The challenge of distilling Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged"
By Kimberly Brown
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Back in the 1970s, Albert S. Ruddy, the producer of "The Godfather," first approached Ayn Rand to make a movie of her novel "Atlas Shrugged." But Rand, who had fled the Soviet Union and gone on to inspire capitalists and egoists everywhere, worried aloud, apparently in all seriousness, that the Soviets might try to take over Paramount to block the project.
"I told her, 'The Russians aren't that desperate to wreck your book,'" Ruddy recalled in a recent interview.
Rand's paranoia, as Ruddy remembers it, seems laughable. But perhaps it was merely misplaced. For so many people have tried and failed to turn the book she considered her masterpiece into a movie that it could easily strike a suspicious person as evidence of a nefarious collectivist conspiracy. Or at least of Hollywood's mediocrity.
Of course Rand herself had a hand in blocking some of those attempts before she died in 1982. Her heirs in the Objectivist school of thought helped sink some others. And plans for at least a couple of television mini-series fell to the vicissitudes of network politics and media mergers. But Rand's grand polemical novel keeps selling, and her admirers in Hollywood keep trying, and the latest effort involves a lineup of heavy hitters, starting with Angelina Jolie.
Randall Wallace, who wrote "Braveheart" and "We Were Soldiers," is working on compressing the nearly 1,200-page book into a conventional two- hour screenplay. Howard and Karen Baldwin, the husband-and-wife producers of "Ray," are overseeing the project, and Lions Gate Entertainment is footing the bill.
Whether Jolie, who has called herself something of a Rand fan, will bring the novel's heroine, Dagny Taggart, to life on screen, or merely wind up on a list with other actresses who sought or were sought for the role remains to be seen. Until now, at least, no one in Hollywood has figured out a formula that promises both to sell popcorn and to do justice to the original text, let alone to the philosophy that it hammers home endlessly, at times in lengthy speeches. (The final one is 60 pages long.) But Baldwin said he believed that Wallace and the rest of their team were up to the task. "We all believe in the book, and will be true to the book," he said.
Easier said than done. Published in 1957 and set in the near future, "Atlas Shrugged" plots the collapse of American society after thinkers, industrialists, scientists, artists and other innovators — Rand's kind of people — go on strike and disappear, refusing to contribute to a collectivist world. Dagny, a railroad heiress, tries to save the country from starvation and total collapse, while falling in love with the mysterious John Galt, who she later learns was the man who started the strike. The novel ends after an apocalypse.
During Rand's lifetime, her Objectivism, which celebrates rational self- interest and capitalism, was widely dismissed by academia and disparaged by both the political right and left. The reviews for "Atlas Shrugged" were not much kinder.
Yet "Atlas" was a best seller. Six million copies have been sold over the years, and it remains a popular title.
Hollywood took notice of the novel's popularity from the start, but Rand refused to consider movie offers: she had been burned, she felt, by the experience of turning her earlier novel, "The Fountainhead," into the 1949 film starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.
In 1972, 15 years after the publication of "Atlas," Ruddy, fresh from producing "The Godfather," decided to make a run at Rand, who was already in her late 60s. "'Atlas Shrugged,' let's face it, was probably the most important novel of the 20th century that was never a film," he said.
Rand's agents warned him to expect rejection, he said, but reluctantly set up an appointment. Ruddy said he warned Rand that it was not her ideas that interested him. "Forget philosophy," he said. "The abstract of the story is quite lovely: the power and the sustainability of the great individual, of the creative person, of the entrepreneur." Rand, he said, "thought that was brilliant, because that's how she saw her book," as a story first.
But Ruddy refused to grant Rand final script approval, and their courtship quickly broke off. "It's a fool's game to spend a lot of money and time only to have her say, 'I think you should take this out,'" he said. So, he recalled, he told Rand that he would wait for her to "drop dead" and then make the movie on his own terms.
With Ruddy out of the picture, Rand began fielding new offers from movie and television producers. In 1978 Henry Jaffe and his son Michael negotiated a deal for an eight-hour mini-series on NBC. Michael Jaffe, now a partner at Jaffe/Braunstein Films, obtained script approval for Rand, and they hired Sterling Silliphant, the screenwriter of the Sidney Poitier movie "In the Heat of the Night," to adapt "Atlas Shrugged." But a regime change at NBC — specifically Fred Silverman's ascension to the network presidency — killed the project in 1979.
At the end of her life Rand tried to write her own script, but she died with only a third of her hoped-for mini- series finished.
Rand left her estate to a longtime student, Leonard Peikoff, who eventually sold an option to Michael Jaffe and Ed Snider, a friend of Rand's who owned the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. But Peikoff refused to approve the script they developed. "Leonard had huge problems with it," Jaffe said. "He wasn't Ayn. But he wanted to exercise her control."
In 1999 Ruddy resurfaced, cutting a deal with TNT for a four-hour mini- series version. But the project was dropped after AOL and Time Warner merged. Ruddy's exit opened the door to the Baldwins, who optioned the rights to "Atlas Shrugged" while running the billionaire Phil Anschutz's Crusader Entertainment. But they could land neither stars nor financing.
There was also some thought that Anschutz, whose movies are often designed to accommodate a religiously devout audience, may have lost enthusiasm for the project when he learned that Rand was an outspoken atheist, but an Anschutz spokesman called this a misunderstanding. In any case, when the Baldwins left Crusader in 2004 to set up their own production company, they took the rights to "Atlas Shrugged" with them.
Last spring in a twist that might have amused Rand and Anschutz, the latest deal for an "Atlas Shrugged" film project had its inception during Mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd, in Beverly Hills.
Baldwin said that a fellow parishioner, Michael Burns — the vice chairman of Lions Gate — approached Baldwin and his wife "right under the nose of the priest," whispering to them about the rights to Rand's novel and asking to "meet right away."
The challenge, Wallace said, was immediately tempting. As for how he is distilling Rand's novel to a two-hour screenplay, Wallace insisted he had the material under control and was on course to deliver a draft this month.
"I can pretty much guarantee you that there won't be a 30-page speech at the end of the movie," he said. "I have two hours to try to express what Rand believed to an audience, and my responsibility is not only to Ayn Rand, but to the audience, that this be a compelling movie. More people will see the movie than will read 'Atlas Shrugged.' And the movie has to work."
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