You really can’t put a book like Moby Dick on the screen. There’s no way to duplicate the experience of reading Melville’s words and being drawn into the ecstatic chaos and the terrifying poetry of his world. But John Huston was never one to shy away from a challenge, and in fact, he seems to have enjoyed taking on projects that tested him. If his version of Moby Dick isn’t completely successful, it’s still a beautiful and powerful adaptation that preserves much of what was most important in the book.
One of the problems in making a commercial film from Moby Dick is that it’s less a novel than a cosmic meditation on God, man and nature. There’s very little plot. At the beginning an innocent young man gets on a boat with a crazed captain in search of a white whale. At the end they find the whale, the boat is destroyed, and the young man is left floating in the middle of the ocean. In between, Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, offers his musings on life, death, the ship, the sea, and endless ruminations on whales.
Huston hired Ray Bradbury, who at that point had never written a screenplay, to fashion a script from the book. While the two men had great admiration for the other’s talent, apparently they didn’t get along at all. The experience was a traumatic one for Bradbury, but for the most part Huston was very pleased with his work, and the finished product gave the director an admirable adaptation to start with.*
There are moments in the film that capture Melville beautifully, and one of them is the opening sequence where we see Richard Basehart as Ishmael, strolling through the countryside, following the course of the water as he makes his way to the shore. Basehart was the perfect choice for the central character. He keeps us with him all the way, Ishmael playing the fascinated witness to Ahab’s monstrous madness. Basehart is surrounded by a marvelous supporting cast. On his arrival in New Bedford, the young sailor is greeted by Stubb, and Harry Andrews plays the veteran seaman with a vigor that is both intimidating and ingratiating. Orson Welles delivers Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah with a sober gravity and a heartfelt humility that serves as the perfect prologue to this story of a man who dares to defy God.
Many people have criticized Gregory Pack’s performance as Ahab. Huston defended Peck, and I have to say I side with the director, though with some reservations. I think Peck has all the steely resolve that Ahab should have, and he is convincingly commanding as the captain who seduces his crew into following him to the gates of hell. On the other hand, I feel that there’s a certain weight or depth that’s missing. I don’t know if I would say that Peck is miscast. The role must be incredibly difficult to play, and there are probably few actors who could really take it all the way.
Opposing Ahab is Starbuck, and Leo Genn plays the part with impressive conviction. Starbuck is the voice of morality, a humble man who believes that in doing their work the whalers are serving humanity and serving God. Genn does a fine job of portraying the chief mate’s conflicted feelings as he slowly realizes that the captain has no interest in anything except pursuing the white whale. Starbuck is a Quaker, but he is so deeply disturbed by his captain’s conduct that he finds himself contemplating mutiny, and eventually murder. It’s a striking performance that’s easy to overlook, because the actor is so completely immersed in the role.
Oswald Morris, the tremendously gifted cinematographer who shot the movie, says that Huston wanted to recreate the look of nineteenth century steel engravings. After extensive tests, Morris hit on the idea of desaturating the color image and adding a grey image over it. This approach imbues the film with a dark beauty, giving the sailors’ faces, the weathered boat, and the glowering sea a grim, storybook look. The score by Philip Sainton is good and supports the drama well, but it is the source music, the various songs sung by the crew and the townspeople, that bring us into this peculiar world of whaling towns, whaling boats and whaling men. There is the wild dance at the New Bedford inn, accompanied by a boisterous accordion. There is the solemn hymn sung by the church’s congregation as the prelude to Father Mapple’s sermon. And there is the ringing chant that the whalers shout out as they row steadily towards murder or death. This is the music that these people sing in celebration and in sorrow, the music that is woven into the fabric of their lives.
Huston does a magnificent job of portraying both the wonder and the terror that must have been inextricably intertwined on a nineteenth century whaling ship. The director was an adventurer himself, and was constantly searching for projects that would challenge him and challenge his audience. This didn’t always work out. It’s not easy to combine action with introspection, especially when you’re shooting on the ocean in bad weather and the budget is spiraling out of control. I feel like the final sequence, the whalers’ attack on Moby Dick and the murderous revenge he takes on them, goes by too quickly. Huston has written about the extreme difficulties that his crew had filming at sea, and it’s possible they couldn’t get all the footage they needed.
In the end it doesn’t matter whether Huston pulled it off completely. At its best the film is so rich and so powerful, so subtle and so complex, that it seems foolish to complain of its faults. Most commercial filmmaking is based on familiar formulas because it’s easier to turn a profit when you play it safe. Huston didn’t play it safe. He was always ready to take a chance, and often found himself out on a ledge, dancing on the brink. For an artist, that’s not a bad place to be.
Years later Bradbury wrote a short teleplay titled The Banshee, which is based on his stormy relationship with Huston. It’s both creepy and funny, and Peter O’Toole is devilishly perfect as the autocratic director, whose name happens to be John.
When a director sets out to turn a book into a movie, they have to make it their own. There is no way to take words on a page and translate them literally into images and sounds. Even if a filmmaker didn’t have to deal with the time constraints of a commercial feature and had the freedom to include every event, every episode described in a novel, there’s no way to replicate the experience of reading a book on the screen. They’re two different mediums, and to make a successful adaptation, you have to transform the book into a film.
