Censorship and authoritarianism

Book censorship in Fahrenheit 451

Ideas for a class about censorship and authoritarianism based around clips from Fahrenheit 451 and Cinema Paradiso

I am on a bit of a Truffaut tip at the moment having also recently seen and enjoyed his historical dramas Jules et Jim (1962) and The Last Metro (1981). Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is altogether a different beast, and I have included my Letterboxd review here below. I have also sketched a few ideas about how the clip might inspire discussion about censorship and authoritarianism in the ELT classroom.

Fahrenheit 451 – review

Fahrenheit 451 (1966) is a fascinating cultural document not only for its singular take on a dystopian future world, adapted from the novel of the same name by Ray Bradbury, but also for being Truffaut’s first film in (vibrant) colour but also his first – and last! – in a foreign language. It is also unusual for being produced after the heady early days of the French new wave of the late 1950s, when Truffaut stepped out from his role of film critic and into the spotlight as director with seminal movies like les 400 Coups (1959) and Jules et Jim (1962), and before the New Hollywood / Movie Brat era of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Oddly for a novel set in the American Midwest, the film adaptation is British produced and filmed, with a mostly British cast bar the central protagonist Montag who is played by an softly accented Austrian (Oskar Werner). Its pedigree is enhanced by Nicolas Roeg’s role as cinematographer and a score provided by none other than Bernard Herrmann. What could possibly go wrong?

Fahrenheit 451 poster

The main sticking point for me with Fahrenheit 451 is that it compares unfavourably to the near-contemporaneous dystopian sci-fi of The Prisoner, the psychedelic cold war series which was first aired the following year. Compared to Patrick McGoohan’s iconic show, Truffaut’s film seems somewhat stilted and – dare I say it – old fashioned, although both exude vivid retro charm. It is also difficult (even if unfair) not to compare it to George Lucas’s more grimly dystopian THX1138, released four years later, which is lifted in part by Walter Murch’s extraordinary sound design.

Beyond Herrmann’s dramatic incidental score, Fahrenheit 451 is a conspicuously quiet film, and I wonder if this was a consequence of neglect or design: was it intended to evoke a very oppressive peacefulness of a society in which the wild emotion of literature has been excised, or just an oversight? There is a staid and stagey quality about the first half of the film that points towards the latter suggestion, the film lacking the raw energy and documentary quality of la nouvelle vague. While there are a number of evocative exterior shots, the interiors feel very much like flimsy studio sets.

The dialogue feels a bit stiff and restrained in a manner one associates with British people (and movies) of a certain vintage, exacerbated by Oskar Werner’s unusual diction. Werner plays a “fireman”, in a society in which the profession’s meaning has changed from someone who puts out flames to a brigade of censors who raid people’s homes in search of books (all outlawed) to burn. Which begs the question as to why he was chosen for the role? Was he selected for his Teutonic qualities to remind us of the book burning of previous generations?

The crew of firemen to which Montag belongs is not quite as sinister as perhaps it ought to be. I have to confess being reminded, unfortunately, of the UK children’s TV classic Trumpton (“Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb”). But as the story progresses their fire-raising takes on a darker and deadlier turn. Yet Truffaut seems to linger over the immolation of numerous works of canonical literature to the point of catching some extraordinarily artful shots, including the peeling away of one volume page by page. Although partly intertextual allusion (an issue of Cahier du Cinema even appears self-referentially at one point), there is also a sense that in making the burning beautiful a point has been missed in some way.

The most memorable aspects of the film came for me in its atypical suburban and rural setting. Truffaut makes good use of modernist architecture to portray a world robbed of its passion and vitality. I was reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and its 2010 film adaptation, which depict a dystopian future past which is recognizably like our own but with some sinister authoritarian undertones. The medical dimension of that novel and film, so relevant today, are shared in Fahrenheit 451, and indeed THX 1138, through the theme of mood-suppressing drugs. Montag’s wife, who overdoses at one stage, is also stupefied by bizarre interactive television shows that she watches on a wall-mounted flat screen television, in some of the film’s most efficiently satirical and prescient scenes.

The evocative final sequences with the “Book People” are a hopeful reminder of the indomitable human spirit and the stories that we have carried through the millennia – via oral tradition – long before the arrival of the printing press. If the outlawing of literature now seems like a quaint premise for dystopian sci-fi (evidenced in the “text free” opening credits) it finally makes sense: that it is ultimately the human connections that bind us and our narratives together rather than the medium itself.

Video-based ELT class on censorship

Clip one

Despite my caveats about the movie overall, Fahrenheit 451 has some striking scenes which would help inspire debate in an ELT class on censorship, for B1 level students and above. The clip I chose to use in class was this early one (below) in which “firemen” arrive and search a flat for hidden books. I like to use this one for its element of surprise: if you play the first minute and five seconds (before it is revealed exactly what the “firemen” are looking for, you can get the students in groups describing and speculating about who they are, what they are looking for and what they think is going to happen next. Once they have shared ideas in small groups you can solicit responses from the whole class, noting down useful vocabulary.

In a second phase, show the students the rest of the clip and get them to discuss in groups the following questions (for example):

i. What are the men looking for and why?
ii. Where do they find what they are looking for?
iii. Describe the interactions between the men in uniforms?
iv. Describe the interactions between the men in uniforms and the public?
v. What sort of society do you think the film could represent?
vi. How does the scene make you feel and why?
vii. How does the scene achieve its effects (with music, imagery etc.)?

Clip two

Looking for clips to further the discussion on censorship but with a contrasting mood and perspective, I found this scene from Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 historical drama Cinema Paradiso.

Rather than chunking this scene and having the students make predictions, I tend – due to its length – to show it in one go, asking the students to talk in groups about what they understand, especially as concerns the attitudes of the characters. Markedly different in tone to the Truffaut film, the value is in part to have the students compare and contrast the clips: hopefully able to identify the common theme of censorship and the different forms of authority that might seek to impose it.

Where you go next is very much up to you: debates about the limits of free speech and censorship, creative writing about censorship dystopian societies, research projects about modern day forms of censorship. It is a subject of rich potential for class!

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