The Fountainhead As Film
Is there any libertarian who would not agree that Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead is a literary masterpiece? Probably not. But there are few libertarians who would agree that the film version of The Fountainhead represents an achievement of equal magnitude. Most people seem to judge the movie by the extent of its slavishness to the book. By criticizing all aspects of the film which do not correspond to the revered novel, they fall into the trap that Ms. Rand was intelligent enough to avoid in her screenplay: that is, assuming that in order to be as successful a work of art, the film must be the book.
Just as her hero Roark realizes that in architecture form must follow function, Rand realizes that the form and style of each medium must be determined by that medium's basic nature. A novel must be literary, since its main elements are its words. However, a movie can exist without words. The simple difference is that a movie must be a moving picture in the literal sense, since its most important elements are its ever-changing pictorial compositions. Were Rand to have transposed The Fountainhead from book to film without making any changes to compensate for the two media's very different basic natures, the film would have been a very unsuccessful spectacle indeed. Fortunately for us, Rand's aesthetic sense is far more sophisticated than many of her fans' who, in their idolization of the novel, dismiss the film and Rand's screenplay as compromised, cheapened, Hollywood kitsch.
Historically, the idea of film as film had its most consistent, and indeed, flamboyant period in Germany during the twenties. During this period directors such as Lang, Murnau, Dupont, and Wiene realized very fully the importance of emphasizing stylized composition. It was these German directors who experimented most effectively with the concepts of moving camera, and stylization in both acting and scene design. This influence can be seen very clearly in The Fountainhead. (In fact, Rand has expressed her admiration for Fritz Lang and the German directors; indeed, it was both the German silent cinema and the American cinema that she found so attractive when she was still living in Russia.)
However, for Rand to have known what she wanted to achieve, and for her to have actually achieved it, are two very different things; aside from the differences in the basic nature of the two media, there is one crucial difference in the basis of each medium's production. Whereas the novel is highly personal and created by one person, the movie is a collaborative art, where the contributing artists and craft people must work, fight, and sometimes compromise their often conflicting visions in order to deliver the film on time and within the budget. The situation is particularly difficult for the writer—especially the writer who is interested in his script's stylistic and pictorial elements as well as its dialogue. On the movie set, it is the director who is king. And on The Fountainhead, Rand had King Vidor for her director. Vidor was then already well known for his professionalism, his very striking ability to organize and creatively direct many different kinds of films.
Ironically, it is clear that King Vidor did not really understand The Fountainhead. In one interview (in The Celluloid Muse, by Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg) Vidor has stated that he greatly disliked The Fountainhead's ending, because "It was silly to have an architect blow up a building just because they changed some of the facade." Yet Vidor's lack of complete understanding did not ultimately get in the way of the picture. Of Rand he has said, "She's a very determined person. She knows exactly what she wants and is not easily persuaded. She agreed to work on the script only if they promised not to change it without her consent." And since Vidor respected Ayn Rand's talents, their filmic "marriage" was—if occasionally a stormy union with Rand coming onto the set frequently to supervise, argue, and guard against compromise—one which proved finally fruitful and consistent with Ayn Rand's vision. For any writer to achieve his intentions in a finished film in 1948 is remarkable. For a writer with Rand's ideas and sense of style to achieve this is mind-boggling.
