February 22, 2023

Rand’s 1949 “The Fountainhead” Adaptation is a Curious Viewing

By: Justin Tucker

Books are almost always better than movie adaptations. Some films like To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984 are terrific adaptations but are still inferior to the source material. Other adaptations, like the Atlas Shrugged movies, are substandard films that indeed would have been condemned by Rand  if she were still living today. It was recently announced that conservative media outfit The Daily Wire acquired the rights to adapt the popular novel, this time as a miniseries. While it remains to be seen if it can improve on the 2011-2014 series, it will inevitably not be better than the book.

Rand was protective of her novels when they came to being adapted because she knew firsthand how producers could butcher an artist’s work. As a playwright, her dramas Night of January 16th and The Unconquered, her stage adaptation of her novel We the Living, faced meddling from producers and Rand felt her artistic vision was trampled upon.

As her 1943 novel The Fountainhead became a bestseller and received acclaim, it attracted the attention of Hollywood. Warner Bros. bought the rights to the novel with Henry Blanke (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre) as producer. He hired Rand to adapt the screenplay herself. She accepted with the proviso that no line of dialogue is to be removed. Released in 1949, the film condenses her 753-page novel into a melodrama that runs for 114 minutes. Despite Rand’s control over the script, much of the novel is lost in translation. The results are mixed and Rand would agree.

The film tells the story of an uncompromising, individualist architect named Howard Roark (Gary Cooper, High Noon). He makes a splash in the architectural world when the Enright House, from his design, is erected. His work deeply moves Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal, The Day the Earth Stood Still), who is pained to see that Roark will not be fully appreciated for his genius. Threatened by Roark’s individualist ethos, architecture critic Ellsworth Toohey (Robert Douglas) makes it his mission to destroy Roark through his column in the New York Banner with the blessing of his boss, newspaper tycoon Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln in Illinois). When hack architect Peter Keating (Kent Smith) approaches Roark to help design a housing project, Roark must make a decision that could impact his career and his integrity.

Fans of Ayn Rand, the novel, or classic Hollywood cinema can still find much value in watching The Fountainhead. Gary Cooper, who was Rand’s favorite actor, gives the best performance in the movie, playing Roark cool and subdued. Maestro King Vidor (The Pig Parade, Duel in the Sun), one of the most acclaimed directors in Hollywood history, brings together several elements that are visually appealing to the viewer. Cinematographer Robert Burks, who would later be best known for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, captures stark, hypnotic black-and-white images. Art Director Edward Carrere brings to life the novel’s architecture with his modernist designs, hoping to invoke the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Modern audiences may not be accustomed to the film’s histrionic presentation, which was standard of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Patricia Neal, who would eventually win an Oscar, overplays Francon. The supporting cast is similarly overplayed. The script does them no favors, as the dialogue is often quick and expository, and the secondary characters are underdeveloped.

It goes without saying that if one were to immerse themselves in the world of The Fountainhead, reading the novel is the best way to do it. Peter Keating is more pathetic and Ellsworth Toohey more diabolical than their cinematic counterparts. But if one is intimidated by the thickness of The Fountainhead and would prefer to watch the movie instead, one can take comfort in knowing its adaptation had direct involvement by its author and by the top talents of the day. Flaws and all, the film still makes for a peculiar screening because of Rand’s enduring influence.