In today’s world, the escalating cost of producing a Broadway show or major motion picture has caused producers to bank on remakes, sequels and prequels rather than original material with no built-in fan base. Some fare better than others, the first remake of Love Affair becoming a classic, the second, a classic mistake.
But even the classics can fall victim to changing tastes, trends and times. Films like Sorry Wrong Number and Dial M For Murder whose plots depended upon the limitations of the day’s telephone system, no doubt ring false to an audience that has grown up with Call-Waiting, Last Number Dialed, Caller-ID, and smart phones.
Perhaps the most vulnerable of all genres is Science Fiction. Looking at some of yesterday’s films from today’s vantage point can make once futuristic sets and costumes look hokey, and special effects, anything but special.
Fahrenheit 451 is an exception. Devoid of Tinker Toy rocket ships and little green men, this 1966 sci-fi film is more a cautionary tale of what can happen when government power runs amuck.
The Ray Bradbury novel on which the film is based takes its name from the flashpoint at which paper bursts into flame. It was published in 1953, long before we had the ability to capture, download and store information in pint-sized, hand-held devices. At the time, books were available in two forms: hardcover and paperback. With that in mind, to truly enjoy this film, you need to check your Kindle at the door, along with any thoughts of post-fifties and sixties technologies.
Set some time in the distant future, Fahrenheit 451 takes place somewhere in Europe, where little boxes dot the hillside, and Big Brother is just another member of the family. In this dystopian society, books are dangerous and must be destroyed. Those who dare to hide what few books remain, are considered to be traitors, and must be stopped. Fire-alarm-like boxes make it easy for neighbors to turn in neighbors, sounding an alarm that sends the local fire department in motion.
The film begins uncharacteristically, with a voiceover announcer listing the film's credits over shots of strange-looking TV antennas menacingly hovering over the city. Then it's on to the firehouse, where firemen in German soldier-like helmets slide down the fire pole, board their truck and race to the suspect's address.
Once there, they storm the home in almost military fashion. Their mission: to seek, search, bag and burn any and all books. Systematically tearing through the house, they look behind furniture, inside television sets, potted plants and toasters – anywhere books are likely to be hidden. A half-smoked cigarette still burns in the ashtray, a sign that forewarned, the errant homeowner has left in haste.
Later, at the firehouse, fireman Guy Montag (Austria’s Oskar Werner), learns that his good and diligent work has been noted, and a promotion is in the works. Filled with anticipation as to what his new status might afford, he boards an elevated train for home. A pretty young woman named Clarisse McClellan (Julie Christie) introduces herself, as she believes they are neighbors. In the conversation that follows, we find out that she is a teacher-in-training, though she is the first to admit, that she doesn’t quite fit the mold.
Learning that Montag is a fireman, Clarisse is curious. Like most people her age, she can’t remember a time when firemen put out house fires rather than setting them. Intrigued by the idea, is asks if there really was such a time. Montag is evasive. But Clarisse pushes on; a trait that has no doubt gotten her in trouble back at the school.
Her next question throws Montag off-guard. “Why do you burn books?” His response, is, you'll excuse the expression, by the book. “Books are rubbish,” he replies. “Why do people read them? They make them unhappy, disturb people and make them anti-social. Books are dangerous.”
Then comes the question that will change everything:
“Do you ever read the books you burn?”
His answer is predictable. He has no interest in reading them, and far better things to do. Yet and still, the question lingers, piquing his curiosity and altering his path.
But not quite yet. For on this day, Montag leaves Clarisse and any thoughts of reading books behind, anxious to share the news of his impending promotion with his wife, Linda (Julie Christie in a dual role). He finds her entertaining friends in front of the living room’s ‘family wall’. The centerpiece of the wall is a large flat-screen TV, where “The Family”, a supposedly inter—active panel/discussion show, is about to begin. Chosen to join the panel from her home, Linda waits patiently for her turn. While she appears to enjoy the lifestyle and subsequent attention it affords her, it will soon become aparant that,(forgive me) you can’t judge a book by its cover. And her demeanor isn’t the only thing that is not what it appears to be.
Director Francois Truffaut’s last minute decision to cast Christie in both female leads adds a subtle layer to the tale. Early on, there appears to be little difference between the two; they obviously look alike, and their voices and mannerisms are similar. But as the story unfolds, we realize how very different they are.
In the end, they are but sidebars, the greater story being that of control: the government’s control of what information is available, Montag’s control or lack of it over his newly flamed desire to read the books he burns, and the bibliophiles’ efforts to control what's left of the ever-diminishing supply of books.
Montag’s struggle is profound. From the first line of David Copperfield, he is hooked; his thirst for reading such that he is soon squirreling away the very books he has come to burn. As someone who makes his living searching for them, he knows all the best hiding places, using the tricks of the trade to feed his obsession.
His wife doesn’t seem to notice, but his captain, who has been down this road before, calls him on it. "Trouble between you and the Pole?” he asks. Trouble indeed.
Fans of The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man and other Bradbury novels, will not be disappointed in Truffaut’s adaptation - his first in color, and only English-language film. With any luck, the plot’s twists and turns will catch you by surprise and reinforce your love and appreciation of books.
Back in 2007, there was word of a possible remake, and the players were intriguing. Frank Darabont, director of the superbly drawn screen versions of Stephen King's Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, was doing his best to find funding for the project; fanning the flames with talk of casting Tom Hanks as the wayward fireman. But by 2008, Hanks had dropped out, and plans for a remake were put on hold.
I like Tom Hanks – honest I do, but in my mind, he’s a bit too all-American for the role. I would rather the film retain its international flavor, casting relatively unknowns in the leading roles and taking place somewhere outside the United States. But as of now, it’s not going anywhere, and to tell you the truth, I’m not sure that it should.
There’s something to be said for creating a classic, and letting it be. I don’t want to see Angelina and Brad in an updated version of Casablanca, or Jack Black trying to fill Jack's Lemmon’s heels in Some Like it Hot. But that’s just me.
Like it or not, Hollywood will likely continue to revisit, revive and remake the industries golden oldies. The latest version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is scheduled to arrive in theaters just in time for Christmas, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. It won’t be the first time he’s played someone who appears to be something or someone he’s not. And maybe he can pull it off again. Carey Mulligan and Toby McGuire round out the cast.
While I kind of liked Robert Redford's Gatsby, the the 1974 film, with Mia Farrow as Daisy and Sam Waterston as Nick, was generally greeted with lukewarm reviews. Perhaps the 2012 version will fare a bit better. But then again, I wouldn’t make book on it.