Unfortunately, the one element of any film over which the writer can have almost no control is that of the performances of the chosen actors. And it is in this area that the few problems in The Fountainhead are centered. Because of the casting, most of the characters appear considerably aged—Peter Keating, for instance, appears to be past 35 from the beginning. And although this is not really good (for it helps to contribute to a curious lack of epic feeling in the movie; when a character says years have passed, you tend to doubt him), it does allow for the casting of a middle-aged Gary Cooper as Howard Roark. Cooper is not perfect as Roark, but he brings a quiet integrity to the role that works masterfully. His performance is stylized quite nicely—there is almost a complete lack of nonessentials. And even further, he brings a humor to Roark; and it is a positive humor that suggests a positive sense of life and allows for the creation of a three-dimensional character. Patricia Neal (who reminds one physically of the young Rand) gives a performance as Dominique which is extremely good; she uses her voice as a terse and resounding instrument, especially after Dominique drops her hauteur and realizes she has the courage to stand up for what she believes. Any quarreling with the way Neal and Cooper handle their dramatic scenes is probably a mistake: the stylized and very dramatic acting style may seem exaggerated to us in 1974, but this does not mean that it is bad, just alien to our usual viewing experience. After all, the naturalistic method style of acting has dominated the motion picture for the last two decades. Perhaps the worst performance is that of the actor portraying Ellsworth Toohey. Although the dialogue may contain the subtlety and psychology of the cowardly totalitarian parasite, the actor's interpretation of the role (his walk, his voice, his business, his mannerisms) suggests that Toohey is just a typical "evil Nazi." As such, Toohey does not appear as clearly the Roarkian antipode as was possible and that Rand probably intended.
Yet in the long run, the performances are only minor elements in evaluating The Fountainhead, and certainly not as important as the dialogue or, especially, the film's visual skill. And as previously stated, the film is visual to an overwhelming degree. For instance, Ellsworth Toohey's first appearance is as a black silhouetted figure looming large in the foreground. Although the action largely excludes him in this beginning scene, the psychological and thematic situation becomes clear without the need of a word of dialogue: Toohey, a man of shadowy ideas, is ready to try to dominate when the time is right. Later, when Howard Roark is turned down a commission because of his integrity, he walks past a window which reveals the New York skyline. It is this skyline that results when individuals of integrity are looked down upon, it is this skyline that is waiting for Roark. When Henry Cameron dies, the image is particularly powerful, for in the ambulance the red cross works as a double comment: it both marks the crucifixion of Cameron, and suggests that the city buildings over which the cross is superimposed is in need of first aid. Thus through the visual element alone Cameron's state is equated with architecture's state.
At the end of the film, during the trial, an entire philosophical stand and Wynand's consciousness of it is explained through the visual action of Wynand rising. Now of course this scene is in the novel, but in the film the image (coming right after Roark's brilliant speech) is much more powerful: the horizontal contrasting with the two verticals; and even more, the verticality of the men suggests the nobility of Roark's skyscrapers. The visual integration throughout the film is remarkable in its consistency and power. Note the stylized and inexorable smoothness with which the drawer opens when Wynand commits suicide. Of course the image is right: his suicide, or rather his self-execution, is the natural extension. If Roark is not guilty, Wynand is guilty. Mention too must be made of the excellent picturization of the architecture. When the Greek portico is added to the model of Roark's creation, when the Cortlandt Homes are built with the ugly additions, the audience groans and understands the nature of the parasites and the idea of integrity in both Roark and architecture.
Although this review does not pretend to be a complete analysis of the film, it does try to point out those areas of the film that have been largely ignored (that is, the visual) and provoke increased study along similar lines. And if one should still doubt the remarkable integration and power of the visual element, one should consider the final brilliancy, the genius which I have left for last. The final minutes of the film are perhaps the most successful realization of film as film that I have seen. Throughout the movie Roark was constantly shown close to the earth—for instance, when he worked in the quarry. When he visited the Enright House, he, unlike the others, arrived in the ballroom from a stairway that came up into the room. The camera was often placed above his head, emphasizing his striving to rise. The final sequence is a stunningly dramatic event that—although it appears in the novel itself—in the film turns into an unbelievably powerful visual metaphor for Rand's theme. Dominique goes up the skyscraper that Roark is building. We think she's almost to the top, but no, the building goes even higher—higher than the earth and all its buildings. And then, for really the first time, we see Howard Roark from below—perched in the clouds as a god. We see him from Dominique's point of view (with subjective camera), so we, in fact are Dominique and are trying to rise to Roark's level. The scene is more than mere literal exhilaration. Howard Roark has achieved success. Through work, ideals, and integrity, he has become a god. And only through work, ideals, and integrity can others possibly rise to the same level. For it is Roark's inviolable mind which is the fountainhead of all human progress.
Charles Derry is a graduate student in cinema at the University of Southern California, and an aspiring screenwriter.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Fountainhead As Film".