The Fountainhead Movie Review

Content warning: Suicide and toxic relationships will be discussed in this review.

Whenever a film adaptation of a novel comes out, there will always be people who will say, “The book is better than the movie.”

For a lot of the time, that sentiment is true. However, there are instances in which people will assert that the film is better. Various outlets on the Internet have done many lists about this subject. Flicks that appear on them frequently are The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Jaws. However, in today’s review, I’m going to discuss a movie that hasn’t shown up on the more recent lists, but I think it should be at least considered. That is the 1949 film adaptation of The Fountainhead starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal – a surprisingly well made, albeit imperfect, adaptation of the flawed novel of the same name by Ayn Rand.

For those who haven’t already read my review of the book, here’s my recap: even though I wasn’t a fan of the book and had issues with it, I could see the timelessness of it because it commits itself to the values of individualism wholeheartedly, and certain people will latch onto those ideals. 

The movie itself is a faithful adaptation of the divisive book. Many of the stuff that’s present in the novel made it into the film as mostly unaltered. This is so because Ayn Rand herself wrote the screenplay. Apparently, she had some previous experience in Hollywood as she worked as Junior Screenwriter for Cecile B. DeMille. As a result, there’s a sense that she knew that she couldn’t fit a 726-page book into a feature length movie, even though she wanted the speech that Howard Roark makes in court at the end to be in its entirety. The end result is about two hours. Many of the speeches, including the aforementioned one, are reduced. In addition, certain characters are reduced or expanded. Peter Keating’s presence is drastically decreased, while Gail Wynand is introduced much earlier in the movie than he is in the tome.

Other changes occurred due to the Production Code. One of them includes the marriages that Dominique Francon has with Peter and later with Gail. In the novel, she marries Peter first, divorces him, weds Gail, and Gail separates from her when the Cortlandt trial is going on. Since the Hays Office didn’t approve of divorce on screen, the film has Dominique already engaged to Peter in the beginning, and then Gail convinces him to break that off, so he could marry her. Then, at the end, when Gail loses everything with “The Banner,” he takes his own life (note: this shows up almost out of nowhere in the movie, but in the novel, his character introduction literally has the news mogul contemplating whether or not he wants to end his life).

The other major change brought on by the Production Code has to do with the rape scene in the book. The Hays Office was apparently concerned with people getting away with crimes, but the novel tries to justify Howard raping Dominique because she smacked him prior. Instead of that kind of sexual assault, the movie “solves” this problem by having him forcibly kiss her and then depicting her trip, fall, and crying on the ground with him smirking over her. 

As a film, The Fountainhead is visually appealing. Director King Vidor utilizes a lot of shadows, particularly on the backs of various characters, to show their ominous side. I also found the shadow shot in which Howard takes his mentor Henry Cameron back to his office to be very impressive because it displays the bleakness of the latter’s state and of the former’s future. In addition, the sets are mostly sparse to emphasize the characters. This is mainly done with wide shots, especially of Gail’s office. Moreover, the Quarry scene is wonderfully done. For those who don’t know, this is the sequence, where Dominique and Howard lock eyes for the first time. It’s an effective and explicit display of the female gaze, which was rarely done in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and I come back to it whenever I have the chance. Let’s just say, it involves a drill.

And of course, since the main character is an architect, someone will ask, “Emily, what do you think of the architecture in the movie?”

Well, it’s serviceable. Ayn Rand wanted Frank Lloyd Wright to design the buildings in the film, for he was inspiration for Howard Roark. However, Warner Brothers declined because they didn’t want to pay Wright’s fee of $250,000. Instead, Edward Carrere did this, and it’s fine. It would’ve been better if Wright actually agreed to contribute. At the same time, the bank model and the Cortlandt building were effectively ugly by combining too many styles.

The film certainly tries and mostly succeeds in selling Objectivism. Most of the cast like Kent Smith as Peter, Robert Douglas as Ellsworth Toohey, and Raymond Massey as Gail do a good job in portraying how one should not be following the philosophy. Smith portrays Peter in his various stages of success without one ounce of identity. Normally, this would be a criticism, but because the character of Peter is supposed to have no sense of self, this is effective. Also, the movie has Ellsworth dressed up to the nines and grasping a cigarette holder most of the time. Patricia Neal plays Dominique. Even though I thought she was a little too over-the-top at times (which can be unintentionally hilarious), she was aloof and emotional when needed. She sells her character as Dominique tries to destroy Howard because of her love for him. 

In addition, the movie has an interesting way of looking at Howard. Say what you want about the book, it clearly wants its reader to root for him even when he commits certain actions. The film uses a shadow on Gary Cooper’s backside in the opening sequence to display how much of a menace he could be to society if he doesn’t give in. Then in the confrontation sequence between Howard and Dominique, lots of dark shadows and suspenseful music, as if it’s a horror flick, are used. At the end of the scene, there’s a closeup of Howard smirking as he stares over Dominique. It’s almost as if the movie is saying that while it doesn’t approve of his actions, it gets where he’s coming from. 

Of course, the film has its problems. First off, alot of its issues mostly stem from the source material. The characters are exaggerated symbols for what Ayn Rand believed about society, and most of them go on philosophical rants. The movie wisely cuts down on most of those speeches, which results in good pacing. However, when it does include those lectures, they tend to slow the flick, especially right before the Cortlandt trial. In addition, the framing of Howard and Dominique’s relationship is still romantic even though it’s toxic and relies on set power dynamics. As mentioned in the last paragraph, the movie attempts to bring nuance to the confrontation scene, but it still can’t get away from the fantasy romance framework. I mean the music turns passionate when Howard kisses Dominique despite the forced nature.

Speaking of the soundtrack, that’s the second issue this film has. Max Steiner (the same guy who was the composer for Gone With the Wind) does the score for this film. Outside of the movie, his music sounds wonderfully bombastic, which would make for a great album listen. I’ve specifically had the musical motif for Howard stuck in my head since I last watched it. In the context of the flick, it feels too melodramatic and on-the-nose for a story that’s already histrionic and blunt to begin with. For example, when Gail (after marrying Dominique) invites Howard over to dinner, there’s a big dramatic chord and stops to wait for the latter’s reply. Along with Cooper’s nonchalant response, that moment becomes unintentionally funny. It would’ve been more appropriate if it went along with Gail asking Howard if he accepts the commission to be the former’s sole architect. 

Finally, the third problem with the movie is Gary Cooper. On paper, it seemed like a good idea to cast him as Howard since his characters often were the strong, silent type. However, on screen, it doesn’t quite work. For one thing, he is too old to play that character. The novel and the movie take place over a number of years starting from Howard getting expelled from school. This would make him about 20ish at the beginning, but Cooper was 47 at the time of shooting. This wasn’t the first time that a 40-year-old Cooper played a college student. He did that briefly in the 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees. In that section of that movie, he slouches and displays an “aww shucks” kind of attitude, and this worked because his character Lou Gehrig was kind of the person to do that. Howard Roark is not that type. 

Additionally, Howard goes on about enjoying the work that one does. Despite that, Gary Cooper doesn’t really communicate this in his performance. Most of the time, Cooper has a stoic and stiff demeanor and speaks that way too. It would’ve been better if Cooper smiled more, not just physically, but also in his voice.

Lastly, the biggest problem with Cooper’s performance is that it seems like he never fully embraces Howard’s values. I’m not saying that every actor should believe the same things as the characters they play. Yet, their job is to convince the audience that they have. It becomes more clear as the story progresses that Cooper is the type of actor who doesn’t fake it. In other words, if something doesn’t sit well with him, he won’t attempt to hide it. This is most apparent in Howard’s big speech at the Cortlandt trial. He delivers it like it’s a college lecture, and that’s serviceable enough. However, there are times where Cooper has his hands in his pockets and dots his eyes to the right like he’s reading off of cue cards, and this talk is the main selling point for Objectivism according to its fans. When I was doing research for this review, I found out that Cooper didn’t understand that speech. That checks out. The only thing that prevents me from deeming Cooper as a complete bust in this flick is that he looks like the perfect physical specimen whom Ayn Rand would’ve desired and that he speaks with a strong and assertive tone.

All in all, the movie version of The Fountainhead certainly tries to capture the spirit of its imperfect source material. It does this with effective results like the cinematography and the set designs and sometimes with campy ones like the score and some of the performances. Despite (and because of) this, the film is more entertaining than the book because it translates the story to the screen that feels most appropriate. In other words, it’s a well-made, but flawed, gateway to the imperfect book. I would recommend it to those who have already read the novel and to those who are watching movies starring Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, or released in 1949. And if one doesn’t like the Objectivism philosophy or other aspects of the novel and refuses to watch the movie, all I will say is to watch the Quarry scene on YouTube. You’ll love it!

If you haven’t already, go listen to The 300 Passions Podcast, where I discuss the film as well as the book with Zita Short!

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Published by emilymalek

I work at a public library southeast Michigan, and I facilitate two book clubs there. I also hold a Bachelor's degree in History and Theatre from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI; a Master's degree in Library and Information Science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI; and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration also from Wayne. In my downtime, I love hanging out with friends, play trivia and crossword puzzles, listening to music (like classic rock and K-pop), and watching shows like "Monty Python's Flying Circus"!

3 thoughts on “The Fountainhead Movie Review

  1. It’s been so many years since I’ve read the book or seen the movie, I can’t really comment. I do think you might have been mixing up THE FOUNTAINHEAD with ATLAS SHRUGGED in your fourth paragraph. But good for you if you read both those books. I know how you must feel about the viewpoints. You make me want to do the same, i.e., read some things outside my own comfort zone.


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