Of course there were dystopian science fiction stories before this one, and certainly many since. They work if they have an interesting focus, as we do here. In this futuristic upside-down scenario firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. Their jobs are to burn books. (The film’s title supposedly refers to the temperature at which paper burns). The logo on the firehouse wall is a dragon, a monster that burns its victims, an appropriate symbol to generate fear. Totalitarian rulers always seize control of a nation’s communication systems so they can dispense their world view and dictate who is to blame for society’s ills. They maintain power by propping themselves up as the ones who can keep the citizens safe by eliminating the so-called enemies of the state (usually nonconformists and certain ethnic groups). Dictators set forth the proper way to think and act to prevent any deviation from the mandated norms of behavior. Books foster discussion and personal opinions, which can lead to questioning the rules in place.
The movie opens with shots of TV antennas, and instead of being presented in written form, the credits are read aloud. This technique is consistent with the world we encounter here, since writing associated with artistic expression has been banned. The verbalization of normally written words also predicts the end of the film. The close-ups of the antennas emphasize how a modern government can spew out its propaganda quickly and widely. It’s not called “mass”media for nothing. There is the sound of the firemen crunching the stones as they march up the driveway of the house they are targeting. It has the feel of storm troopers trampling on the security of individual freedom. They find books hidden behind a false TV screen, in a light fixture, and under a radiator cover. As Montag says later, as does his boss, Captain Beatty (Cyril Cusack), “to learn how to find, one must first learn how to hide.” Of course that is a flaw in the system since a fireman can evade capture if he wishes to do some reading himself. The owner of the house receives a warning phone call, which shows that there is an underground resistance movement in existence. A crowd assembles to watch the torching of the reading material. A child holds one of the books, and an adult reluctantly takes it from the boy and throws it on the pile. The shot stresses how the destruction of the printed works also undermines the imagination and curiosity of the young. The deliberate way the adult takes the book shows his fear for himself and his child, which also shows acknowledgement of the harm the firemen are inflicting. (We later see firemen invading a playground, doing a literary shakedown, searching baby strollers, and frisking a pregnant lady, again emphasizing the assault on innocence and privacy). Montag puts on protective clothing and napalms the books. The Captain mentions that Montag may be up for a promotion, which pleases the fireman. He asks Montag what he does when he is off duty. Montag says he mows the lawn. The Captain then says, “And what if the law forbids that?” Montag’s response is, “Just watch it grow, sir.” This brief exchange shows the degree to which the state imposes its will upon its citizens.
Montag encounters Clarisse (Christie, sporting short hair) on the monorail train. She says she recognizes him because he is a neighbor. She seems like an outsider in this environment, since she loves to talk, says she is a “well of words,” and is social. She is a school teacher. She is probably more interested in learning that indoctrination because she was called into an interview and fears she may have said something “wrong.” That means she is afraid she did something that does not comply with the rules. Montag is hesitant to communicate with her, warning her that she shouldn’t talk to strangers, echoing the atmosphere of fear present. She says he smells of something that burned, and he says it is the kerosene from the burning of the books. Montag calls it his “perfume,” that he acquires from his job. Again, in this upside-down world, the harsh odor of kerosene takes the place of something that would normally be a pleasing scent. Clarisse says that she heard that long ago firemen put out fires. Montag says that can’t be because houses have always been fireproof. His statement shows how the government has rewritten history, which can occur when one entity controls the access to information. Clarisse asks Montag if he is interested in reading, and he says it is “rubbish.” He says that books make people “anti-social” (probably because they require people to withdraw away from others in order to read them, and what is expressed in books may not be consistent with dictated policies). Reading also may bring about unhappiness (most likely because literature can evoke emotions that are not always consistent with contentment, and they could suggest what’s wrong with the reader’s current life). Montag says he is not interested in reading, has better things to do with his life, and, besides, reading books is forbidden. When asked if he is happy, Montag says that he is, but his demeanor is sad.
When Montag arrives at his house, we can see that he is not content with his home life. His wife, Linda (Christie again, now with long hair), is mesmerized by a large “wall screen” TV (sort of like most of us today, although our hypnosis is also mobile as we can also stare into our cell phones). That Christie plays a dual role suggests that there are two ways that people can act, one which is emancipated, and one that is subservient. He is annoyed because she barely listens to what he says. If promoted, Montag says that he would like a second wall screen, and the analogy is made to a family growing, entertaining objects being the substitute in their relationship for children. The news on the TV provides a report of the number of books burned, sort of like body counts in a war, but here the enemy is truth, beauty, and knowledge. Linda is thrilled because she says that she has been chosen to participate in a show on the TV. However, it is a sham, as Montag points out, as the actors stop, turn to the screen, and ask “Linda,” which can be any of multiple women named Linda tuning in, what she thinks about some domestic questions. When Linda doesn’t respond quickly enough, the appropriate answer is provided anyway. Linda is upset with Montag for spoiling the illusion that she has been welcomed into the TV “family,” and would rather be in denial of the truth.
