Fifty-four years after it was published, with sales of the book at 6.5 million copies and counting, Ayn Rand’s 1,000-page magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged” is finally coming to the screen. The $10 million production, part one of a projected trilogy, featuring a no-name cast (Taylor Schilling? Grant Bowler?) and financed entirely by John Aglialoro, a Philadelphia businessman, will be released on April 15.
“Hollywood executives are a bit risk-averse,” says Aglialoro, attempting to explain why the film version has been so long in coming. “To do ‘Return of the Werewolf 3,’ that’s a safe bet, but if I take a new idea, even if it’s a bestseller, I’m not going to be able to make money out of this.”
“The project has always been extremely difficult,” adds Ed Snider, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers. Snider owned the rights to the book in the 1980s and is one of the film’s executive producers. “People are initially interested,” he says, “but . . . something like this is more difficult.”
That’s an understatement. Rand’s novel, set in the near future, tells how American society collapses after its thinkers, industrialists and scientists go on strike and refuse to participate in a world they feel has become increasingly socialistic. The novel’s heroine, Dagny Taggart, tries to save the country from a catastrophe, but the book ends with an apocalypse. And the mysterious John Galt, who has organized the strike, tells, in a 70-page speech, how he will construct a society based on individual achievement and self-interest — the core tenets of Rand’s objectivist philosophy, which champions laissez-faire capitalism.
“I’m stunned the film is coming out,” says Jennifer Burns, author of “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.” “The book is unwieldy. . . . Rand had difficulty fitting action into an ideological message, and every character carries a specific message for the story to make sense.”
Rand always had a thing for the silver screen. Growing up in Russia, she was a film fan who bought American movie magazines and kept a diary in which she ranked more than 300 pictures she had seen. Rand “got her view of life in the Western world from films; they represented elements of glamour and freedom,” says Anne C. Heller, author of “Ayn Rand and the World She Made.”
That interest translated into a lifelong relationship with the motion picture industry. After arriving in America in the 1920s, Rand worked at various times for director Cecil B. De Mille and producer Hal Wallis, wrote a number of screenplays for romantic comedies, and was intimately involved with the writing and production of the 1949 film version of her novel “The Fountainhead,” which starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.
But Rand’s film industry connection ultimately ended in disappointment. She despised the Hollywood version of “The Fountainhead,” which was panned by critics and, she felt, diluted her message of individual freedom. And until her death in 1982, Rand made numerous failed attempts to put “Atlas Shrugged” on film.
Yet despite the novel’s complexity, and the almost overwhelmingly negative reviews when it first appeared — one critic called it a “homage to greed” — “Atlas Shrugged” has been something of a Holy Grail for filmmakers. At one time or another, the project was embraced by Albert S. Ruddy, producer of “The Godfather”; Randall Wallace, who wrote “Braveheart”; Michael Jaffe, producer of “The Informant!,” who had a deal for an eight-hour miniseries set up with NBC; and Ed Snider, who had a verbal commitment from Ted Turner to do a miniseries.
Many of these projects foundered over script approval. “The people who have had control over the project want it made . . . with all the ideological elements intact,” says Heller, “including all the long speeches. And no one would agree to that.”
Aglialoro bought the rights from the Rand estate in 1992 for $1.5 million. He was involved with several aborted attempts until last year, when he literally had a little over three months to begin filming before the rights would revert back to the estate. “At some point, John had to make the decision to go about it by himself,” says Harmon Kaslow, a Hollywood veteran who produced the film with Aglialoro.
Filming began June 13, two days before the rights were to expire. The major studios have so far shown no interest, so Aglialoro is self-distributing the film. “Atlas Shrugged” will open initially in 80 theaters (it will play at the E Street Cinema in Washington) and expand from there.
“We think there is a theatrical audience for the film,” says Kaslow. “You have an enormous literary and political fan base.”
If nothing else, the film could plug into the current conservative political climate. Sales of “Atlas Shrugged” have spiked in the past year or so, buoyed by a belief that the present economic crisis, and the government’s response to it, echo events in the book. “It appeals . . . to the American right,” says Heller, “because it’s the perfect defense of what they think of as American capitalism. It’s this romance of free markets and unregulated capitalism.”
Beale is a freelance writer.