Atlas shrunk

May 5, 2011

Scott McLemee considers the onscreen dud that is Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

ADOLESCENT EXPOSURE to Ayn Rand's work tends either to convert you to her philosophy of Objectivism or to inoculate you against it. The intensity and depth of the conversion experience vary from person to person. Not everyone can handle the rigors of a totalist system requiring adherents to accept not just laissez-faire economics (that's the easy part), but the full Randian synthesis of ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, and history. There is also a kind of Objectivist psychotherapy, serving to cure altruism and related failings of character.

And so you may approach, without ever quite hoping to achieve, the state of perfect selfishness embodied in John Galt, the mysterious hero of Atlas Shrugged. Once upon this path, you will understand why the seemingly mild-mannered Immanuel Kant was, in fact, an incredibly sinister figure, which spares you the trouble (and it really is trouble) of reading him.

The full course of Randian thought-reform is itself quite demanding, however. Most conversions to Rand's world view prove halfhearted. Many are called, but few are Galtian. The world, or at least the U.S., is full of people who remember the novels fondly and vote Republican, while otherwise falling short of the glory. Rand would have scorned them. She was good at scorn, and hardcore Objectivists get a lot of practice at it as well.

Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler in Atlas Shrugged
Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler in Atlas Shrugged

But her fans--as distinct from her followers, sometimes called Randroids, though never by each other--form the real constituency for the Atlas Shrugged movie now in theaters. It is only the first of two or three parts. Whether the project will be finished appears to be a matter of debate among the moviemakers themselves.

Clearly, though, it's going over well with its intended market, to judge by the Twitterchat hailing it as one of the great films of all time. And when I saw it in New York this weekend, the audience clapped at the end, as the credits began to roll.

By that point, my capacity for disbelief had been tested quite enough for one evening; the applause seemed one challenge to it too many.

THE PROBLEM with this incarnation of Atlas Shrugged is not ideology but competence. The film looks cheap. Its cinematography is at roughly the level of a TV show from the 1980s. Rand's plot is almost operatic in its indifference to plausibility, but none of the cast is up to the challenge. (Even with the lead characters, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, some part of the actors' brains seemed busy checking their iPhones, perhaps to see if that dinner-theater gig came through.)

Review: Movies

Atlas Shrugged, directed by Paul Johansson, starring Taylor Schilling, Paul Johansson and Michael O'Keefe.

The film, or rather this installment of it, culminates in the triumphant run of the John Galt Railroad through Colorado, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour over rails fabricated from the surprisingly controversial Rearden Metal.

The State Science Institute has issued dire warnings about Rearden Metal. The entire country stops whatever it is doing just to watch this event on television. Pundits on several continents write editorials denouncing the folly of such boldness. The stakes are enormous, for the mighty train is a symbol of the indomitable individual against collectivist tyranny. Either that or the tracks made of Rearden Metal are. Possibly it's both. Anyway, the climax, when it comes, possesses all the grandeur of an Amtrak commercial.

Any audience willing to pay $13 to watch Atlas Shrugged at the late screening on a Saturday night will be self-selecting for Randian enthusiasm, of course. People weren't clapping for the movie, as such. They were applauding Rand's weltanschauung. She was a genius, which more than makes up for the talent deficit of everyone else involved in the film. My objections are just the gripes of a Marxist who wants his money back.

But in truth, Rand and her work intrigue me. The initial exposure did not yield conversion, by any means, but the inoculation was imperfect. Something about her is fascinating. She is one of the great pulp writers, like Jim Thompson or Richard Shaver. At the same time, her fusion of melodrama and ideology is quite distinctive. I think of Rand (who was an anti-Communist émigré from Russia) as a profoundly Soviet author--albeit one standing on her head.

In Atlas Shrugged, the greedy proletariat ruthlessly exploits the capitalists. The oppressed capitalists go on strike, then create a utopia under the leadership of John Galt. (In a socialist-realist "production novel" of the 1930s, Galt's analog would be the "positive hero" who grasps the direction of history and provides wise leadership.) The existence of a body of Objectivist scholarship interested me enough to write a long article about Rand for Lingua Franca some while ago; and I still take an occasional look at the secondary literature on Rand.

But more to the point, Atlas Shrugged on screen is disappointing to me because it falls so far short of the movie version of The Fountainhead from 1948. Rand had a great deal of say in how that film was made. She did not like the result, but at no point in her life was Rand easy to please. It belongs in the class of films I always watch whenever rerun on television, along with Psycho, anything with the Marx Brothers, and Night of the Living Dead. (Make of that list what you will.)

