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.”

Megan McArdle, who clearly isn’t as antithetical to the message of the book as Roger Ebert, seems to confirm this prediction:

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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Cal Ulmann says:

    As I tweeted in February, I plan on seeing the Atlas Shrugged movie but realize it will suck. I think Dave Weigel summed it up pretty succinctly when he called it on the quality of a movie found on SciFi on the weekend.

  2. Janis Gore says:

    yYnchhh. I subscribe to Netflix. Someday I’ll get the third section of “Deadwood.:

  3. wr says:

    Cal — When Atlas Shrugs Versus Atomic Sharktopus hits Sci Fi, let me know. Until then, I’m staying away from this and all the sequels… if they happen.

  4. Tlaloc says:

    Randtopus would rock. Half Objectivist, half mollusk, all terror!

  5. TBogg says:

    Your headline was a bit overstated:

    Megan McArdle On Atlas Shrugged: An Incoherent Mess

    Try this:

    Megan McArdle: An Incoherent Mess

    You can thank me later.

  6. Dividist says:

    I’m thinking I’ll wait for the Directors Cut Extended Edition DVD Trilogy Box Set. I’d appreciate it if the rest of you would go see it inthe theater so that – you know – the other two movies are made and I can see it eventually.