Some allusions to French literature in Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451.
When it was released in 1966, Truffaut's only English-language film met with general disappointment. Science-fiction devotees found the film unconvincing, since Truffaut had systematically eliminated almost all the novel's futuristic gadgets. Fans of Truffaut's earlier work found this film strangely flat, with characters who are uninteresting and emotionless (Crisp 91). Worst of all, it was judged to be something of a "sellout," with Truffaut being accused of simply trying to capitalize on the popularity of American film (de Baecque 321), working in a genre and a language that were equally foreign to his true artistic talents. Even the Cahiers du cinema, of which Truffaut had been a cofounder, ranked the film only in fourteenth place on the list of the leading French films of the year (321). Not surprisingly, Fahrenheit 451 was a financial failure, attracting a mere 185,000 viewers during its eighteen weeks in French theaters (322). It did no better at its New York premier, after Bosley Crowther's savaging of the film in The New York Times. "Holy smoke!" he wrote, "What a pretentious and pedantic production he has made of Ray Bradbury's futuristic story."
Happily, over the years, a general reassessment of this film has occurred, with some critics now praising the work as "the most restrained and elegiac of science fiction films, full of poignant moments," notwithstanding its "loud political message, teaching us about the importance of intellectual freedom" (Henkel). There remains much interesting detail in Fahrenheit 451 that has yet to be discussed, however, and I am not at all sure that the central message of the film has yet been adequately clarified. In particular, interpreting Truffaut's film as being primarily a political statement against book censorship seems problematic in that it places this film so completely outside the genre for which Truffaut is famous and also seems so contrary to his apolitical nature. Although Truffaut does say that he was attracted to the Bradbury novel because it "pushes to the limit this tragedy of book censorship" (Le cinema selon 171; my translation), one must ask what sort of censorship he is referring to. Answering this question just might be the key to interpreting the film as a whole, and examining a few allusions to French literature in the film can assist in discovering an answer. Some of these allusions may go unrecognized by Englishspeaking moviegoers, but they are (or, at least, they should be) much more obvious to a French audience.
The first mention of French literature occurs before we see any French titles on screen. During his initial encounter with Clarisse, the young woman who will eventually lead him to the clandestine activity of book reading, Montag explains proudly that his job as a fireman offers much variety: "On Monday we burn Miller, Tuesday Tolstoy, Wednesday Walt Whitman, Friday Faulkner, and Saturday and Sunday, Schopenhauer and Sartre." It is worth noting what Truffaut has added to Bradbury's novel, where Montag's list was limited to alliterations with Monday, Wednesday and Friday (7). Truffaut expands the list, and not just to show off his knowledge and love of books. The list is international in scope. Whereas Bradbury mentions only Englishlanguage authors, Truffaut adds Russian, German, and, of course, French, foretelling the polyglot community of the Book People at the end of the film. Truffaut puts the leading French writer of his day at the summit of his list, certainly not an arbitrary decision. At the time the film was in production, Sartre was at the height of his popularity among French youth, and was viewed very much as a counter-cultural figure. Truffaut's choice of Sartre is rather iconic and certainly less coherent as a political statement than as a symbol of the rejection of bourgeois, consumerist society.
Truffaut's expanded list also suggests that ultimate horror for any Frenchman, the six-day workweek, since the only day not mentioned by Montag for book-burning is Thursday (perhaps because the "th" in that word is such an unpleasant and difficult effort for a Frenchman to pronounce). The six-day workweek is also suggested by the Captain's asking Montag what he does with his single "day" off. The Captain is quite satisfied with Montag's response that he does nothing but "mow the lawn" and his further assurance that should lawn-mowing ever be forbidden, he would spend his free time just watching the grass grow. Thus, the oppressive censorship in Fahrenheit 451 is much broader than just a prohibition against books. Truffaut's dystopia is not only a world where reading is forbidden, it is a society in which work, sports, and television occupy all waking hours. The individual has no free time for personal interaction, and a personal friendship is viewed with suspicion and can lead to big trouble, as it does for the trainee firemen who are berated by the Captain for sitting beside each other at the fire academy. In all of this, the film faithfully reproduces the atmosphere of the Bradbury novel, where architects have gradually eliminated front porches from houses and people no longer use rocking chairs because such things lead to private conversations and quiet reflection (57-58).
A much more subtle reference to a French literary figure occurs when Montag, overwhelmed by curiosity, climbs out of bed in the middle of the night for the first of his many clandestine adventures in reading. Graham Petrie comments on Montag's strange appearance in a long, white, hooded garment suggestive of a monk's habit. But far from being the "tongue-incheek deflation of over-solemnity" that Petrie identifies (100), this scene is, in fact, a not-soobscure homage to the nineteenth-century French novelist, Honore de Balzac. Balzac was one of Truffaut's favorite writers, and there are references to him in several films. Pierre Lachenay, the writer and literary critic in La peau douce, is a Balzac scholar, and there is a memorable tribute to Balzac in The 400 Blows, where Antoine Doinel is briefly awakened to the joy and consolation afforded by great literature when he consumes and is consumed by the story, La recherche de l'absolu. At one point, Antoine creates a little shrine to Balzac, complete with an emblematic photograph and a candle, and nearly manages to set fire to his apartment in the process. In an odd coincidence, it is Montag's discovery of literature that will lead him, eventually, to set fire to his own house.
The always perceptive Annette Insdorf has discovered such connections between these scenes in the two films (162), but she doesn't recognize the Balzacian image in Fahrenheit 451. Insdorf states that Montag's appearance in a white robe signals "what might be termed a religious experience. The sacred quality of the encounter between man and book is heightened by his wearing a bathrobe which resembles that [sic] of a monk" (51). What she doesn't know is that the symbolism actually originates with Balzac, not Truffaut. When writing his huge, cyclical novels, Balzac routinely worked throughout the night, fortified by very strong coffee and, strangely, wearing the white robes of an Augustinian, complete with a rope cincture. Once, Balzac even posed for a famous portrait in this outfit, and Truffaut was certainly familiar with the picture.
In addition to the more obvious suggestions of the cultic, secretive nature of reading, Truffaut seems to be emphasizing the intimate, creative collaboration of author and reader. In this regard, it is important to remember that Montag and Linda have no children, and in his middle-ofthe-night excursions into literature, Montag leaves the sterile marriage bed to engage in the illicit but fruitful activity of reading. Moreover, for Balzac, the monk's habit reflected his conviction that the writer has a quasi-divine mission of both creating and passing judgment. As Montag rediscovers the past through literature, he creates for himself a new family, and becomes the judgmental, anti-social person the fire captain had described when referring to people who read books. When Linda invites her friends into their home, Montag berates them as "zombies" who are not even living, and he proceeds to analyze their dysfunctional marriages, just as Balzac believed himself to be a sort of supreme zoologist, examining human specimens beneath a microscope.
In one very brief but significant scene, we observe Montag once again in his white robe sitting at a table piled with books. He is intently concentrating and reading aloud a rather curious entry in the dictionary: "rhinoceros--any of certain large, powerful, thick-skinned, perissodactyl mammals of the family rhinocerotidae." Why on earth would Montag be studying rhinoceroses? His clandestine reading began with David Copperfield, and he then moved on to Jean Genet's autobiographic The Thief's Journal. He seems to have a decided preference for books that tell stories about people. Just prior to this dictionary scene, when Linda discovers a stash of his books, Montag explains: "Behind each of these books, there's a man. That's what interests me." Later in the film, when Montag is forced to set fire to his own personal library, every book we see on screen is either a work of literature or biography. So, given his nascent literary tastes, where has Montag encountered mention of a large, horned creature he has apparently never seen?
Again, though the reference to a rhinoceros might be ambiguous for an average Englishspeaking audience, it is not an especially obscure literary allusion for a Frenchman, especially for the period in which this film was produced. In 1960, at about the time Truffaut was beginning work on the screenplay for Fahrenheit 451, there occurred in Paris the premier of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist play, Rhinoceros, in which people in a French town are gradually transformed into horned beasts when they come down with a contagious disease identified as "rhinoceritis." Ionesco's play is an allegory of the rise of a fascist ideology and its seductive hold over an ever-greater percentage of the populace. So far, I have not discovered in Truffaut's journals or correspondence any mention of Ionesco or his play. In addition to viewing hundreds of films a year, however, Truffaut was a cultured and literate man in every sense. I have no doubt that he must have seen Rhinoceros during its much-celebrated first season on the Parisian stage. In Ionesco's play, it is important to note that people are susceptible to the collective psychosis of rhinoceritis (or fascism) only if they want to catch the disease. Truffaut may have seen a connection with his film's theme of conformity versus individualism. He may also have been struck by the prominent role of the firemen who are transformed into rhinoceroses and march in a militaristic parade, like soldiers and enforcers of the emerging fascist regime. That Truffaut opted to allude to Ionesco's play is another important indication, I think, that he is not talking about oppressive book censorship per se in this film. He is talking about the voluntary adoption of an insane way of life by an entire civilization.
Some of the allusions to French literature and history in Fahrenheit 451 have simply been misidentified, perhaps because of the critics' overemphasis on the message of authorial freedom versus censorship. For example, just as the fire begins to consume an old woman who has refused to leave her books, we see the picture of a woman dressed in what appears to be old-fashioned religious garb. This picture, on the cover of a book being blackened by flames, has been mistakenly identified as the cover of an issue of the Cahiers du cinema that discussed_jacque Rivette's film, La religieuse, recently banned by the French Minister of the Interior (Harrison 55). But that film is not in fact alluded to in Fahrenheit 451, even though elsewhere Truffaut did defend Rivette's work and protested its censure. What we actually see burning is the cover of Michelet's Jeanne d'Arc featuring a picture of Jean Seberg in the title role of Otto Preminger's 1957 film, The Passion of Saint Joan (Crisp 85). Knowing this can lead us to a very different interpretation of the images and dialogue in this scene. The picture of Joan of Arc is seen immediately after the old woman has fallen into a pile of flaming books, preferring to die than to live separated from her secret library. Moments before, the Fire Captain had asked her, "What do you want, martyrdom?" The old woman had answered, "I want to die as I have lived," to which the Captain replied derisively, "Uh huh, you must have read that in there," gesturing to the pile of books he was about to burn. Truffaut's stance here has less to do with book censorship than with defending the legitimacy of one's interior life, the individual's right to follow her inner voice. As an illiterate peasant girl, Joan of Arc would be a curious figure to enlist in support of authorial privilege. Her "crime" was not reading, but speaking and behaving in an unorthodox fashion. She was martyred as a heretic for having responded to a highly individual calling. In the same way, Truffaut's old woman simply refuses to conform to another's idea of how to live, even to the point of preferring death. This simple defense of the individual over the collective is, I believe, the real message of Truffaut's film, and a common theme in all his cinema.
There is much more to discover in Fahrenheit 451 concerning allusions to French literature. One could, for example, study the interrelationships of the numerous French books that appear on screen or are mentioned in the dialogue. Laura Carroll believes that the "associations the spectator tries to attach to these books are negated" by the static, seemingly arbitrary way they follow each other in rapid succession. Although I tend to agree, examining the book titles might still be a fruitful line of research, since we know that the books appearing in the film were not chosen at random. According to both Lewis M. Allen, the producer of Fahrenheit 451, and Tom Noble, the film's editor, Truffaut personally selected every book that is seen in the film, spending many hours arranging and rearranging them in piles and on shelves to make sure that his favorite titles appeared (Bouzereau). At the very least, we can learn something more about Truffaut the reader and book-lover, who would certainly agree with Montag when he tells a bewildered Linda, "these books are my family."
We have seen that the first critics of Fahrenheit 451 often did not know what to make of the film and did not conceal their dislike of the work. Truffaut himself was very unhappy with his creation, feeling that the scenes lacked continuity. Interestingly, Ray Bradbury was one viewer who greatly admired the film. After a private screening prior to its public release, Bradbury sent the following telegram to Truffaut: "How rare it is for a writer to enter a movie theater and to see his own novel adapted on screen so faithfully and in such a captivating fashion" (qtd. in de Baecque 321; my translation). I think it is valid, therefore, to rely on the novel as an aid to interpreting the film. Indeed, certain misconceptions about Truffaut's film seem to parallel a general misunderstanding of Bradbury's text.
It is often presumed that Bradbury, writing in 1953, is reacting to the recent disturbing images and implications of Nazi book-burning (Erickson; Scheib). In fact, the novel makes it quite clear that the anti-intellectual society of the future has arisen voluntarily and through the willing embrace of mass consumerism and mindless entertainment. The Fire Captain explains to Montag that books just stopped selling, and magazines became "vanilla tapioca" (52) in a democratic dumbing-down of culture: "There you have it, Montag. It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick" (53). Similarly, in his film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, Truffaut is not seriously worried about storm-trooper firemen directed by a totalitarian state. His film is certainly not what one critic described as "a powerful monition against communist notions of equality" (Smith 21). To be sure, Truffaut is against book censorship, and he states openly that this is one of the themes in his film. However, Truffaut's definition of censorship includes much more than the very rare instances of book burning. For example, in his correspondence, Truffaut complains about the "censorship" resulting from certain television programs on literature, programs that simply refuse to speak about some books, with the result that "French television is still being run by pyromaniac firemen" (377).
Truffaut doesn't fear that reading will become the subversive gesture of an underground resistance. He knows that the greater menace to book reading, not to mention the livelihood of filmmakers, is actually the ubiquitous presence of television, mass media, and entertainment of every sort: "In our society," he says, "books are not burnt by Hitler or the Holy Inquisition, they are rendered useless, drowned in a flood of images, sounds, objects" (qtd. in Crisp 82). Ray Bradbury and Francois Truffaut both fear that people will simply stop reading, that they will voluntarily rid themselves of their literary heritage, or just leave a treasure-trove of classics collecting dust in a forgotten attic, their minds so dulled that they can only be engaged by interactive, "reality" television. If there truly is any futuristic aspect to Fahrenheit 451, it is found in Truffaut's prophecy of an entropic near future, "our own society, slightly distorted" (Crisp 85). Thus, the world portrayed by Truffaut is both foreign and familiar, dreary and disturbing, mostly because it is so hauntingly similar to our own.
TIMOTHY J. WILLIAMS
MODERN LANGUAGES & LITERATURES
de Baecque, Antoine, and Serge Toubiana. Francois Truffaut. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.
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Crowther, Bosley. "Fahrenheit 451 Makes Burning Issue Dull." Rev. of Fahrenheit 451, dir. Francois Truffaut. New York Times 15 Nov. 1966: 53.
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Fahrenheit 451. Dir. Francois Truffaut. Screenplay by Francois Truffaut and Jean-Louis Richard, based on the novel by Ray Bradbury. Anglo Enterprise/Vineyard Films, 1966.
Harrison, Nicholas. "Readers as Resistants: Fahrenheit 451, Censorship, and Identification." Studies in French Cinema 1.1 (2001): 54-61.
Henkel, Guido. Rev. of Fahrenheit 451. DVD Review. 7 May 2005. Web. 29 Dec. 2010. <http://www.dvdreview.com>.
Insdorf, Annette. Francois Truffaut. Twayne's Theatrical Arts Series. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
La peau douce. Dir. Francois Truffaut. Les films du Carosse/SEDIF-SIMAR, 1964.
Petrie, Graham. The Cinema of Francois Truffaut. New York: Barnes, 1970.
Les quatre cent coups. Dir. Francois Truffaut. Les films du Carosse/SEDIF, 1959.
Scheib, Richard. Rev. of Fahrenheit 451. 10 May 2005. Web. 29 Dec. 2010. <http://www.moria.co.nz/sf/Fahrenheit451>.
Smith, Michael. "Reel Politik: Great Conservative Cinema." Policy Review 70 (Fall 1994): 20-32.
Truffaut, Francois. Le cinema selon Francois Truffaut: Textes reunis par Anne Gillain. Paris: Flammarion, 1988.
--. Correspondence: 1945-1984. Ed. Gilles Jacob and Claude de Givray. Trans. Gilbert Adair. New York: Cooper Square, 2000.
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|Author:||Williams, Timothy J.|
|Publication:||West Virginia University Philological Papers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||May 1, 2011|
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