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The Fountainhead, 1949 movie version

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The 1949 movie adaptation of The Fountainhead has a couple of things going for it. Most important, it was a serious job by a major studio. It was directed by King Vidor, an actual professional director (as opposed to the half-baked hacks who made the Atlas Shrugged movies) and signed up real Hollywood talent of that era, including Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in the lead roles.

However, the length of the book presents a problem for a film adaptation. The movie’s solution is to condense all of part 1 and part 2 of the book into the first few minutes. Most of its runtime is devoted to the final act, Roark’s bromance with Gail Wynand.

Most of the subplots are excised. The Stoddard Temple and the ensuing lawsuit are dropped. Steven Mallory is left out, as is the giant naked statue of Dominique (which they couldn’t have shown on screen anyway). The Banner’s crusade against Roark is waged against the Enright House instead.

In a page-flipping blur of scenes, we see Roark expelled from college and going to work for Henry Cameron. At some point, he goes into business for himself, and then Cameron sickens and collapses, implied to be from alcoholism. It’s never explicitly mentioned, but he’s clearly drunk in his final scene, by which time Roark has been on his own for several years:

YouTube video

This compression may be necessary, but it means dropping most of the backstory. We never really get to know any of the characters, never get to see them grow or develop. When the story begins, Roark is already in the middle of his career and the driving conflict is well underway. (The fact that Gary Cooper looks too old seems symbolic of this: he was almost 50, whereas Roark is meant to be a young man just embarking on his career.)

Roark’s arc doesn’t suffer from this compression because, well, he doesn’t have one. But Peter Keating fares the worst. His character arc, which I thought was the best part of the book, vanishes completely, and he never gets an ending. The novel’s conclusion, in which he ends up a ruined and psychologically broken man, is dropped. As with Jim Taggart’s breakdown in Atlas, it probably would’ve been impossible to depict this in a comprehensible way.

There are a couple of other places where the film makes deliberate changes from the book, which is odd since Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay. We saw one of them in the above clip: the part where Roark is kicked out of architecture school.

In the book, you’ll remember, the dean praised Roark’s talent and originality, but told him it was unacceptable that he refused to do assignments he didn’t like. He offered Roark the chance to take a year off and then come back to try again. Roark responded that he was too good for them and flounced out.

Possibly, if this had been on the screen, even Rand realized that it would’ve made her hero look bad. Without an omniscient narrator to tell us which character is supposed to be right, the intended moral would have been lost. Instead, she makes the dean a classic Dean Bitterman who snaps that there’s no room for original thought in architecture and orders Roark to get out.

There’s one other change that’s very interesting. It’s the scene where Peter tries to give money to a destitute Roark. In the novel, Roark accepts. In the film, he refuses, saying “I don’t give or ask for help”:

YouTube video

The movie’s version of this scene seems more authentically Objectivist, but it’s worth wondering why Rand didn’t write the book to match it. It’s tempting to hypothesize that this is another example of how her philosophy hadn’t gelled at the time she wrote The Fountainhead, and that she used her later works as a means to correct the ideological missteps she made earlier in her career.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...