selectively, and is in favor of the government suppression of knowledge (or at least presents himself as being in favor of it). All of these traits begin to reveal themselves more and more as the novel goes on, with Beatty starting off as being your standard superior, even kindly to Montag. Toward Beatty’s final scenes, however, it becomes clear that he and Montag are diametrically opposed (though there is an argument, hinging on Beatty’s true intentions when he mocks the flame-thrower holding Montag, that this is all an elaborate façade). In the film, Beatty is a much more sinister individual. He speaks like a villain, alternating between the second and third person when speaking to Montag, and is generally treated as more a danger than a friend by non-dialogue cinematic elements. Here, too, he reflects the ruling elite: after we see news clips of the authorities forcibly cutting a young man’s hair for daring to avoid the barber (perhaps another reference to ‘60s youth culture), we see Beatty haranguing trainees at the firehouse for similar uniform infractions. While this is a paramilitary uniform and could easily have been treated differently, these moments show an animalistic side of Beatty, screaming and beating them in a way that is unilaterally negative and not at all mentor-like. The final change to this character is that in the film he truly forces Montag’s hand: when Montag makes the decision to end Beatty’s life, this time Beatty is holding a handgun that he clearly intends to use on Montag.

All of these changes lead to Montag. Montag himself is a fairly passive character, though the ways in which he is active change in each iteration. He starts the story simply going on in the way that his father and grandfather have. We have reason to suspect that he may be hoarding books in the novel (the hound), which he is definitely not doing at this point in the film, but he is not truly rebellious. Clarisse causes a sort of awakening in him, though it’s not until he watches a woman burn herself rather than leave her books that he truly becomes an active character. In the novel, this leads him to seek out help, meeting Faber, while in the film be begins to very obviously read books with no interest in hiding this from Linda. Both versions end with him angrily reading a poem to his wife and her friends, resulting in a call to the fire department and Montag’s expulsion from society. The greatest result of this change was that Montag did not meet Faber, but there is no drastic change to the climax or to Montag’s character resulting from it.

Some of the most obvious changes are streamlining presentation for film. A written story can have an almost infinite number of characters; as long as it doesn’t distract the readers, it doesn’t hurt the budget. In a film, having a consistent character like Clarisse is much simpler than having both Clarisse and Faber. However, other points may have driven these same decisions. We’ve already seen how the film versions of Clarisse and Beatty lend themselves to the idea that the government and hippie culture are in opposition to one another; might it not also be so that Faber, an old man hiding his true desires for fear of McCarthy-esque sedition charges, might not fit as clearly into that conflict?

Beyond the characters, one thing that causes the film to stand out from the novel is the technology. On the most basic level, characters’ homes are at a much more modern level in the film version than the novel. Telephones are very clearly modern (as compared to what one would see in science fiction shows of the period), and while flat-screen televisions were futuristic at the time, owning a single flat-screen television is very differently from having three entire walls of your living room made of television screens. Similarly, while the firehouse pole that detects the books on Montag’s hands and refuses to carry him up to the second floor are futuristic concepts, they are a far cry from the mechanical bloodhound that is able to not only fulfill this function, but also to add an increased level of menace to the climax of the film. This greatly humanizes events, making it clear that they could happen today. Elements such as helicopters being used to gun down the scapegoat once Montag escapes are a reminder of the wars fought throughout the twentieth century.

While the technological world-building is decreased in the film, the social world-building is increased. All characters are blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Authorities such as Beatty and others are seen forcing people to get haircuts, and a boy that is in a passionate embrace with himself (likely to avoid overstepping content boundaries) is quickly interrupted when seen. While Clarisse occasionally mentioned her classes in which she was largely expected to watch television, the film shows students chanting numbers in unison and makes reference to a uniform that teachers are expected to wear.

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While Bradbury’s concerns, sparked by unnecessary road stops of pedestrians focused on thought-policing with a sprinkling of nuclear annihilation, the film version focuses most strongly on freedom of expression and personal choice. While the former includes an element of “give the people what they want” with one of the larger consequences being unfulfilled lives (leading to the high levels of suicide depicted in the book), the latter, a clear demonstration of Fascist ideology, leaves less room for grey depiction of antagonistic characters such as Beatty. Despite what should be a clear focus, it still results in a plot that feels slightly muddled, as the technological fears of the novel are replaced with more general goings-on. While the novel ends with a (scientifically implausible) march to help right a ruined city with messages of rebirth, the film ends with more or less aimless wandering, hoping against all odds that things will change someday.

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