Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Fountainhead (1949)

I’ve just watched the 1949 movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, directed by King Vidor.  When Warner Brothers employed Rand to write the screenplay for the film they rather naïvely gave her complete creative control. Her contract stated that not one line of her dialogue could be altered. Perhaps they assumed that she would not make an issue of it if changes had to be made. If they thought that they were very mistaken indeed. Rand held them to the letter of her contract. As a result the movie is extraordinarily faithful to the spirit of the book. It presents Rand’s ideas in a very uncompromising manner.

I had read the book not that long before seeing the film. It’s the only book of hers that I’ve read so I can only judge her on the basis of that one book. The problem with Rand is that almost everybody (even those who have never read her) have incredibly strong feelings about her philosophy, either for or against. I don’t actually want to talk about her philosophy. I want to consider her purely as a social critic, and I happen to think that in that role she was remarkably perceptive and prescient.

For those who haven’t read the book it’s the story of two architects. Peter Keating is a third-rate architect but his great strength is that he has no opinions of his own. As he himself admits, he’s never had an original thought in his life. He simply copies whatever happens to be popular and fashionable. As a result he becomes very successful indeed.

Howard Roark (the hero of the book) is a very different sort of man. He stubbornly insists on going his own way, refusing to compromise his vision in any way. If nobody wants to employ him as an architect, if nobody wants to build the buildings he designs, it makes no difference to him. He will not alter a design to please a client. He thinks for himself and he has no interest in what other people think. As a result he has virtually no clients and is forced to take a job as a labourer in a quarry.

Rand understood very clearly that the odds are heavily stacked in favour of the Peter Keatings of this world. It is very much easier to be a Peter Keating than it is to be a Howard Roark. Being a Peter Keating means you’re guaranteed of safety and security, and of social approval. Rand also understood that not only are most people terrified of the idea of thinking for themselves; they hate and fear anyone who does think for himself.

The other key character in both book and film is Ellsworth Toohey, a columnist on a popular newspaper, The New York Banner. Toohey is a type that has become very familiar to us. He’s a textbook cultural Marxist. He espouses equality, and he believes that the best way to achieve equality is to grind down anyone who is exceptional in any way. But as is the case with all cultural Marxists, what Toohey really believes in is power. Toohey has spent years creating a power base for himself within the Banner, slowly and surreptitiously infiltrating the paper with his own supporters. No-one, least of all the paper’s owner Gail Wynant, has noticed this happening. Now it’s Toohey who is in control.

This is a remarkable prediction of the methods of cultural Marxism, of their “long march through the culture.” And Rand seems to have recognised the danger this represented before anyone else did.

The sad history of the past few decades - the triumph of cultural Marxism, the fact that most people would happily embrace politically correct group-think, would not have surprised Rand at all. Nor would she have been surprised by the craven and grovelling manner in which big business has caved in to every demand by the Cultural Left - she predicted this as well in The Fountainhead, in the fearful acquiescing to “public opinion” of the various boards of directors who reject Howard Roark’s designs.

I’m not a follower of Rand, but there’s no question she was farsighted and provocative. The Fountainhead is worth reading, and the movie is worth seeing.

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