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January 14, 2007

Ayn Rand No Longer Has Script Approval



BACK in the 1970s Albert S. Ruddy, the producer of ìThe Godfather,î first approached Ayn Rand to make a movie of her novel ìAtlas Shrugged.î 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.

ìI told her, ëThe Russians arenít that desperate to wreck your book,í î Mr. Ruddy recalled in a recent interview.

Randís paranoia, as Mr. 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 Hollywoodís 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 Randís 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 ìBraveheartî and ìWe Were Soldiers,î 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 ìRay,î are overseeing the project, and Lions Gate Entertainment is footing the bill.

Whether Ms. Jolie, who has called herself something of a Rand fan, will bring the novelís 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 ó including Barbara Stanwyck, Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welch, Farrah Fawcett and Sharon Stone ó 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 Mr. Baldwin said he believed that Mr. Wallace and the rest of their team were up to the task. ìWe all believe in the book, and will be true to the book,î he said.

Easier said than done. Published in 1957 and set in the near future, ìAtlas Shruggedî plots the collapse of American society after thinkers, industrialists, scientists, artists and other innovators ó Randís kind of people ó 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 Randís 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 ìAtlas Shruggedî were not much kinder. ìIt howls in the readerís ear and beats him about the head in order to secure his attention,î Granville Hicks wrote in The New York Times, ìand then, when it has him subdued, harangues him for page upon page. It has only two moods, the melodramatic and the didactic, and in both it knows no bounds.î

Yet ìAtlasî was a best seller. Six million copies have been sold over the years, and it remains a popular title, particularly among college students, according to Penguin Group, its publisher. Many of those copies wind up on shelves on Wall Street, where the book has been affectionately referred to as ìthe Bible of selfishness.î

Hollywood took notice of the novelís popularity from the start, but Rand refused to consider movie offers: she had been burned, she felt, by the experience of turning her earlier (and, at 720 pages, comparatively short) novel, ìThe Fountainhead,î into the 1949 film starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.

Rand had adapted it herself, but she battled with the director, King Vidor, over changes to her screenplay. In the end a single line was cut from a six-minute speech by Cooperís character, Howard Roark, reportedly leaving Rand embittered by the experience. She vowed that Warner Brothers would not be permitted to adapt ìAtlasî unless the studio recut ìThe Fountainhead,î returning the edited line to its rightful place, said her biographer Jeff Britting.

In 1972, 15 years after the novelís publication, Mr. Ruddy, fresh from producing ìThe Godfather,î decided to make a run at Rand, who was already in her late 60s. ì ëAtlas Shrugged,í letís face it, was probably the most important novel of the 20th century that was never a film,î he said.

Randís agents warned him to expect rejection, he said, but reluctantly set up an appointment. He recalled meeting her in a room with one small love seat and many empty chairs. Mr. Ruddy, 6-foot-4, squeezed in next to the petite aging writer on the small couch and commenced to woo her.

ìI knew from ëAtlas Shruggedí that she dug men, that she was a lusty woman,î he recalled in a telephone interview. ìWe start talking. Itís instant love.î Before long, he said, Rand was telling him, in her heavy accent, ìI want you to do ëAtlas Shrugged.í î

Mr. Ruddy said he warned Rand that it was not her ideas that interested him. ìForget philosophy,î he said. ìThe abstract of the story is quite lovely: the power and the sustainability of the great individual, of the creative person, of the entrepreneur.î Rand, he said, ìthought that was brilliant, because thatís how she saw her book,î as a story first.

Mr. Ruddy said he looked past most of her eccentricities; she insisted on flying only by private plane, for example, because she feared that ìif the Russians found out that she was on a commercial airliner, theyíd hijack it,î he said.

But Mr. Ruddy refused to grant Rand final script approval, and their courtship quickly broke off. ìItís a foolís game to spend a lot of money and time only to have her say, ëI think you should take this out,í î he said. So, he recalled, he told Rand that he would wait for her to ìdrop deadî and then make the movie on his own terms.

With Mr. 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 ìIn the Heat of the Night,î to adapt ìAtlas Shrugged.î Rand was unsatisfied with his script; she called Mr. Silliphantís writing too ìnaturalisticî and drew a line at his insertion of the word ìjustî into a single line of dialogue. (Mr. Jaffe, in an interview, took up Randís defense: ìIt made the sentence become ambiguous,î he said. ìHer characters didnít say ambiguous things.î)

Yet it was a regime change at NBC ó specifically Fred Silvermanís ascension to the network presidency ó that killed the project in 1979. The network suddenly viewed ìAtlas Shruggedî as too burdened with philosophy, its characters as too black-and-white, its subject too ponderous.

At the end of her life Rand tried to write her own script, as she had done for ìThe Fountainhead,î 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 Randís who owned the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team. But Mr. Peikoff refused to approve the script they developed. ìLeonard had huge problems with it,î Mr. Jaffe said. ìHe wasnít Ayn. But he wanted to exercise her control.î

Other producers came and went, and in 1992 a New Jersey investor and Objectivist, John Aglialoro, bought an option to make ìAtlas Shrugged,î eventually paying Mr. Peikoff more than $1 million in exchange for full creative control.

Under Mr. Aglialoroís sponsorship a succession of writers and producers developed at least four scripts. One writer was Mr. Peikoffís ex-wife, Cynthia Peikoff, who had been Randís typist. Some of the scripts, she said, were too sci-fi, others reduced the novelís characters to caricatures, and she was told that her own attempt was no better than ìworkmanlike.î

In 1999 Mr. Ruddy resurfaced, cutting a deal with TNT for a four-hour mini-series version. ìA dream come true,î he called it at the time. But a threatened actorsí strike delayed production, and the project was dropped after AOL and Time Warner merged.

Then 9/11 worsened the climate for films with apocalyptic visions. ìI could have stayed with it and kept pushing it,î Mr. Ruddy said. ìBut now people start jumping out of their seats when a building blows up.î

Mr. Ruddyís exit opened the door to the Baldwins, who optioned the rights to ìAtlas Shruggedî from Mr. Aglialoro while running the billionaire Phil Anschutzís Crusader Entertainment. (Mr. Baldwin, oddly enough, had once been a ticket manager for Mr. Sniderís Flyers.) James V. Hart, who had written ìContact,î developed a draft of the first installment of a three-movie series, but the Baldwins could land neither stars nor financing.

There was also some thought that Mr. 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 ìAtlas Shruggedî with them

Last spring in a twist that might have amused Rand and Mr. Anschutz, the latest deal for an ìAtlas Shruggedî film project had its inception during Mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd, in Beverly Hills.

Mr. Baldwin said that a fellow parishioner, Michael Burns ó the vice chairman of Lions Gate ó approached Mr. Baldwin and his wife ìright under the nose of the priest,î whispering to them about the rights to Randís novel and asking to ìmeet right away.î

Mr. Burns ó who remembered the conversation taking place outside, after Mass ó said he had first read ìAtlasî in high school and has given as many as 100 copies as gifts over the years.

ìI think it solidified my capitalistic thinking, in that I believe very strongly that people are generally selfish, but that selfishness can ultimately benefit many, many people,î Mr. Burns said.

The Baldwins used Mr. Hartís script to interest Ms. Jolie in the project, through her manager, Geyer Kosinski. (Mr. Kosinski said Ms. Jolie declined to comment.) Together the Baldwins, Mr. Burns and Mr. Kosinski, who is also to be one of the producers, quickly approached Mr. Wallace about a new adaptation. And in what Mr. Wallace called an uncanny coincidence, he had recently read ìAtlasî for the first time, when he and his college-age son had swapped their favorite books.

The challenge, Mr. Wallace said, was immediately tempting. As for how he is distilling Randís novel and its Castro-length monologues to a two-hour screenplay, Mr. Wallace insisted he had the material under control and was on course to deliver a finished draft this month.

ìI can pretty much guarantee you that there wonít be a 30-page speech at the end of the movie,î he said. ìI 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 ëAtlas Shrugged.í And the movie has to work.î