Lost amid news of the renewal of various big movie franchises—the new Star Wars film and a new Star Trek television series—was a small item about a potential new film or miniseries of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, with ancient Hollywood producer Al Ruddy telling the New York Times that he has acquired production rights to the story.
The existing three-film version of Atlas Shrugged, cobbled together as a low-budget independent production after decades in Hollywood Development Hell, may seem a bit recent for a reboot. But if you’ve seen these films, which vary in quality but top out at “middling,” you know there’s room for a reboot.
I doubt, though, that Al Ruddy will be the man to do it. He already has a few chapters in the long history of Hollywood people not producing Atlas Shrugged. So rather than viewing this as an impending reboot of the story, I view it as a reboot of Development Hell, which will now start a new multi-decade cycle.
Be that as it may, I thought the most constructive response would be to offer some advice to the future producers of Atlas Shrugged on how to get it right, how to make a film that will accurately capture the spirit and appeal of Ayn Rand’s original novel.
Since Hollywood types are most comfortable copying an existing, successful formula, I thought the best way to do this might be to compile a list of “non-Ayn-Rand Ayn Rand films”—movies that were not written by Ayn Rand or based on her novels, but which share some significant aspect of her style, themes, and sense of life. Consider this a collection of reference works or benchmarks, as a guide for future filmmakers on how to get the right elements for an Ayn Rand adaptation.
Come to think of it, this might also be pretty valuable for Ayn Rand’s long-suffering fans, giving them a way to experience a bit of what it would be like to enjoy a proper, well-made film version of one of her stories, without having to wait for the doubtful outcome of round two of Development Hell.
1. The Thomas Crown Affair
My starting point is The Thomas Crown Affair, the 1999 remake with Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, not the 1968 original—which, despite the advantage of starring Steve McQueen, is very…1968. Which is not good.
The film is about a self-made billionaire, Brosnan’s Thomas Crown, who engineers the brilliantly planned theft of a $100 million painting from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (This is not a spoiler because it happens in the first ten minutes of the film.) He does it purely for the daring and excitement of it, having grown bored at the lack of worthy competitors in the field of mergers and acquisitions. He then finds himself the target of Russo’s Catherine Banning, a tough international insurance investigator, who flirts with him while trying to pin him down for the crime.
You can get a great feel for the movie in just this one scene, where Crown and Banning first meet.
If that doesn’t make you want to see the film, then you probably won’t like Ayn Rand’s novels, either. Your loss.
The Brosnan/Russo version is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to the “sense of life” of a proper Ayn Rand movie, mostly for one reason. It is a story about extraordinary people, who are regarded as interesting and valuable because they are extraordinary. And “extraordinary” is defined in the way Ayn Rand would have defined it: smart, resourceful, strong-willed, daring, sophisticated.
Ayn Rand is often criticized for making the main characters in her stories into larger-than-life “supermen” and for supposedly looking down on the common man. This claim is highly exaggerated, by the way; fans of her novels will remember everyman characters like Eddie Willers, who plays an essential role in Atlas Shrugged. But this complaint also misses the point of an Ayn Rand novel. She was the literary and philosophical champion of the extraordinary individual. The indispensable value of great thinkers, creators, and producers is what her stories are all about.
Nobody really has a problem with this in other genres. How many superhero movies have there been—including artistically praised ones like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films? They aren’t exactly about a guy who’s good at bagging groceries. Extraordinary scientists and inventors are also considered a fine subject for a film, as long as they’re really troubled. (See A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, or any movie about Beethoven.) But bring this theme too close to real life and especially to the realm of business and capitalism, and—well, you’re just not supposed to go there. Ayn Rand went there.
Specifically, in Ayn Rand’s novels, extraordinary people are regarded as interesting pretty much no matter what they do—whether they’re on the right side or not. The newspaper mogul Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead is a genius who uses his talents to create a sensationalistic paper that panders to the lowest common denominator. He is an extraordinary man who sold out to gain what he believes is power. Yet he occupies an interesting role in the story, not quite a villain and almost a hero. Simply by being an extraordinary person—no matter if he has gone wrong—he is a kindred spirit to the story’s heroes.
More specifically, The Thomas Crown Affair is very much in the vein of Ayn Rand’s 1936 play “Night of January 16th,” in which the offstage hero, Bjorn Faulkner, is a swindler behind the collapse of a fraudulent financial empire. Ayn Rand even set out to make his antipode, a stolid, respectable banker, into the play’s villain. Here’s how she explained the choice.
I do not think, nor did I think it when I wrote this play, that a swindler is a heroic character or that a respectable banker is a villain. But for the purpose of dramatizing the conflict of independence versus conformity, a criminal—a social outcast—can be an eloquent symbol. This, incidentally, is the reason of the profound appeal of the “noble crook” in fiction. He is the symbol of the rebel as such, regardless of the kind of society he rebels against.
A billionaire-turned-art-thief fits that bill pretty well. We get a hint of this in the very beginning of The Thomas Crown Affair when Crown’s therapist asks him what would happen if the interests of “society at large” ran counter to his own—and he responds with a mischievous smile.
Most of all, what makes this a Non-Ayn-Rand Ayn Rand film is that the central story is a romance between adversaries. The morning after they have consummated their affair, Banning warns Crown that she won’t let up in her investigation. He replies, “I’d be hugely disappointed if you did.” This is a running theme in Ayn Rand’s novels, too. Readers will recognize it as the pattern between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead, and Dagny Taggart and John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. They are passionately in love with each other, even as they work tirelessly to defeat each other. The very thing that brings the lovers together and makes them soulmates—their dedication and strength of will—is the thing that sets them against one another.
Oh, and Ayn Rand novels are known for their steamy, impassioned sex scenes, and yeah, this film has that, too.
2. Flight of the Phoenix
Here I’m going with the 1965 original, not the 2004 remake (which I haven’t seen but which I haven’t heard anything good about).
A recurring theme of Ayn Rand’s work is the conflict between the individual and society, including the ways in which a thinker and creator can be ignored or resented by the very people who depend on him for their survival.
That’s a central theme in The Flight of the Phoenix. A transport plane full of Westerners crashes in the Arabian Desert, but one of the passengers is Heinrich Dorfmann (Hardy Kruger), an aeronautical engineer who comes up with a plan to rebuild the shattered plane and fly it back to civilization. But he is irascible, a little arrogant, and generally lacking in “people skills,” and he hasn’t quite told his fellows about the limits of his engineering experience—though he insists that “the principles are the same.”
The film has a large ensemble cast, and its cheesy 1960s trailer will give you little idea what the movie is about. (The only woman in the film is a belly dancer who appears briefly in one character’s hallucination—but boy does she feature in the trailer and the movie poster!)
The film is actually about how the survival of the stranded passengers and crew depend on Dorfmann’s knowledge, but he has to break through the barriers of vanity and resentment to get them to see his vision. In particular, he and the plane’s pilot (Jimmy Stewart)—a natural leader, but an old seat-of-the-pants flyer who is dismissive of Dorfmann’s book learning—have to overcome their mutual distrust and resentment to work together.
Go here to skip to the climax, but be warned that it starts with a pretty big spoiler.
One of the themes of Ayn Rand’s work is that the people who come up with big and valuable ideas aren’t necessarily the glad-handers who are good at charming people. The Fountainhead‘s Howard Roark has no talent for socializing, chafes at the prospect of trolling for clients at a cocktail party, and expects people to hire him because they see the truth and rationality of his ideas. Which is not exactly a bad thing to expect.
3. Executive Suite
We can’t have a list like this one without a “boardroom drama.” Part of the central action in Atlas Shrugged, after all, is about the conflict between James and Dagny Taggart over the policies of the railroad to which they are both heirs.
In Executive Suite, the domineering president of a furniture manufacturer dies suddenly on the street from a heart attack, leaving five vice-presidents with equal authority, and no clear successor. The action takes place as these top executives, along with a few key shareholders, hold a series of frantic meetings over the weekend to choose a new president before the markets open on Monday morning. The main choice is between a manipulative, power-hungry accountant, Fredric March’s Loren Shaw, and an innovative designer, William Holden’s Don Walling.
Like Ayn Rand’s business heroes, Walling is an inventor and innovator, emphasizing that business is about production and not just deal-making or financial manipulation, which is mostly what Hollywood depicts. And if you think that’s unrealistic—well, ask Steve Jobs, whose emphasis on innovation and new product ideas built a little company you might have heard of.
Plus, the film ends with a climactic speech by the hero.
You can’t do that in a movie? It would be boring and people would hate it? Well, it went over just fine in Executive Suite, which turned a nice profit for MGM, was nominated for four Academy Awards, and helped boost the illustrious careers of its writer and director, Ernest Lehman and Robert Wise. (A few years later, they would make a little picture together called West Side Story.)
An honorable mention here should go to Larry the Liquidator’s speech in Other People’s Money.
This is not a film in the style of Ayn Rand. Larry is too conspicuously flawed—vain, crude, and ugly, conforming to the popular caricature of the financial manipulator. But his climactic address at a shareholders’ meeting is a clarion call of reason, one of the best business speeches ever put on film—and way better than that other speech about greed.
4. Inherit the Wind
The classic Spencer Tracy version, of course.
You’ll notice a common theme that runs through some of the films above. Ayn Rand is often criticized for supposedly fatal literary “flaws”—which are shared by many successful and well-regarded books and films. These literary techniques are fine for everybody else but suddenly bad when Ayn Rand uses them. So, for example, when people object to the fact that Ayn Rand’s novels have big speeches, what they really object to is what the speeches have to say. They don’t want to fight her on the grounds of the content, so they hope to make up the deficit by heaping scorn on her style.
