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Atlas Shrugged’s Long Journey to the Silver Screen

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 6, No. 1.


In January 1, 1982, Ayn Rand began the new year by following a time-honored tradition of her native Russia; she began work on the major project she planned to accomplish that year: a teleplay for her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Unfortunately, this teleplay, the last thing Rand wrote, was incomplete when she died that March. Although this was the high point in her nearly decade-long involvement in producing a film version of Atlas, it marked only the midway point in her magnum opus’ fifty-four year journey to the silver screen.

According to Jeff Britting, archivist for the Ayn Rand Institute, this journey began shortly after Atlas was published.1 In the late 1950s, at least one report in Daily Variety, the film industry’s newspaper, suggested that the book would soon be made into a film. Considering the success of Rand’s The Fountainhead, first as a novel and then as a film, such a suggestion, even if purely speculative, was not far-fetched given Hollywood’s long history of procuring literary properties and turning them into blockbusters. However, there was a major impediment to transforming Atlas into a film: Ayn Rand herself.

It is well known and oft reported that Rand essentially disowned the film version of The Fountainhead because one line of dialogue was cut from Howard Roark’s climactic courtroom speech. Although some critics might chalk this up to petty hubris, Britting notes that Rand had good reason for her reaction: She felt betrayed by director King Vidor and producer Henry Blanke. She thought that she had built a good working relationship with them during the production. She often consulted with the two men and even rewrote parts of the script to suit the production—all in the spirit of artistic cooperation. Their cutting of an important line from the story’s climactic speech without her knowledge betrayed Rand’s trust and left a bitter taste in her mouth regarding Hollywood.

Given this souring experience, Rand would not even consider selling the rights to Atlas without attaching certain conditions—conditions that, by Hollywood standards, were extraordinary. According to Ayn Rand’s agent, Perry Knowlton,

She said she’s never going to sell anything to a film company that doesn’t allow her the right to pick the director, the screenwriter, and to edit in the editing room. And, of course, a lot of people make contracts thinking they can get this type of deal from the backers, but never could. It became one of the problems that she never got over, but she refused to give up her way of doing it because she felt she was right, which she was. She didn’t like what was done with The Fountainhead, and therefore, she was trying to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.2

It would be nearly fifteen years after the publication of the novel before Rand would be approached by a Hollywood veteran whom she thought able and willing to produce the film in accordance with her conditions and standards.

Albert S. Ruddy, a longtime admirer of the novel, was coming off his successful production of The Godfather when he contacted Knowlton about buying the film rights to Atlas. Knowlton was not optimistic about the prospect but told Ruddy he could try to convince Rand that he would do the book justice. Remarkably, by his own account and others, Ruddy did more than thoroughly charm Rand; he demonstrated that he understood at root how the film adaptation needed to be approached. . . .

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* Britting, “Adapting Atlas Shrugged to Film,” in Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, edited by Robert Mayhew (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), pp. 195–217.

1 Jeff Britting, Telephone interview with the author, January 27, 2011.

2 Scott McConnell, ed., 100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand (New York: NAL Trade, 2010), p. 312.