So I can’t really fault Francois Truffaut for not capturing the feeling of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in the film he made of the novel. Bradbury’s work is so much about the experience of words, and the resonance that words have, there’s no way you could replicate what he does in a movie. But I still have to say that the film doesn’t work for me. I’ve never been able to connect with it.
Which is not to say that it isn’t worth watching. In many ways I think the film is kind of brilliant. The world Truffaut creates and the visual language that he uses have a striking immediacy. While his earlier features were shot largely on location, Fahrenheit 451 was made in a studio. Truffaut uses this to his advantage by emphasizing the artificiality of the environment that Montag, the fireman, lives in. Art director Syd Cain (aided by Tony Walton, uncredited) gives an eerily bright, hard-edged look to this future society where TV controls all information and conformity is the key to survival.
The brilliant reds and solid blacks of the fireman’s world contrast effectively with the earth tones of the natural landscapes and the homes inhabited by the book people. Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg takes full advantage of these extremes. He is amazingly sensitive to the various qualities of light, using it to define the stark, modern interior of the firehouse, and to paint the subtle, ghostly beauty of the English countryside. Working with editor Thom Noble, Truffaut finds a rhythm to suit each sequence. Jump cuts give urgency to a scene where a man is warned he’s about to be busted. The firemen’s raids crackle with a scary energy. Long, uninterrupted takes emphasize the arid, sterile atmosphere of a suburban home.
But in spite of all that, I have to say I just don’t connect with the film on an emotional level. There’s something strangely detached about it. You might say that the movie’s polished, impersonal feel would be totally appropriate for this cold future world, but if we can’t connect with Montag as he struggles to break free, then there’s no dramatic impact. As creative as Truffaut and his team are in giving the film a look and a feel, for me the finished product is emotionally flat.
Pauline Kael felt Truffaut’s approach was too restrained, and she may have a point. Fahrenheit 451 was one of Bradbury’s early novels, and it clearly comes out of his roots as a pulp writer. Apparently the book was the author’s response to the chilling oppression of the McCarthy era, and the theme of an individual struggling against a totalitarian government could hardly be stated more bluntly. Montag has to choose between good and evil. Truffaut may not have been comfortable with such a clear-cut moral choice, and he seems unwilling to play it to the melodramatic hilt. There is a reserve in his approach which makes the actors seem strangely distant. It’s also possible that, since this was his first film in English, the language was a barrier he couldn’t quite overcome. And it’s important to mention that the director’s relationship with Oskar Werner was strained during the making of the film, which may have affected the way Montag comes across, or doesn’t come across.
Then again, a good deal of what makes the book memorable is the language, and that’s something you can’t put on screen. I started to re-read Fahrenheit 451 recently after watching the film. I have to say that the story does seem naive and melodramatic. I definitely feel like it’s the work of a young writer, and it doesn’t have the depth or the subtlety of the author’s later work. But the way he writes is totally compelling. Bradbury’s language is dense, rich, intoxicating. His prose is so close to poetry that the line between the two disappears. There’s poetry in Truffaut, too, but it’s a different kind. As a filmmaker he seemed to be seeking clarity, simplicity. Often his best films, such as The Wild Child and The Story of Adele H., have a brusque directness, a naked honesty that allows us to get very close, often uncomfortably close, to the characters. The poetry is held in check, never being allowed to overwhelm the story. Bradbury, on the other hand, wants to overwhelm the reader. He plunges us into his own sensual dimension, a world of experiences he describes so vividly we can touch them, taste them.
While Truffaut’s sensibility is different from Bradbury’s, composer Bernard Herrmann is very much on the writer’s wavelength. His score has a rapturous intensity that is completely in tune with Bradbury’s world. Herrmann sets the tone with the first cue. As a narrator recites the credits over images of TV antennas, strings playing ethereal, shifting harmonies with no resolution, preparing us for the film’s chilling vision of the future. Immediately after we’re assaulted by the bracing, dissonant music that accompanies the firemen’s raids. Throughout the film, Herrmann’s eerie, otherworldly score keeps us off balance with its strange harmonies and unusual rhythms. It’s only at the very end, when we’re in the forest with the book people, snowflakes drifting from above, that the composer introduces a lovely, lilting melody, letting us know that Montag has finally found safety. The tension and anxiety that have dominated the score are gone, and the final, resounding chords reassure us that there is hope.
So while I’ve got some serious problems with the film Truffaut made from Fahrenheit 451, I also find a lot to like in it. I get the feeling that the director was trying to challenge himself by taking this project, a far cry from Shoot the Piano Player or Jules and Jim. It also seems like he was trying to assimilate what he’d learned from Hitchcock, not just in this film but in others like The Soft Skin and The Bride Wore Black. While I’m not crazy about his work from this period, I think it was important for him to explore this approach. Artists have to make mistakes to grow. We all do. As Buckminster Fuller said…,
“How often I found out where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.”