The Fountainhead – the movie adaptation of the book by the same name – is a fascinating phenomenon. It’s one of those rare movies that defies conventional criticism. It’s a movie that I wouldn’t dare call good but would still recommend. Let’s take a look at how this movie came to be and what went wrong – or right.
The movie is based on Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, published in 1943. Rand wrote the screenplay herself, on the condition that not a word from it was to be changed. The result is something that reminds me of The Counselor, the 2013 Ridley Scott movie that’s written by novelist Cormac McCarthy. The dialogue in both movies is literary in a way that makes it totally unfit to be spoken out loud in a movie. To go back to The Fountainhead; a line like “You’re an egoist, you’re impertinent, you’re too sure of yourself!” looks great on paper but sounds less than great in a movie, especially when combined with a slightly awkward delivery.
What made the dialogue in The Fountainhead even more other-worldly was Rand’s total refusal to let anyone temper with her creation. Everything is exactly as it flowed from her warped mind onto the pages, and the result is a movie that’s black and white in more ways than one. It’s a movie where characters are either virtuous and amazing and Superman, or weak, despicable leeches. To see which character is which, simply make a list of all the characters in the movie, and cross off everyone who literally announces their inferiority with sentences like “I’m a parasite”, “I grant you that I’m behaving abominably” and “Why take chances when you can stay in the middle?” Who’s left is the movie’s Superman.
Although you wouldn’t immediately notice it, because the Superman of this movie is someone who can’t take criticism, can’t compromise and thinks it’s a good idea to blow up a building because he doesn’t get things his way. All in all, he’s not far off from the Superman in Ayn Rand’s own life – Ayn Rand. Just like Superman, Ayn Rand preferred to be referred to as “man” rather than “woman”. And just like Superman, Ayn Rand is the hero that the world so desperately needs. At least in her own mind.
Most filmgoers would agree that this movie would’ve benefited from a little more leniency from Ayn Rand’s part. Her uncompromising approach gave this movie the abominable script that makes it so… special. Even Ayn Rand herself didn’t like this movie, but not for the reasons you’d expect (or, if you know a little bit about her, exactly for the reasons you’d expect). While the rest of the world was ridiculing the movie’s characters, the handling of its themes, the undertones of fascism and its general pretentiousness, Ayn Rand complained about its editing and acting.
In a way, Ayn Rand reminds me of populist politicians; utterly predictable in their unpredictability. Just when you think that this time they really reached the bottom of the barrel, they prove you wrong. Donald Trump wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, Ayn Rand calls a serial killer a “real man”. They have no regard for how the world works yet people praise them for “telling it like it is”. Of course, the people praising them are the people for whom their popularity is convenient. Film critic Roger Ebert summarized Ayn Rand’s philosophy aptly as “I’m on board; pull up the lifeline”. The people that agree with her are the ones that are on board with her, and they don’t particularly care about the ones that aren’t.
The whole of The Fountainhead reflects this. It’s a movie made almost single-handedly by an egomaniac, who worked the movie into the ground by refusing to cooperate and still managed to blame others when it didn’t even rake in the money to break even. Don’t let this discourage you from seeing it though, because it’s a spectacle worth seeing. Much like The Counselor – another guilty pleasure of mine – it’s bad and good in all the right ways. It’s a well-directed movie, with stylish shots that often have a film noir vibe to them. The music is good but incredibly overused, adding melodrama to scenes where there should be none. The acting is halfway decent but unfairly brought down by the script. And the script… let’s just say that it’s the thing that makes this movie. It’s terrible, but the movie wouldn’t be the same without it.