Fahrenheit 451 was based on a science-fiction novel by Ray Bradbury (1953). The film was directed by Francois Truffaut, one of the founders of the Nouvelle Vague in French cinema. It was his first film in colour and the only one he made in the English language. It stars Oskar Werner as Montag and Julie Christie in the dual roles of Linda and Clarisse. Both novel and film depict a dystopian society of the near future in which creativity, learning and individuality have been outlawed by a totalitarian state.
‘The temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns’
Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 was originally published in serial form in Playboy Magazine. It depicts a society of the future in which books are outlawed. The official reason is that books make people unhappy. This world is supposed to be a Utopia: unhappiness has been eradicated; equality has been established and everyone lives a life of leisured consumption. However, the novel exposes the inherent contradictions of a utopian society. The world is ruled by a totalitarian state, and the real reason books are banned is that they encourage individuality, independent thought and creativity – all of which make people difficult to control.
The film was largely shot in England against a backdrop of Modernist architecture. It thereby contributes to the discourse of Modernism in popular culture. The film featured the Alton housing estate in Roehampton, South London and also Edgcumbe Park in Crowthorne, Berkshire. The monorail sequences were filmed at the French SAFEGE test track, in Châteneuf-sur-Loire near Orléans. This was a 1.4 km monorail line constructed in 1959. Interiors were shot at Pinewood Studios in England.
Modernist architecture had always been controversial in Britain, but by the 1950s it had become the official architecture of the Welfare State. Towns and cities had been devastated during the war. The need to build thousands of new homes had given Modernism a central role in post-war public policy. Alton East and West estates in Roehampton were pioneering examples of British Modernism. The design was an homage to Le Corbusier. Both estates stand in Richmond Park, an area of green space on the outskirts of London. The tower blocks are set amongst trees and parkland, just as Le Corbusier had envisioned.
Roehampton, South London
Alton West imported a version of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation to Britain. The original Unité included recreational facilities, meeting rooms and a central enclosed ‘street’. At Alton West, the plans were less ambitious, but still included gallery access to each of the five blocks in the estate. The aesthetic is based on harsh concrete. There were problems with the environment. Alton East and West were isolated from decent transport infrastructure, and suffered from vandalism in the 1970s.
Roehampton as it appears in the film
The film is significant for the way it portrays Modernist architecture. By the 1960s Modernism was seen as a revolution that went wrong. There was a popular and critical backlash. Modernist environments were seen as dehumanising and impersonal. The film taps into these concerns. Modernist environments are associated with a repressive regime in which individuality has been crushed.
Montag lives in a Modernist suburbia. The houses are regimented and identical. This was filmed at Edgecumbe Park in Berkshire. The interiors are also significant. Montag’s house is full of modern consumer goods. They have a wall screen which features only one programme, The Family. The programme creates the illusion that viewers can interact with it. The dream is to have four wall screens to be completely immersed in the programme, which suggests that it’s used for brain washing and propaganda. This is not too dissimilar from our preference for wide-screen TVs and reality shows.
Edgecumbe Park, Berkshire
The film’s sinister TV announcer
In contrast, Clarisse lives in a quaint Tudor-style house, which looks like a relic in the context of the film. They do not have a TV (Montag notices that there is no aerial on the roof). Instead, the inhabitants talk to each other, which suggests close family relationships. Montag’s relationship with his wife seems emotionally and sexually distant (even though she’s played by Julie Christie). The other characters who continue to read books live in old houses as well. The past is associated with emotion, independence and freedom.
The dystopian world of the film contrasts with the popular culture of the period. The 1960s experienced a cultural revolution. People were able to express themselves in fashion, music and behaviour. One scene shows a youth being apprehended in the street and having his head shaved because his hair is too long. This parallels the way hippies were treated by some sections of the public. The uniforms worn by the fireman are black and sinister, reminiscent of Nazi stormtroopers. Of course, book-burning did take place once in history: the Nazis burned books by Jewish or left-wing authors as part of their hysterical crusade against ‘cultural bolshevism’. The act of burning books is synonymous with barbarism and ignorance.
The ban on literature suppresses independent thought and imagination. Everyone is docile and childlike. Another method of state control is medication. Linda controls her emotions through self-medication. The drugs are not labelled; they are simply colour-coded like children’s sweets. This emphasises the notion of a naïve, docile populace controlled by a paternalistic authority. The state also uses propaganda. The state controls the media and broadcasts fake footage of Montag’s capture to show that transgressions are punished.
The public perception of Modernism was that it was authoritarian, repressive and that it denied individuality, so the film reinforces this perception. It used British Modernism as a backdrop of a repressive, totalitarian regime in which individuality has been crushed. The film suggests that a utopian, rationally-planned environment inevitably becomes a repressive dystopia.