LOS ANGELES — It has taken businessman John Aglialoro nearly 20 years to realize his ambition of making a movie out of Atlas Shrugged, the 1957 novel by Ayn Rand that has sold more than 7 million copies and has as passionate a following among many political conservatives and libertarians as Twilight has among teen girls.
But the film coming to theaters Friday is decidedly independent, low-cost and even makeshift. Shot for a modest $10 million by a first-time director with a cast of little-known actors, Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the first in an expected trilogy, will play on about 300 screens in 80 markets. It's being marketed with the help of conservative media and Tea Party organizing groups, and put into theaters by a small booking service based in Salt Lake City.
That one of the 20th century's most influential books is coming to movie screens in such a fashion is — depending on whom you ask — a reflection of liberal Hollywood's aversion to Rand's ideas, a symptom of Aglialoro's rigid adherence to them, or a testament to the challenges in adapting the complex tome.
Aglialoro ultimately made a movie that hews more to Rand's ideology than to the conventions of cinematic storytelling, at the risk that far fewer people will see it. Taking a page from the independent blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, however, he is paying for his own theater bookings and marketing his film to an audience that Hollywood often overlooks.
The novel takes place in an unspecified future, when the United States is mired in a deep depression. Heroine Dagny Taggart is trying to save her railroad company from collapse amid increasing government control and a mysterious phenomenon causing the nation's leading industrialists to disappear. Atlas Shrugged lays out Rand's passionate defenses of capitalism and individualism, and it has been a source of inspiration to figures as varied as Alan Greenspan and Angelina Jolie.
Part of the marketing for Atlas Shrugged: Part I relies on the movie's status as a product that, as Fox News host Sean Hannity has described it, "liberal Hollywood doesn't want you to see."
The real story of what kept Atlas out of movie theaters for so long is a bit more complicated.
During Rand's lifetime, the author stymied The Godfather producer Al Ruddy's attempts to make a movie of Atlas Shrugged by demanding veto power over every frame. Rand, who also was a screenwriter, had adapted her 1947 novel The Fountainhead for a 1949 movie starring Gary Cooper and native Kentuckian Patricia Neal, and she was irked by a single line cut from the final film. Atlas Shrugged, at more than 1,000 pages, dense with philosophical ideas and containing a character's speech that covers 57 pages, would require major changes in its adaptation for screen.
"I said, 'Look, Ayn, the language of film is different,'" Ruddy said. "John Galt says goodbye to America for 60 ... pages. In a book it can be charming, but in film, you look foolish."
After the Ruddy deal and another for an NBC miniseries fell apart, Rand worked on her own screenplay for Atlas Shrugged until her death in 1982. Her fantasy casting for the leads were Farrah Fawcett and Clint Eastwood. "She loved Charlie's Angels," said Anne C. Heller, author of Ayn Rand and the World She Made. "They were like Dagny with guns."
In 1992, the heir to Rand's estate sold a 15-year option on the book's rights to Aglialoro for $1 million. "This is the greatest epic that's never been made into a movie," said Aglialoro, now chief executive of the exercise equipment manufacturer Cybex. "I was like, 'I don't need a 15-year lease. This is done in 18 months.'"
During the next 18 years (he bought extensions on his option), Aglialoro developed several ill-fated scripts. A feature screenplay, by Braveheart writer and Secretariat director Randall Wallace, was set up at Lionsgate in 2007, with Angelina Jolie attached to play Dagny. According to a source close to Lionsgate, the project fell apart when Aglialoro's commitment to the book's philosophical messages clashed with the studio's aims to make the story more cinematic. According to Aglialoro, the multiple parties couldn't agree on a director.
"There are two big factors that I sense have frightened filmmakers about Atlas Shrugged," Wallace said. "One is the reverence with which Rand's followers hold the novel, and the other is the sprawling nature of the story. I believed to climb that mountain, I'd have to shrug off both those fears."
Meanwhile, Rand was gaining a new currency with readers. After several years of selling about 75,000 copies a year, sales of Atlas Shrugged spiked during the recent recession, reaching 500,000 in 2009, according to the Ayn Rand Institute, a non-profit think tank in Irvine, Calif. By March 2010, Aglialoro had three months to get a film into production, or the book's rights would revert to Rand's estate. "It was my wife who said you better get the hell out there and do it," he said.
Aglialoro is opening Atlas Shrugged: Part I on Friday with the help of Rocky Mountain Pictures, a Utah film booking service that handled the anti-evolution documentary Expelled and the animated religious film The Lion of Judah.
His unorthodox distribution and marketing plans might work, distribution strategist Peter Broderick said.
"There may be some advantages to these folks being outsiders to Hollywood," Broderick said. "This guy wants to make sure that the message of the movie doesn't get watered down. He can control the marketing, how much is spent. If you can get enough people out from those core audiences the first weekend, it can build."