By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 10:17 PM
Here at the Marriott Wardman Park, site of CPAC, the largest annual gathering of conservatives in the nation, there are many intriguing sessions. Should you pop in on "Engaging America Through Conservative Pop Culture" led by Stephen Baldwin (a.k.a. the chunky one)? Should you have a chat with the bloggers from GirlsJustWannaHaveGuns.com?
Perhaps you should elbow your way into the standing-room-only conference room on the mezzanine level, where herds of eager viewers are preparing to watch a sneak preview of a selection of scenes from the long-awaited movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged."
Because inasmuch as the audience is made up of a group of people who have organized their entire belief system around a novel, this screening ultimately amounts to the equivalent of a Harry Potter screening at Comic-Con.
"I heard Angelina Jolie was going to star," whispers one attendee to his seatmate who, like the whisperer, is wearing the accepted fan uniform of a business suit tempered with funky glasses and modified mutton chops. (Mutton chops = IN for conservatives! FreedomWorks founder Matt Kibbe has them; so does Myron Magnet). "Did you hear that?" His friend did not hear that.
The movie does not star Angelina Jolie, nor does it star Farrah Fawcett, Charlize Theron or Maggie Gyllenhaal, all of whom were, through decades of aborted adaptation attempts, rumored to be affiliated with various "Atlas Shrugged" projects.
It does star Taylor Schilling, who appeared in NBC's now-cancelled "Mercy," and Edi Gathegi, best known for appearing as a vampire in "Twilight" and one scene of its sequel, "New Moon," until his character was ripped apart by giant animatronic werewolves.
The film has not yet been picked up for distribution.
"Hollywood does not think enough people" are interested in the message of "Atlas Shrugged," says executive producer Harmon Kaslow to the room. This is why he has brought the film clips to CPAC - to prompt a grass-roots groundswell of demand for the film at theaters, "spread through the technology of freedom."
"Atlas Shrugged" was Rand's final work, the book in which she most clearly laid out her theory of objectivism, which argues that the pursuit of one's own happiness - "rational self-interest" - will ultimately lead to the betterment of society. It features a female railroad executive, the man she loves and the government who keeps trying to bring her down. The book is split into three parts; if enough interest and financing can be drummed up, "Atlas Shrugged: The Movie" will be followed by two sequels.
The book is a particular favorite of college juniors who have recently discovered The Man, and of Randroids who love either Ayn Rand or Rand Paul, and probably both.
Also: freedom fighters.
"It is a movie that freedom fighters have been waiting decades for," says Max Pappas, the vice president of public policy for FreedomWorks, which is co-sponsoring the screening. "I'm pretty sure that it's the best-selling book of the 20th century that has not yet been made into a movie." He cites that survey, the one from 1991, in which a bunch of Book of the Month Club readers declared "Atlas Shrugged" the second-most-influential book ever, after the Bible.
In the years since the book's 1957 publication, various attempts have been made to bring "Atlas Shrugged" to the screen. There was an NBC miniseries that was scrapped in the 1970s. A 1980 screenplay begun by Rand herself before she died. Assorted other failures.
The problem with some previous adaptation attempts is that "people were trying to re-imagine what the book was," says Kaslow, who, in addition to producing such three-letter titles as "Boo" and "Jam," also worked on "Red Scorpion" with Jack Abramoff. "But we just simply adapted the book. We used a lot of her dialogue. When people see our faithful adaptation . . . "
It's actually a bit hard to tell how faithfully the film follows the book; the trailer and clips shown are not sequential and don't allude to plot. What they do allude to is character and mood - it's all atmospheric lighting, formal dialogue, dark lipstick. Sort of "Citizen Kane" meets "Law and Order: SVU."
It works for this audience. After the trailer but before the clips, the viewers are given a chance to question Kaslow about his vision and treatment of their beloved novel:
Do the producers have any intention of using the dollar sign as a symbol, as did the book? someone asks.
In Part 3, John Galt gives a speech that is roughly 60 pages long. How will the filmmakers capture this properly?
Are we going to have to wait 15 years for Part 2?