Three hundred cinemas across America yesterday bore witness a curious social spectacle.
In place of overweight men queuing for the latest Star Wars re-hash or spotty youths awaiting another Twilight installment was line after line of middle-age white people wearing tricorn hats, stars-and-stripes T-shirts and pin badges suggesting that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. This is the Tea Party, on a big night out.
The occasion was the launch of Atlas Shrugged, a film version of a novel written in 1957 by Ayn Rand. The book, a 1200-page parable espousing the author's robust libertarian philosophy, has for years been popular bedtime reading for members of the Republican right, alongside The Bible and Townhall magazine. Today, decades after Rand' s death, it remains one of the most popular texts of the 20th century, selling 100,000 copies a year.
Hit movies do not make themselves, though. And putting Atlas Shrugged on the screen has taken half a century. A long and sometimes rambling tale of a dystopian world in which business leaders elect to disappear rather than submit to the creeping scourge of socialism, it is laden with dense prose, including a 60-page polemic in which an industrialist called John Galt, bids "farewell" to America. Many of Hollywood' s brightest minds therefore consider it unfilmable.
The last attempted studio production, by Lionsgate five years ago, represented what many thought was a death knell to its chances of ever reaching cinemas. It failed to get green-lit despite the fact that Angelina Jolie (a childhood fan of the novel) had agreed to play Rand's protagonist, Dagny Taggart, while a script had been prepared by Randall Wallace, the author of such blockbusters as Braveheart and Pearl Harbour.
But that was before the Tea Party came along. The prolific growth of the headline-prone protest movement provides a ready-made market for a rendering of Atlas Shrugged that hews slavishly to the original text. The independent financiers behind the version, which launched yesterday, are now betting that conservative audiences will embrace the picture in the same way that churchgoers turned out in force for Mel Gibson's 2004 hit, The Passion of the Christ.
Harmon Kaslow, the producer, has a simple business model. He admits that his film, which covers the first third of Rand's novel (it is "to be continued"), may prove to be a minority taste. But what matters is the size of that minority. He puts it at around nine million – roughly the number of Americans believed to sympathise strongly with the Tea Party. If they cough up for cinema tickets, then his project, which was made for a relatively paltry $10m (£7.4m) will make money.
"Hollywood has completely underestimated the commercial appeal of Ayn Rand," he told The Independent. "She still sells hundreds of thousands of books, 30 years after her death, and the political tide is causing more and more people to want to explore her philosophy. Most independent films do not have anything like this kind of brand recognition, and for us, that' s priceless. We don' t have to ask who our target audience is. We already know."
Mr Kaslow believes that target audience feels neglected by mainstream fare, so will rush to embrace a movie which plays to their libertarian preconceptions. He has duly turned the launch into a political event, branding it the film that Hollywood liberals "don' t want you to see" and persuading tens of thousands of visitors to its website to click on a petition for their local cinema to screen it. "Our PR company is in Washington DC, rather than Los Angeles, and it works with political groups who have worked with Tea Party groups," he says. "We are targeting Fox News, and talk radio shows, and believe me, they're listening. We are speaking directly to the sorts of people who can get a crowd to go out on a street corner to protest at a weekend. Because if they’re able to do that, then it's pretty likely that they can also persuade people to go see a movie.”
The trailer for Atlas Shrugged was unveiled earlier this year at Cpac, the annual conference for right-wing Republicans, driving thousands of fans to its YouTube page (versions of it have now surpassed two million "views"). Its official premiere, at a Washington railway station this week, was attended by several Tea Party-endorsed freshman congressmen, although the film's blonde star, Taylor Schilling, who is rumoured to be a liberal, was nowhere to be seen in photographs taken at the event.
Kaslow's PR campaign received a further fillip on Wednesday when Rand Paul, the right-wing Senator whose father, Ron, named him after Ayn, became the subject of a viral video after launching into a ponderous discussion of her literature during a debate on energy efficiency.
A host of right-wing think-tanks hope it will inspire a new generation to explore Rand's oeuvre. They are convinced that her novels, which offer a didactic take on objectivism and individual freedom, could be as politically potent for right-wingers as those of Orwell, Marx and Chairman Mao were for the world's lefties.
"We are marketing Atlas Shrugged to spread it to the grassroots movement," a representative for the think-tank FreedomWorks told Townhall magazine this week. "It is an end-run against the Hollywood establishment the way the Tea Party was an end-run against establishment Republicans and Democrats during election season.... This movie is going to succeed because it is going to inspire people."
William Pascoe III, the executive vice-president of Citizens for the Republic, told The Hollywood Reporter: "I read [the book] every four years during presidential election years.... For a guy like me, this film is the equivalent of standing in line to see Star Wars in 1977." Regarding the new production, he added: “they better have done a good job.”
And there's the rub. For this week, Atlas Shrugged was was screened to film critics. And they reacted with widespread contempt. The movie currently has a rating of 6 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, the website which ranks titles according to printed reviews, making it one of the worst received flicks of the past year. Rolling Stone said it "sits there flapping on the screen like a bludgeoned seal". Variety claimed "this hasty, low-budget adaptation would have Ayn Rand spinning in her grave." The Washington Post dubbed it: "stilting, didactic and simplistic."
Even PJ O'Rourke, a hero to conservatives, pronounced himself disappointed. "Atlas shrugged. And so did I," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "The movie version of Ayn Rand' s novel treats its source material with such formal, reverent ceremoniousness that the uninitiated will feel they've wandered without a guide into the midst of the elaborate and interminable rituals of some obscure exotic tribe."
But to Kaslow, poor reviews are no bar to success. Being rejected by the mainstream (or what Sarah Palin calls the "lamestream") is a badge of honour in Tea Party circles. Dismissive write-ups therefore play into his hands. "People passionate about this book read the reviews with an eye to whether or not the reviewer understands the message," he says. "If they don't and are blasting it for production values or things that are not related to the book, then our community will take those people on."
Could he be right? The Passion of the Christ was also a critical flop. But it went on to make $370m at the US box office. Atlas Shrugged will therefore provide an telling illustration of how much the Tea Party has supplanted the Bush-era religious right as the unofficial route to the hearts, minds and wallets of the Republican grassroots.
The Life of Ayn Rand
*Born in 1905 in St Petersburg, Ms Rand, above, fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Settling in the Crimea, the Rand family business was eventually confiscated by Communists, leaving the family to face starvation.
*Aged nine, the studious Ms Rand decided to become a fiction writer. A conscientious scholar, she reportedly denounced the 1917 revolution from the offset (aged 12) and adopted the US as her model for free nations after studying American history at school.
*Ms Rand emigrated and chose to settle in Hollywood at 21. Within a week, celebrated director Cecil B DeMille had given her a job as a script reader. She fell in love with actor Frank O'Connor, they married in 1929 and stayed together in the US until his death 50 years later.
*Her first bestseller, The Fountainhead, was rejected 12 times before it was published in 1943. It stirred debate for championing individualism, paving the way for her last and most famous fictional work, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957.
*Dubbed the "Bible of Selfishness" by Wall Street, Atlas Shrugged detailed Rand's theories of objectivism, which fêted self-interest and capitalism. It has since sold more than six million copies.