Bradbury Festival, Part 3: Two Versions of Fahrenheit 451
“Gordon (Sterling Hayden), a bookman, is getting burned out, so to speak, on his job. He’s losing the plot on why books are so bad. He meets a pretty blonde who sorts confiscated books on a conveyor belt to oblivion. The blonde, Susan (Diana Lynn, PLAYHOUSE 90’s go-to ingenue), snatches a book off the belt once in a while. Gordon and Susan mark each other as kindred spirits. She introduces him to an underground of kindly bibliophiles. They fall in love. They’re in constant danger of getting toasted by Gordon’s colleagues. They look for a way out, a permanent one.
“The story takes some twists and turns, but let’s just say things don’t end well. For Gordon or for the rest of the bookless world. I won’t exactly spoil the big reveal (not that you’ll ever get to see this thing anyway), but it turns out that the oppressors and the resistance are the same thing. ‘A Sound of Different Drummers’ was prescient, which is only one reason why it’s so good.”
Sound familiar, yet somehow different? The above is a quote from Stephen Bowie’s THE CLASSIC TV HISTORY BLOG reviewing, not Francois Trauffaut’s 1966 film version of FAHRENHEIT 451, but a John Frankenheimer directed drama on October 3 1957 on CBS’s PLAYHOUSE 90, with author credit to Robert Alan Aurthur. Bradbury was tipped off while the live broadcast was still on the air, and with that, the sparks flew.
To quote Bowie again, “Gene Beley’s RAY BRADBURY UNCENSORED: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY! (iUniverse, 2006) covers the details of the ensuing litigation, which dragged on for years. The upshot: Bradbury lost in court but won on appeal. CBS coughed up the proverbial ‘undisclosed sum.’ Bradbury’s attorney, Gerson Marks, found a paper trail proving that CBS had almost bought the TV rights to the book in 1952, and that Robert Alan Aurthur had considered buying it when he was story-editing PHILCO at NBC during its final (1954-1955) season. Aurthur testified. He fessed up to having seen an old summary prepared by Bernard Wolfe, the CBS story editor who optioned FAHRENHEIT 451 in 1952. But he denied having read the book itself.”
Recalling that Bradbury wasn’t nearly as well known in 1957 — at least outside of science fiction circles — as he is today, Aurthur’s denial is not implausible. But as for Bowie’s “not that you’ll ever get to see this thing anyway,” well, some of us did this Friday as the opening of an IU Cinema Bradbury Film Festival double feature, Frankenheimer’s “A Sound of Different Drummers” at 6:30 p.m., followed by Truffaut’s Bradbury-authorized FAHRENHEIT 451 at 9:30. Both are excellent, each in its own way.
For FAHRENHEIT 451 I recall, from my own review of it in 1966 for an “underground” student newspaper, a pervading preoccupation with beauty. Colors, motion, swirls of flame, repeated images, reflections of light in actress Julie Christie’s hair — and that there’s a perverse sort of reason for this. There are differences, of course, in either version from Bradbury’s original novel, one in Truffaut’s that now the printed word is entirely banned, while the book’s Fire Captain Beatty allowed that “the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course,” later adding “you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals” (FAHRENHEIT 451, 60th ANNIVERSARY EDITION, New York, 2013, p. 55). Or (p. 94) “’What’ve you got there; isn’t that a book? I thought that all special training these days was done by film.’ Mrs. Phelps blinked. ‘You reading up on fireman theory?’” But still most entertainment comes from a kind of surrounding TV, on three walls in protagonist Montag’s home, though his wife is nagging him to add a fourth — something a movie can’t reproduce for us, at least not yet. So we have to make do with a single wall-screen.
But then this is the joke that Truffaut plays on us, with devastating effect. There are no shown titles, instead they are read aloud; only until the very finish with its sign of hope, in the final image, can we actually read the words “The End.” Otherwise the only words we see in the movie are snippets of titles on burning books — for in this world reading is dead already and here is the joke Truffaut has played: that watching this movie we ourselves, however unwittingly, have become part of Bradbury’s future.
But harking back, there are different ways one can present a future, and here both may be good. Black and white TV, of course, on a rather smaller “wall-screen” than today adds more limitations.* Nevertheless, once again quoting Stephen Bowie: “The director of ‘A Sound of Different Drummers’ was John Frankenheimer. It was a perfect match. The future-world setting and the constant atmosphere of dread and paranoia meant that Frankenheimer could go full-bore with his camera and editing tricks without ever overwhelming the material. Constant camera movement advances the story at a freight-train pace. None of the sets have back walls; the people of the future live in murky blackness. The futuristic props (super-fast cars, robotic psychoanalysts) are cleverly designed and there are special effects I still can’t figure out. The most impressive of those is a videophone screen that appears to project the giant, disembodied head of the speaker against a dark wall.”
Two versions, one future. And now we’ve been warned, despite the visual flair of the one or the keyed-up drama of the other, to resist its happening.
*Not to mention that “Different Drummers” being aired live adds its own kind of problems The one we saw was a kinescope, filmed from the TV screen as it was broadcast, complete with commercials and even a preview of the next week’s program.