We’re not sure how much later, but after Linda goes to sleep, Montag leaves their bedroom and starts to read a copy of David Copperfield, using the TV screen without selecting a channel as a night light, thus allowing Truffaut a visual rebuke of the preference for watching television. He reads slowly, pointing to every word, which shows how he has not been trained in reading thoughtful material. The next scene shows Montag going to work, and he is followed by Clarisse and an older woman, so we know that they have targeted Montag as someone they believe will help them in the resistance. Clarisse catches up to Montag and appears distressed. They go for a cup of coffee and she informs him that she was dismissed from her teaching job because she did not stick to the class timetable. Since she did not conform to the rules, she is a threat to the regimentation of the society because her actions show resistance to established guidelines. While they have their coffee, they observe a man near a red box with a flashing light. It is where people can inform on acquaintances and relatives by dropping off names and addresses. The man seems to be agonizing as to whether to deposit the information, but eventually inserts the paperwork. Montag says that sometimes people just want to get rid of individuals in their lives. One can consider this “naming” of people as similar to what occurred in the McCarthy era, when, out of a fear or a warped sense of patriotism, people accused other citizens of being disloyal just because of their ideas.
Using Christie in dual roles to show alternative ways an individual can behave is illustrated here because Clarisse pretends to be Linda, and calls Montag’s office to say he is sick and can’t come in. She wants him to go with her to her school because he is outraged that she was not properly told why she was let go. When they go to the school, her students run away from her, a teacher locks her door so Clarisse can’t confront her, and her belongings are slid down the hallway so that her nonconformity will not infect others through personal contact. Montag sees how badly Clarisse is treated and sympathizes with her, promising to confront the principal after he is promoted. She asks why did he become a fireman since he seems different from those in that job. He says that she previously asked if he wanted to read books, and he now confesses that he read one the night before. We are not told why he began reading. Perhaps it was because of disillusionment with his family life, or his meeting Clarisse, but we know that he was already questioning the TV programming, and the informant system that exposed book readers.
Montag returns home to find his wife with her friends engaged in watching a TV program that deals with fashion and other superficial topics. A now animated Montag calls them “zombies,” going about in an unthinking existence, denying the truth of their world. He tells one of them that her husband is a soldier in a real war, where people are killed, but the “fake news” dispensed by the government is that there have been no casualties. Montag begins to read from a book, and the words are moving because the emotions elicited are genuine. But, real feelings can be disturbing, and as one of the women cries, the others blame Montag for upsetting them.
Montag informs The Captain that he is quitting, but his superior begs him to stay on for just one more day. It is a ploy, as the fire truck pulls up to Montag’s house. Linda has packed and is on her way out. She tells Montag she just couldn’t bare living anymore with Montag and his books. The Captain sarcastically tells the firemen to let Montag find the books, since he knows his job. He complies in a feverish manner, throwing books out onto the floor of the house. However, The Captain’s arrogance causes him to make a mistake by giving the flamethrower to Montag to destroy the books. First, he burns his bed, which shows how he feels betrayed by his wife. He then torches the TV wall screen, demonstrating his rejection of the banality and false information that it was used to dispense. He does then set fire to the books. We watch the destruction of admired works by Melville, Kafka, and Dostoevsky, among others. We feel anger toward The Captain as he opens his hands near the blaze, as if warming himself at the cremation of beloved friends or family members, and talks about being drawn to the destructive fire, instead of warming to the creative powers that produced the books.
Ironically, Brulard says that they must burn the books once they are committed to memory, so that they will not be arrested, and the literature can live on. These people are like the ancient poets who passed on their stories orally. He tells Montag that there will be a day when the current regime will no longer be in power, and they will be summoned to recite what they have held inside of them. The books will again be published, until next “dark age,” and the process will be repeated. Brulard sees history as a repetitive process of repression and enlightenment, pessimism and optimism. There is an old man who is dying. He must recite his book to a young boy who must remember it before the man expires. The scene shows how knowledge and art can be enjoyed by many generations.
The book that Montag rescued contains the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. He reunites with Clarisse here, who has memorized her book. The young boy finished his task as the old man dies. The last line he says refers to the snows of winter. There is a nice segue to the snow falling on this library of people. The ending is very moving as the residents walk about, reciting their books. The image tells us that the written words come alive when we read them, and literature lives on in us.
The next film is Training Day.