There is a natural temptation to try to win a debate by never having it in the first place, by declaring your opponent illegitimate. So when someone says, as a conservative recently said to me, that Ayn Rand’s prose is so bad no one could even get through the first eight pages of one of her novels, the claim is so ridiculous it cannot be taken seriously as a literary critique. Rather, what he’s trying to say is that he wants Ayn Rand to be viewed as too ridiculous to take seriously, so he can be excused from making any effort to understand and refute her ideas.
And that brings us to Inherit the Wind. Are speeches and philosophical discussions the death knell for watchable drama? But Inherit the Wind is basically a bunch of speeches and philosophical debates strung together into a movie, far more densely than anything in Ayn Rand’s fiction. And it is, in fact, exciting and dramatic. Strangely enough, it goes over pretty well with a lot of people on the left who say there are too many speeches in Ayn Rand’s novels—presumably because they agree with the speeches in Inherit the Wind. A story about the small-minded religious views of opponents of the theory of evolution plays to their biases.
Of course, Ayn Rand would also have agreed with a critique of religious obscurantism. That’s the other reason Inherit the Wind is on this list—not just the philosophical speeches, but the pro-reason message, as in this argument from Spencer Tracy’s Henry Drummond.
In that regard, an honorable mention should go to Stealing Heaven, a version of the forbidden romance between Abelard and Heloise. It shares many of the same highbrow anti-religious themes, plus a very Ayn Randish romance between two extraordinary individuals. Here is the slightly overwrought trailer.
The film is marred a bit by the intrusion of an electronic soundtrack, which was all the rage in the mid-1980s, even for movies set in the Middle Ages, but doesn’t hold up well.
5. The Lives of Others
Another major theme of Ayn Rand’s works is the soul-crushing effects of collectivist dictatorship—particularly the Eastern Bloc variety, with its hopelessness, conformity, and callous indifference to the victims of piggish apparatchiks.
This is, unfortunately, not something frequently dramatized on film. One of the great imbalances of Hollywood is that we’ve been offered dozens of harrowing examinations of the horrors of Nazism—but very few films that honestly confront the crimes of Communism.
So it falls to a German film to offer the closest equivalent to Ayn Rand’s portrayal of the soul-deadening effects of dictatorship.
The Lives of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen) follows a Stasi agent, Wiesler, who is assigned to wiretap the home of Dreyman, a playwright with liberal sympathies, and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Marie Sieland. In the process of following their lives—and discovering that he is just an instrument of the Minister of Culture’s attempt to force Sieland to sleep with him—he comes to realize the corruption and stifling emptiness of the system he serves and chooses to become the couple’s protector rather than their persecutor.
A key scene is when Sieland has decided she has no choice but to give in to the minister and leaves Dreyman to meet him. Wiesler approaches her as a fan and convinces her not to go.
Stylistically, the film is more contemporary in its low-key realism—while Ayn Rand favored a more highly dramatic style. But thematically, it captures some of the same elements: the stifling, “airtight” environment of dictatorship, and the progress of a loyal Communist whose faith is shaken by contact with the vibrant lives of free-spirited individualists. It is also as clear-eyed as Ayn Rand was in recognizing that in a dictatorship, there can be redemption—but happy endings are rare.
Then again, this is one case where you don’t need to look for a non-Ayn Rand film, because her own novel of life in Soviet Russia, We the Living, was filmed in Italy in 1942, without her knowledge. Because the filmmakers didn’t have a scriptwriter, they shot directly from the book, word for word, and released it as two films—which briefly became a hit before being banned by the Fascists. (They had approved the project because it was anti-Communist but figured out quickly that it was anti-totalitarian.) Ayn Rand later tracked down the films and gave detailed directions for how they should be edited down to a single film, which was released after her death in 1986.
The result is very true to both the letter and spirit of the novel, capturing the struggle of three young people trying to survive in Soviet Russia in the 1920s, including a Communist who begins to lose faith in his creed. Here’s the climactic scene where our heroine confronts the Communist with the truth about the system.
And that brings me to a final note I can offer for future filmmakers. Judging from the New York Times report on Al Ruddy, he is among the many people in the checkered history of the Atlas Shrugged project who believe the story is unsuitable as is and has to be largely rewritten to be put onto the screen. But if we look at the actual history of Ayn Rand film projects and rank them by commercial and critical success, the top of the list would be a film shot directly from Ayn Rand’s own book, followed by the 1949 Gary Cooper film version of The Fountainhead (a very imperfect adaptation, but one for which Ayn Rand herself wrote the script), followed by a few films she worked on while under contract as a Hollywood script writer (I particularly recommend the 1945 film Love Letters, a creative twist on the plot premise of Cyrano de Bergerac)—with everything else as an asterisk way down below.
So take these non-Ayn-Rand films as a reference—but remember that the actual, original Ayn Rand stories are an even better guide.