Fahrenheit 451 (1960)
Being modern: Happiness in red
The film Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is Francois Truffaut adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novel of the same name. Published in 1953 as a reaction to the censorship and the thread of book burning in the United States during the McCarthy era, Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451: a dystopian society ruled by a totalitarian state in which citizens are controlled and desensitized through media (television and graphic comics with no words), prescription drugs, and modernity. Using visual semiotics, Francois Truffaut illustrates the tactics employed by the totalitarian state to exercise absolute control over the people in order to suppress dissent and achieve “equality”: TV screens become brainwashing machines that dominate everyday life, with shows that encourage compliance and news that forecast the consequences of disobedience. A vacuous modern life is cultivated in the cold, impersonal interiors, shown in the main character’s house, Guy Montag. The architecture is constructed as tessellations of clean lines, neutral colors and soberness that lock everybody into a system of conformity.
Firemen are both enforcers of the law and, simultaneously, controlled by the system by being objectified through branding: the firemen use of black uniforms labeled with the number 451 (the temperature in which books catch fire), and their own labeling with a number in their personal files (the number of their street address). Also, a loss of identity is evident in the ways in which series of head portraits, taken from the back, become the icon that stands for the essence of a person—as if their faces, like their souls, were erased.
The totalitarian regime is represented by the color red, which symbolizes the Soviet Union Red Army—formally dissolved in 1946—and it is embodied by the firemen as the supreme authority, as an ubiquitous force that permeates every aspect of both private and public life; the red fire truck is like a dagger going through skin, red frames adorning a school hallway, and Montag wearing red pajamas in the privacy of his home. The red firetruck against the green landscape becomes an artificial object that forcefully penetrates nature as it penetrates people’s lives.
Montag, who is in charge of burning all the found books, goes through a transformation—a change of heart—when he meets a school professor who sparks his curiosity by asking him if he ever reads any of the books before burning them. In one of the inquiries he keeps a book, and then another one, and another one, until his house is full of them, hidden everywhere. Very quickly he is enchanted by the books and becomes an avid, or better said, a compulsive reader. His rebellion against the system is manifested in his inability to use the firehouse pole to go in and out of the building as if his body was in complete collusion with his mind.
Once Montag starts breaking the law by reading books, he wears a white robe on top of his red pajamas and reads extensively; he is no longer controlled by the systems, he is in control of his life. As the movie progresses, and Montag reads more books, the bathrobe also transforms, taking the shape of a monk’s robe. When Montag starts defying the law his sense of compliance, of following the rules, becomes damaged, as Truffaut illustrates in Montag’s inability to use the firehouse pole to go in and out.
Fahrenheit 451 is evidently a critique of modern society and the danger of censorship. The transition from oppression (city life) to freedom (natural scenario) gives the viewer a complete new palette of free-floating oral narratives filing up the realm of nature.