“Stick to books that are in the public domain,” they said

François Truffaut in 1965. Photo by Jac de Nijs. Dutch National Archives.

In January of 1966, six years after the release of his directorial debut, French filmmaking icon François Truffaut began work on what was his first film in colour and in English: an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a masterful novel set in a future where books are forbidden—any illegally-owned copies set aflame by the firemen of this dystopian society. Although the finished film was nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, Truffaut found production challenging due its scale, his inability to speak much English, and a strained relationship with lead actor Oskar Werner, with whom he fell out. We know all of this thanks to the diary kept by Truffaut, in which he recorded the many ups and downs of his “saddest and most difficult” filmmaking experience. This particular entry came eleven days in.

The Diary Entry

Friday, January 21 

I knew that Fahrenheit had some shortcomings, as every film does. In this case it is the characters who are not very real or very strong, and this is because of the exceptional nature of the situations. This is the chief danger in science-fiction stories, that everything else is sacrificed to what is postulated. It’s up to me to fight that in trying to bring it alive on the screen.

One very unfortunate thing of which I had not thought at all is the military look of the film. All these helmeted and booted firemen, smart, handsome lads, snapping out their lines. Their military stiffness gives me a real pain. Just as I discovered when I was making Le Pianiste that gangsters were for me unfilmable people, so now I realize that I must in future avoid men in uniform as well.

Universal’s Hollywood lawyers wanted us not to burn books by Faulkner, Sartre, Genet, Proust, Salinger, Audiberti, etc. “Stick to books that are in the public domain,” they said, for fear of future proceedings. That’s absurd. I took counsel’s opinion here in London and was told: “No problem. Go ahead and quote all the titles and authors you like.” There will be as many literary references in Fahrenheit 451 as in all of Jean-Luc’s eleven films put together.

Further Reading

Truffaut’s diary was originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma, the French film magazine for which he worked as a critic before becoming one of the critiqued. Decades later, in 2013, a handful of those entries were reprinted in the 60th Anniversary edition of the novel that started it all: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Diary entry reprinted by permission of Don Congdon Associates, Inc. on behalf of Laura Truffaut © 1966 by François Truffaut.

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