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Atlas Shrugged: Is A (the Movie) Really A (the Novel)?

The film should please fans, but might not please everyone.

Brian Doherty
March 11, 2011

The official release of the movie Atlas Shrugged Part One, based on Ayn Rand’s controversial 1957 novel, is not until April 15. It then begins a limited theatrical rollout in 11 American cities (which the producers hope will grow from there).

It has already been previewed to selected audiences in Los Angeles, D.C., and New York. I saw it in Los Angeles, on the Sony Pictures lot, in a screening regretfully marred by technical problems (with a projector that put thin blue vertical lines throughout the film image).

Still, the film’s qualities—both good and bad—came through. Anyone with a passionate interest in Ayn Rand and her opus will want to see, and will surely appreciate on many levels, this film version of a third of the novel.

Early word is encouraging for the film’s producers, John Aglialoro (CEO of the Cybex exercise equipment company and sole financier of this independently-produced film) and Harmon Kaslow. The world of Objectivist fans, those with a passionate attachment to their own vision of the book, seem likely unsatisfiable by anything that doesn’t spring directly from their imaginations to the theater of their minds.

But the early reactions from Randians has been positive, with adulation from Rand’s closest friends and disciples during the years she wrote Atlas, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, who were both blown away, and love from the Atlas Society’s philosophical linchpin David Kelley (who advised Aglialoro in every step of the process, to ensure the resulting script passed Objectivist muster). By the same token, some people who don’t care for Rand have also hated the film.

When I interviewed him for a forthcoming May feature story in Reason, producer Kaslow told me that they knew expectations were low for the movie because of its relatively small budget and rushed production schedule (reported frequently as $5 million, though the shoot ended up costing $10 million). Indeed, some reviewers based their admiration for the finished product somewhat on their hideous fears about it based on early reports.

The end result is definitely better than merely “not a disaster.” Atlas Shrugged the novel is divided into three parts, all named for different statements of Rand’s beloved Aristotelian “law of identity.” (A is A.) Part one is “non-contradiction.” So, is Atlas Shrugged Part One (the movie) equal to Atlas Shrugged (the novel, Part One)?

To give a mealy-mouthed answer, one that would cause Rand to condemn me as a mystical whim worshipper: It is and it isn’t. This movie has some of the same flaws I saw in another attempt at a faithful adaptation of a work of fantastic literature long thought unfilmable, Zach Snyder’s 2009 version of Watchmen, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (which had its own Objectivist angle). That is, it struck me as a series of filmed recreations of scenes from the famous novel, with as much faithfulness to the source as the time limits of a commercial film allow. But that doesn’t necessarily add up to a well-conceived movie that stands on its own. Despite its virtues as a filmed adaptation of the novel, the movie qua movie doesn’t have enough to offer those not familiar with the source material, even if they aren’t inclined to hate Rand for her message.

Atlas is a densely thought out and constructed work that takes its characters on a full and exhilarating arc, through a plot and theme and mystery with a dynamite resolution. This movie only takes you a third of the way, and I can’t imagine anyone not dimly aware of the book's premise feeling anything but empty or puzzled at the movie’s ending (which is precisely the ending of Part One of the novel).

I am not trained to judge cinematography, but from a basic perspective this looked like a real professional film, with everything from the offices to the train rides to the parties looking how they needed to look—better than I expected from my three days on the set during the shooting, thanks to the magic of post-production and sharp editing.

As far as acting goes, I was not as impressed as others have been with Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart, the heroic railroad executive fighting to keep her company alive and the bloodlines of American oil pumping (and to make a buck, like a good Objectivist). She had moments where she conveyed the lithe, restrained, passionate steel of Dagny, but didn’t do so every moment. Some of her line readings fell flat, some of her expressions were too blank or sometimes too light and sunny. In what might count as a backhanded insult, she sometimes seemed too much like a normal human being for a Randian romantic heroine.

Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden, inventor of the wonder amalgam Rearden Metal, held down by his needy and contemptuous family and a government prepared to crush any industrial success, was more consistently solid. He manages, in a few seconds of screen time, to communicate something of the unspoken and complicated joy in his own creation that Rand took pages to explain.

Bowler especially shines in his interactions with his ne’er do well family and friends, and complicatedly hateful wife Lillian (Rebecca Wisocky), who I found the most perfectly acted role. (Bowler coped less well with the very slow-burn passion and eventual affair with Dagny.)

Smaller roles like former business genius turned dissolute playboy Francisco d’Anconia (Jsu Garcia) (all of whose backstory flashbacks from the novel were cut), Rearden frenemy Paul Larkin (Patrick Fischler), and striking philosopher Hugh Akston (Michael O’Keefe), shone as well in a way that felt very much right from the novel.

Matthew Marsden has a great, but more distinct, take on Dagny’s brother James Taggart. He reinvented a character that, in the novel, feels a harried pathetic wreck into something of a douchebag smoothie (Marsden plays younger and more handsome than I expect most imagined James to be), making it more clear and believable that he would be a successful empty shell in a world run by pull, not achievement.

It's delightful for fans to hear on screen Randian lines about fools who consider knowledge to be superfluous, idiot “wise men” who talk of happiness as an illusion of the superficial, and the heroes bravely but foolishly taking on the burden “to move the world, and to pull all the others through.” It was less delightful to hear too much pseudo-scientific overexplaining of the amazing mystery motor, and clumsy and bludgeoning soundbites from John Galt selling the idea of the strike—“a place where heroes live...no government beyond a few courthouses…”

I wouldn’t be an Atlas fan if I didn’t have some objections, which I think are not merely a desire to see it be “more like the book” but to be a stronger film. Losing the scene where Dagny takes control of the stalled Taggart Comet (the introduction to Dagny in the book) hurt. It would have helped the weight of the character onscreen to see her efficacy up front, represented in something other than barreling over her weak brother in office arguments.

Not all my talks with writer Brian O’Toole convinced me that he “got” Rand’s philosophy the same way most libertarians do—a problem that O’Toole has been facing bravely with thousands of Rand fans on the movie’s Facebook page—but none of that was apparent on-screen. O’Toole saw analogies between one of his favorite films, Metropolis, and Rand that I don’t quite see. And he has a sense of absurd humor that’s decidedly un-Randian, joking after the screening that if he had his way, during the first successful run of the John Galt Line over a bridge made of Rearden Metal, Godzilla would have destroyed the bridge. That sense of humor isn’t in the film, of course, which hews tightly to a grim and tense Randian tone. There is not a moment where an honest fan of Rand could say that the makers of this film just didn’t get it.

But what about non-fans of Rand? My favorite example of the mental challenges placed in the path of any who would dare adapt Atlas came from Jeff Britting, who manages the official Ayn Rand archives. He wrote: “not until the writer of record is ready and willing to dramatize Atlas Shrugged in total silence, will he be able to adapt the novel.”

Well, Britting had his eccentric reasons for making the boldly nutty claim. But one of the failures of Atlas Shrugged Part One (which had few in terms of faithfully putting Rand’s characters and plot on screen) is that it was too silent on one of the aspects of Rand that her detractors most hate: the speeches. While part one of the novel does not feature the greatest concentration of long disquisitions on the philosophical meaning of the story’s theme, the movie did skip some that would have been helpful in hitting the viewer who didn’t already understand where Rand was coming from.

Too much of Rearden and Dagny’s pride and pain aren’t fully felt in this movie without the movie being more precise about the philosophy that motivated them, and the alternate philosophy that motivated their enemies. Specifically, I think the movie would have been stronger if some version of Dan Conway’s speech to Dagny (on page 82) about how looters couldn’t run a railroad; some version of Francisco’s speech (on page 99) on how well you do your work being the only important thing in life; and some version of Lillian’s presenting Rearden (on page 290) with her theory about love as self-sacrifice.

For Rand, theme, character, and plot are all a seamless web, and this filmed version is unbalanced with the latter two at the expense of the former. I expect this movie’s fate will be to be mostly admired with caveats by Rand fans, mostly hated and condemned by her enemies (one of whom declared the film socially dangerous before it was made), and probably just a thin emotional experience for those who have no opinion or knowledge of the novel either way.

In a decision screenwriter Brian O’Toole disagreed with, wanting it to be more timeless, the movie is set in a near-future 2016, with a quick and neat scenario explaining why, in a world with limited gas coming in from overseas, Colorado oilman Ellis Wyatt would be central to the U.S. economy. It avoids seeming political in a current event sense by never using terms like liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, or naming any actually existing political office. Still, especially coming out now, its pro-business and anti-union overtones will make the movie read politically anyway.

Well, Rand wouldn’t have had it any other way. It seems churlish and perhaps besides the point to complain that a movie of a third of a novel lacks the emotional and intellectual coherence and punch of that novel, but there it is. But for a movie that its makers kept assuring me was intended to lead more people to read the book, it will probably only work as a fully satisfying movie for people who already have.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man (BenBella), Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato Institute). This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Brian Doherty is Senior Editor


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