Living within an hour’s driving distance of Hollywood, Ca., it wasn’t difficult locating a nearby theatre to have a looksie at Atlas Shrugged the movie, Part 1. I did that this weekend.
I’d love to say, like Sam in Sam I Am, that I entered as a skeptic and left Ayn Rand’s “green eggs and ham” with the following beaming exclamation:
I liked it!
But, alas, I cannot.
And it has nothing to do with the acting. The two leads (in the roles of Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden) are well cast in Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler. Better known actors wouldn’t have done any better. Like Atlas, Schilling and Bowler carry the film on their shoulders, and wherever it has an elevated moment (and there are a few), it’s because of them.
The problem is with Ayn Rand. The genre of her novel (that is, the genre of pulp fiction) is simply not worthy of her philosophical ambitions. Atlas Shrugged sells to a mass audience (and will probably always continue to do so), but there’s a disconnect: you’ve got a very ambitious and uncommon philosophical stance passing through a lowbrow genre. Rand, after all, used to hold up the popular crime novelist Mickey Spillane as one of her models for good fiction writing.
So think about what Mickey Spillane as a model for her writing means. Nietzsche wouldn’t have written Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the genre of pulp fiction—like a Mickey Spillane novel—but that’s the genre Ayn Rand chose for Atlas Shrugged.
And that brings me back to Atlas Shrugged the movie. If you render Ayn Rand’s novel faithfully to the screen, you simply cannot make it any better than, say, a 1970s episode of Colombo. The lead actors’ personae, if well cast, might carry some interesting energies (as Peter Falk does in the character of Colombo), but the plotting will be linear and predictable, the secondary characters cartoonish, the dialogue and lovemaking cheesy. And with Atlas Shrugged the movie, this is what you end up with. How could it not be? If you’re going to faithfully translate her genre choice to film, you can’t do better than this because Rand did not do better than this.
And the whole film noir-John-Galt-in-the-shadows thing is very, very difficult to endure. It’s corny. It’s implausible. And it’s hard to know why we should care about rich people who ditch the arena of human history and social life for a utopian enclave hidden away in mountains somewhere.
In fact, one virtue about the movie—feminist Dagny Taggart heroically in the social arena fighting for her vision—is undermined by John Galt’s annoying presence, inviting people of her caliber to escape from the human social world’s complexity and difficulty. She doesn’t flee for the hills with John Galt in Part 1, but you know that this is where the story is heading (should the full novel ever be brought to film).
And this is where the film takes on the ridiculous quality of a Tim La Haye inspired Left Behind novel made into a movie. By Galt’s reckoning, humanity as a whole is lost and deserves to die in its sins, given up on and abandoned. And so the climactic scene of this film (caution: spoiler) shows oil wells and refineries on fire, ditched by a businessman who has disappeared.
The film thus functions as an escape fantasy, not for Christians, but for Nietzscheans: the rich come under the spell of John Galt’s altar call, consent to be swept away by him, and are subsequently raptured to some undisclosed location where others, less worthy, will never be permitted entrance. It’s a weird secular version of Jesus’s promise to his apostles:
In my father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.
And what of the unworthy unsaved? The mass of humanity is left to wallow in a wasteland of dysfunction, carnage, and judgment.
And I can now see why no one has brought Atlas Shrugged to the screen before. It’s not Hollywood political correctness, it’s that, if you’re going to be faithful to what Rand wrote, and the genre that she wrote in, you simply can’t make a very interesting film of the material. And if this movie is any indication, it’s not even clear that you can get a decent television mini-series out of it (again, if you’re going to be faithful to Rand’s vision for her own book).
And there’s a subtext running throughout Atlas Shrugged the movie that (to my mind) is unforgivable: a skepticism of conventional scientific consensus worthy of young earth creationists. In this film, scientists are regarded as corrupt, malevolent, biased, and worthy (at best) of distrust and contempt. That is, they are like politicians. Dagney Taggart and Hank Rearden alone see the world clearly (even on matters where their confidence is not warranted and they have no expertise). At this level, it’s a deeply cultish film.
On the positive side, the movie has its virtues. Rand’s literary power (insofar as she possesses some) is in giving voice to things that are true about human existence but not always polite to bring up among jealous and emotion-driven social primates. These include the fact that:
- elite overachievers really are central to human progress and the rest of us are damn lucky to have them around; and
- reason (as opposed to faith or emotion), when exercised with the determination to be truthful and objective, is an instrument for enormous good in the world.
The didactic energy that Rand gives these facts makes her novel and this film (at least intermittently) life affirming and unusual.
But there’s also a lot of contempt for empathy here (a virtue that hardly deserves trashing). The ability to imaginatively walk, with attention to nuance and complexity, in the shoes of others has probably saved the human race from more than a few unbridled wars. It’s hardly something to roll one’s eyes at. And this brings up something that Seth Fischer wrote recently in another context:
Roll Call has a list of novels written by members of Congress, and the excerpts they present are, as one might expect, not amazing. . . . It’s a running joke that politicians tend to do a poor job of writing fiction, and for the most part, the joke holds true. But I think there may be something more to this failure than just the fact that many of them are trained in legalese or that they’re busy. I think it has to do with the fact that being a politician requires putting the human capacity for empathy on hold, or at least minimizing it. It requires putting an idea or a philosophy or a party above people in order not to go mad. . . .
It’s not a surprise that these members want to write a novel, to create a fictional world that supports their worldview, that shows how their philosophy can help change the world for the better despite all the terrible things that they are tacitly accepting. Like almost every writer, they want to justify their existence through their words. But for the most part, it appears that they are writing ghosts, or character outlines. The characters in these books are ideas, not people, and I can’t blame them for making this mistake. For a politician to relearn how to actually empathize with a character, and hence a person, the pain of the responsibility of their power would become unbearable.
The problem of the politician’s novel is Ayn Rand’s problem as well, and why Atlas Shrugged the movie, Part 1 is such a wincing-to-witness belly flop.
And it’s a shame because there are other movies that have come out this past year upholding the virtues that Rand celebrated. They do so, however, in an emotionally compelling and complex fashion. I’m thinking of The Social Network and The Black Swan. In both of these films you have a heroic overachiever wrestling against obstacles, inner and outer, in the direction of his or her chosen vision of excellence. If the Rand estate ever relaxes editorial control over the translation of her novel to film, and allows a gifted screenwriter free rein to bring nuance to the material, maybe a decent film can be made of it. But, alas, this isn’t the one.
And I would note that Washington Post reviewer, Mark Jenkins, observed the same fundamental problem that struck me: faithfulness to the novel:
Few novels get the cinematic adaptation they deserve, but director Paul Johansson has been fair to Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” — or rather, the opening third of it. The first in a proposed trilogy, “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1” is nearly as stilted, didactic and simplistic as Rand’s free-market fable.
The film also put me in mind of an old Billy Joel song I hadn’t thought of in a long time. Here it is: