Some Allusions to French Literature in Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451

By Williams, Timothy J. | West Virginia University Philological Papers, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Some Allusions to French Literature in Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451


Williams, Timothy J., West Virginia University Philological Papers


Throughout much of his remarkable and somewhat eccentric career, filmmaker Francois Truffaut was criticized for avoiding discussions of the urgent political and social issues of the day. Like a modern-day Rousseau, the highly romantic Truffaut believed that society was essentially irredeemable, and he was not interested in fighting for any cause: "I will not fight for principles," he once explained; "I have a completely pessimistic view of society" (Le cinema selon 179; my translation). Truffaut preferred to tell intimate relationship stories, his films returning again and again to the problems of love, passion, jealousy, and remorse. For this reason, the release of Truffaut's film adaptation of Fahrenheit_451, one of Ray Bradbury's most popular science-fiction novels, must have been awaited with a mixture of excitement and curiosity. Bradbury's work was understood to have a powerfully anti-fascist, anti-conformist, or even anti-technology message. What would the weird and wonderful French director do with this upside-down utopia, where firemen set fire to books, people interact with large-screen televisions, and suburban housewives are addicted to pills of every color?

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. …

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