A couple Christmases ago, we featured the story of how Ayn Rand helped the FBI “identify” It’s a Wonderful Life as a piece of communist propaganda, which does make one wonder: what kind of movie would she have America watch instead? We know exactly what kind, since, in 1947, the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, never one to shrink from the task of explaining her ideas, wrote the “Screen Guide for Americans,” according to Paleofuture, a pamphlet meant for distribution to Hollywood producers in order to make them aware of what she saw as a communist push to poison the movies with anti-American ideology.
“The purpose of the Communists in Hollywood, Rand writes, “is not the production of political movies openly advocating Communism. Their purpose is to corrupt our moral premises by corrupting non-political movies — by introducing small, casual bits of propaganda into innocent stories — thus making people absorb the basic premises of Collectivism by indirection and implication.” And so, to counteract the subtly propagandistic power of It’s a Wonderful Life and its ilk, she proposes fighting fire with fire, issuing these thirteen corrective filmmaking commandments:
- Don’t take politics lightly. “To hire Communists on the theory that ‘they won’t put over any politics on me’ and then remain ignorant and indifferent to the subject of politics, while the Reds are trained propaganda experts — is an attitude for which there can be no excuse.”
- Don’t smear the free enterprise system. “Don’t preach or imply that all publicly-owned projects are noble, humanitarian undertakings by grace of the mere fact that they are publicly-owned—while preaching, at same time, that private property or the defense of private property rights is the expression of some sort of vicious greed, of anti-social selfishness or evil.”
- Don’t smear industrialists. “You, as a motion picture producer, are an industrialist. All of us are employees of an industry which gives us a good living. There is an old fable about a pig who filled his belly with acorns, then started digging to undermine the roots of the oak from which the acorns came. Don’t let’s allow that pig to become our symbol.”
- Don’t smear wealth. “If the villain in your story happens to be rich—don’t permit lines of dialogue suggesting that he is the typical representative of a whole social class, the symbol of all the rich. Keep it clear in your mind and in your script that his villainy is due to his own personal character—not to his wealth or class.”
- Don’t smear the profit motive. “Don’t give to your characters — as a sign of villainy, as a damning characteristic, a desire to make money. Nobody wants to, or should, work without payment, and nobody does — except a slave.”
- Don’t smear success. “It is the Communists’ intention to make people think that personal success is somehow achieved at the expense of others and that every successful man has hurt somebody by becoming successful. It is the Communists’ aim to discourage all personal effort and to drive men into a hopeless, dispirited, gray herd of robots who have lost all personal ambition, who are easy to rule, willing to obey and willing to exist in selfless servitude to the State.”
- Don’t glorify failure. “While every man meets with failure somewhere in his life, the admirable thing is his courage in overcoming it — not the fact that he failed.”
- Don’t glorify depravity. “Don’t drool over weaklings as conditioned ‘victims of circumstances’ (or of ‘background’ or of ‘society’) who ‘couldn’t help it.’ You are actually providing an excuse and an alibi for the worst instincts in the weakest members of your audiences.”
- Don’t deify “the common man.” “No self-respecting man in America is or thinks of himself as ‘little,’ no matter how poor he might be. That, precisely, is the difference between an American working man and a European serf.”
- Don’t glorify the collective. “If you preach that it is evil to be different — you teach every particular group of men to hate every other group, every minority, every person, for being different from them; thus you lay the foundation for race hatred.”
- Don’t smear an independent man. “Remember that America is the country of the pioneer, the non-conformist, the inventor, the originator, the innovator. Remember that all the great thinkers, artists, scientists were single, individual, independent men who stood alone, and discovered new directions of achievement — alone.”
- Don’t use current events carelessly. “It is a sad joke on Hollywood that while we shy away from all controversial subjects on the screen, in order not to antagonize anybody — we arouse more antagonism throughout the country and more resentment against ourselves by one cheap little smear line in the midst of some musical comedy than we ever would by a whole political treatise.”
- Don’t smear American political institutions. “It is true that there have been vicious Congressmen and judges, and politicians who have stolen elections, just as there are vicious men in any profession. But if you present them in a story, be sure to make it clear that you are criticizing particular men — not the system. The American system, as such, is the best ever devised in history. If some men do not live up to it — let us damn these men, not the system which they betray.”
Have any real motion pictures passed Rand’s pro-capitalist test? (Read her full pamphlet here.) The film adaptation of The Fountainhead came out in 1949, and Rand herself at first praised it as “more faithful to the novel than any other adaptation of a novel that Hollywood has ever produced.” But later she turned against it, claiming to have “disliked the movie from beginning to end” and swearing never again to sell her novels without reserving the right to pick the director and screenwriter as well as to edit the film herself. She didn’t live to exercise those rights on Atlas Shrugged the movie, which came out as a trilogy between 2011 and 2014, so we’ll never know for sure if the movie met her stringent ideological standards — but with Metacritic scores of 28%, 26%, and 9%, we can safely assume they wouldn’t meet her cinematic ones.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.