Megan McArdle On Atlas Shrugged: An Incoherent Mess
Even libertarians aren't all that impressed with the effort to bring Ayn Rand's magnum opus to the big screen.
When I heard they were making a movie out of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, I mostly cringed. While I don’t consider myself a Rand devotee, I had read the book in college and it was, in many respects, responsible for both my later drift into libertarianism and my rejections of an observant Catholic upbringing as an adult. There had been talk even then of bringing the book to the screen in some form. Indeed, these conversations had already been going on for decades when I read the book in the 1990s. Back in the 1970’s, Rand herself was approached by Al Ruddy, who has just achieved worldwide acclaim as the Producer of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. Ruddy wanted to back a big screen version of Atlas Shrugged, but Rand rebuffed him for reasons that one could only describe as slightly paranoid. In the years that followed, there were several stops and starts on film treatments, including one rumor a few years ago that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt wanted to star in the movie, but we ended up with the version that hit screens today came about because the Producer decided to go into production to preserve his options rights. One blogger sympathetic to Rand’s ideas predicted it would a “low-budget, haphazard rush.”
It isn’t that Atlas Shrugged couldn’t possibly make a good movie. To be sure, it is the size and weight of a pretty solid doorstop, filled with approximately 1 squillion characters, and almost as many sub-plots. But the same could be said of Lord of the Rings, which made a terrific trilogy
That’s the approach that the director took with Atlas Shrugged–the screener I was sent was merely for Part I. I wish I could report that the movie holds out the same kind of promise that the first Lord of the Rings movie did. Unfortunately, it’s . . . how do I say this . . . an incoherent mess that put me less in mind of Peter Jackson than Tommy Wisseau. It was a huge mistake to watch it on a laptop; I spent the entire time fighting a nearly overpowering urge to check my email.
I know that some Rand fans who like the movie are going to accuse me of sucking up to my liberal cocktail-party attending friends by unfairly slamming a damn fine film. The sad truth is that I don’t attend that many cocktail parties–certainly not as many as the people in this film. Ayn Rand’s characters are already so understated as to be nearly wooden–her sensibility was heavily influenced by the “strong but silent” aesthetic of the penny adventure serials of her youth. And in the hands of these actors, they’re practically petrified. In lieu of emotions, the entire cast seems to have turned to drink. Half the action takes place over a glass of wine or a tumbler of whiskey. I suppose this is what you have to expect from a roomful of rigid, controlling people who have difficulty speaking about any emotions that don’t involve metallurgical studies.
Of course, “action” is a strong word. Most of these scenes consist of people drinking in hotel lobbies, drinking at restaurants, drinking at cocktail parties, and drinking in their bedrooms. In between, they do a little bit of striding purposefully. Also, sometimes they sit behind improbably neat desks. When drama is required, they stand up.
P.J. O’Rourke, who one would also think of as being sympathetic to Rand’s ideas, is just as dismissive:
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.
Meanwhile, members of that tribe of “Atlas Shrugged” fans will be wondering why director Paul Johansson doesn’t knock it off with the incantations, sacraments and recitations of liturgy and cut to the human sacrifice.
Upright railroad-heiress heroine Dagny Taggart and upright steel-magnate hero Hank Rearden are played with a great deal of uprightness (and one brief interlude of horizontality) by Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler. They indicate that everything they say is important by not using contractions. John Galt, the shadowy genius who’s convincing the people who carry the world on their shoulders to go out on strike, is played, as far as I can tell, by a raincoat.
The rest of the movie’s acting is borrowed from “Dallas,” although the absence of Larry Hagman’s skill at subtly underplaying villainous roles is to be regretted. Staging and action owe a debt to “Dynasty”—except, on “Dynasty,” there usually was action.
The producer’s apparent business plan here is to use most of the profits from this film to finance the production of the second part of the trilogy, and to do the same with the second film to finance the third. Given the reviews the movie is getting, the relatively limited opening, and the unfortunate fact that it sounds like they’ve written the screenplay in such a way as to make the film largely incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t familiar with the book, one wonders if there will be a Part 2 or Part 3. I’ll go see this movie, eventually (which won’t be easy since the closest theater showing it is a one-hour drive away), and I may share my thoughts here, but I can’t help shake the feeling that this is a movie that never should’ve been made.