The smoldering glances from Patricia Neal after she sees Gary Cooper and the mighty jackhammer he wields are a lesson in pure cinema. More talent is concentrated in that clip (including the command of visual metaphor) than can be found in the whole of Atlas Shrugged.

TO PUT the dud now on screen into perspective, it helps to read Jeff Britting's paper "Adapting Atlas Shrugged to Film," which appears in Essays on Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged,' edited by Robert Mayhew and published by Lexington Books in 2009. Britting is the archivist in charge of the author's papers, held by the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif., and he was an associate producer of "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life," which received an Oscar nomination for best documentary in 1998.

Atlas Shrugged may hold the all-time record for time spent in that realm of Hollywood called "development hell." The possibility of bringing the novel to screen came up not long after it was published in 1957. Britting draws on "items found among her personal papers, interviews [with] or written statements by Rand, [and] oral histories conducted with people associated with historic efforts to produce a film version of her novel" during Rand's lifetime.

The author was never going to entrust her masterpiece to any other screenwriter, and her papers include several adaptations at various stages of completion. They include a proposed nine-hour TV miniseries and a four-hour theatrical release, in two parts, as well as shorter versions in each medium.

Britting quotes the producer Michael Jaffe, who worked on one effort to put Atlas Shrugged on television, about the standoff between Hollywood and Rand:

The reputation is that her stories are too idea-filled to make into films; if she had stayed out of it and let them just make the movies, take the best of the plot and not be whipsawed by all the philosophy, they'd be great stories. But it was the whipsawing that always killed it...The people who controlled the rights to her stories would never let you just go out and make the movie.

But the distinction between story and idea is not valid for an Objectivist. Britting quotes Rand's definition of plot as "purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax." The actions and choices driving those events reflect the characters' values; she defines value as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." So while it is true that Rand's characters are prone to giving one another long lectures, her message is embedded in what they do as well as what they say. Her drafts show the author striving to pare down the dialog and remove secondary characters from Atlas Shrugged--meanwhile reinforcing its plot as essential expression of her ideas on screen.

During work on one adaptation, she timed the speech that John Galt delivers to the world by radio at the end of the novel. This, for the true admirer, it is one of the greatest pieces of literature and philosophy of all time, and Rand herself would not have disputed the matter. It is a comprehensive statement on the morality of capitalism, the virtue of selfishness and the absolute evil of interfering with the ordained perfection of the free market. In later nonfiction writings, Rand even took to quoting Galt's speech as if he were an authority she were citing (I find this a little creepy).

The 60 pages or so of Galt's radio broadcast took four hours to read out loud, which would be long for cable access, let alone network TV. But Rand told her producer not to worry: "I will get the speech down to three to seven minutes. I'll have to do so; no one else is equipped to do that." Finding the "dramatic equivalent" of parts of Galt's argument would allow Rand to express her (his?) ideas without taking four hours to do so. This required what she called "dancing back and forth...between abstractions and concretes."

Screen adaptation, then, is for Rand a late phase of the creative process: a means of preserving the philosophical elements of a plot while responding to a different medium and new circumstances. And with that in mind, the conclusion of Britting's essay sounds like a criticism of the new film--except that it was published two years ago.

Anyone adapting Atlas Shrugged today, he writes, "must put down the book and look out at the world, totally on his own--while taking stock of his own experience--in order to begin dancing, as observes Rand, 'literally' between the novel's abstract philosophy and its concretes."

Instead, the makers of the new film have just taken Rand's story from five decades ago, trimmed it down a bit, and added cell phones and CNN.

Rand set her novel in a vaguely not-too-distant future. But it is really her dystopian re-imagining of the New Deal era. It pictures an America in which the economy is based on industrial production, but menaced by powerful labor unions and legislators eager to regulate businesses. In it, citizens get caught up in feverish debate over the opening of a new railroad, built with an exciting and mysterious new metal.

By 1957, this was already somewhat anachronistic. Today, it's just surreal. Manufacturing accounts for half the portion of the gross domestic product it did 40 years ago, unions are in trouble, and regulation means that corporations pay a fine and write it off. Exciting technological developments typically do not involve the railroad industry.

It's hard to imagine how even the most skillful Randian dancer could turn Atlas Shrugged into a 21st-century story. Maybe make Hank Rearden a bioengineer who's figured out how to integrate people's genomes with Facebook? Dagny Taggart might run a company that trades risky but extremely profitable financial instruments based on how many people a company puts out of work when it moves from country to country. And it could end with John Galt planting a microchip programmed with his philosophy into everyone's brains.

Admittedly, this all sounds preposterous, but it couldn't be worse than the movie now in theaters.

First published by Inside Higher Ed.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives