The trouble with Ayn Rand and Zack Snyder’s ‘The Fountainhead’?

Reviled director to film reviled libertarian hero’s novel. This is a bad idea

Forget the non-news that Danny Boyle will be directing Daniel Craig in the next James Bond film. The skinny that's got the cinema world abuzz concerns Zack Snyder's plan to direct a film version of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. The phrase "Zack Snyder's The Fountainhead" reads like the answer to a question involving the words "worst ever…" on Mock the Week. Think "Dan Brown's Mein Kampf".

It's not just that a much-reviled director is taking on a much-reviled author. There's something special about both these people. The director of Batman Vs Superman and Legend of the Sucker Punch has, not entirely unfairly, come to stand in for all that's wrong with big-budget, fan-servicing comic-book movies.

The late Ms Rand is something else altogether. Mentor to a thousand half-bright libertarians, she has – with turgid bullet-stoppers such as Atlas Shrugged – gradually emerged as a literary version of Marmite. You either hate her books or you're a maniac. (With apologies to people who don't like Marmite.)

A confession is due. I have read none of The Fountainhead and only around 150 pages of Atlas Shrugged. So you may reasonably stop reading here. I watched four series of The West Wing to confirm I couldn't stand the thing. If life were a thousand times longer, it would still be too short to make any similar accommodation with Rand's turgid prose.


Exhaustingly occupied with forwarding a ruthless philosophy dubbed "Objectivism" – essentially "abandon granny on the ice floe" – Atlas Shrugged concerns a future America that burdens strivers with endless unnecessary regulations. As the novel unfolds, a figure named John Galt emerges to offer escape from this collectivist drudgery. Altruism is a sham. Adherence to rational self-interest is the only worthwhile aim. Hey, I got the seat first, pregnant lady. I guess you're going to have to stand all the way to Seattle.

Again, I am taking much of this on trust. Galt is, for most of the first million pages, little more than a vague rumour. He properly forms himself sometime after the glacial storytelling and proselytising, street-lunatic dialogue wore down my perverse resolve. Were I the Mighty Thor, I would have flung the book across the room. Granted only mortal strength, I was able merely to let it crash seismically to the carpet.

Yet the works of Ayn Rand have somehow become among the most influential on American campuses. You know that trust-fund radical – here he's called something like Odhrán Crosby-Sporkington – who presses David Foster Wallace on every uninterested woman? He is nothing to the sinister proto-Galt who enjoys ostentatiously reading The Fountainhead in public places. Few literary departments will have anything to do with Rand but, in 1999, when Random House ran a poll to discover the greatest novel of the 20th century, Atlas Shrugged ended up at No 1, with The Fountainhead just behind in second place. Two more Rand novels landed in the top 10.

Before the revolution

Born in Russia before the revolution, resident in the United States since 1925, Rand gathered a group of acolytes around her that included Alan Greenspan, future Federal Reserve chairman, while she was working on the paving slab that became Atlas Shrugged. The books were initially not big sellers. King Vidor's film of The Fountainhead, starring a hilariously miscast Gary Cooper as a deranged architect, was almost universally panned on its released in 1949.

As the decades passed, however, more and more Worshippers of the Self found themselves drawn to her crackpot philosophy. Not all Rand's dicta suit the current American right – she was an atheist and, as an opponent of all regulation, pro-choice – but her followers at the libertarian end of the spectrum have filleted out the bits that matter. The books have become The Lord of the Rings for people who find beggars an eyesore. They are Randians. She has become an adjective.

As Snyder moves forward on his version of The Fountainhead, he should, however, remember that Rand remains very much an American phenomenon. Few lunatics in British or Irish universities press the books on unlucky acquaintances. Fans of good eggs Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman arrange online campaigns to elevate their books in polls such as the Modern Library's. Nobody on this side of the Atlantic does the same for Rand.

She belongs in a hefty file containing US cultural phenomena that perish in transit. It also includes noodly college rock such as that perpetrated by Hootie and the Blowfish, The Dave Matthews Band and the unlistenably dexterous Phish. She belongs with broad comedy such as Saturday Night Live. She belongs with grape soda, jello salad, grits, corn dogs and sweet potato with marshmallows. An endlessly grand woman, Rand would have hated that last comparison. Which is why we make it.