Over fifty years after Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged was first published, and more then thirty years since work first began on a film script for it, I felt Etta James’ song “At Last” playing in my head as I drove to the theater last Friday to see Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 on the screen for the first time. I was abuzz with excitement at the possibility of finding a “thrill to press my cheek to.” But alas, as the movie unfolded, my cheek felt an icy touch as the lifeblood drained from its dramatic body.
On the philosophical level, the moral outlook of the book was not comprised in any significant way. Hank Rearden states, unapologetically, that “my only goal is to make money.” The filmmakers did not turn the movie into a utilitarian apologia that self-interest also serves the common good. Or worse, with Oliver Stone once-rumored as expressing interest in making the film, one could imagine the protagonists serving up paeans to the “public welfare.” I came away satisfied at least that the philosophy was not corrupted.
On the artistic level, however, the film fails substantially as a drama. As Rand wrote in The Art of Fiction, a plot is a “purposeful progression of events” where each event is logically connected to the preceding event leading up to the climax. The events are not mere exposition, but ideas dramatized in action where the actions leave the reader wondering what will happen next. I.e., they create suspense.
Unfortunately, the movie’s progression of events lacks purpose and a coherent direction. The choice of scenes appears scattershot, thus draining the drama and suspense from the novel.
For instance, the screenwriters decided to include the subplot involving John Galt’s motor. Here, though, Rearden discovers the mysterious motor through (off-screen) investigation, in advance of his car trip with Dagny. Later in the film Rearden and Dagny examine the factory and the motor in-person. This is followed by scenes of them meeting with Ivy Starnes, Eugene Lawson, and William Hastings’ wife, which include multiple superfluous scenes of car traveling back-and-forth on desolate valley roads.
Not only has the fortuitous discovery of the motor been pre-empted by Rearden’s preliminary investigation, but the scenes tracking down the motor’s owner add nothing to the back-story of the motor. The viewer knows as much about the motor at the end of their trip as he does after Rearden’s initial investigation. Those scenes simply fill precious screen time.
Instead, those scenes could have been cut. The dramatic struggle to get the John Galt Line built could have been given more emphasis, which was purportedly the focus of this movie. Instead, the effects of the looters’ polices on the John Galt Line, and the protagonists’ struggles to overcome them, are imbibed along with exposition while critical scenes to the main storyline are cut.
For instance, as Rearden and Dagny are standing before the tattered old bridge, Dagny states she could use a new one, but doesn’t have the time to build one with only six months left. Rearden responds that she could build a new one with Rearden Metal in only 3 months, and she responds: “Let me check my budget.” She needed it, Rearden says he can do it, and then it appears during the run of the John Galt Line. That’s it.
This is merely one example of including superfluous scenes while short-changing the supposed focus of the film: the struggle to build the John Galt Line. We have the Reardens’ anniversary party with no clue as to why it is important, and the bracelet exchange was drained of emotive impact. The viewer gets a brief glimpse of characters before they disappear, such as Owen Kellogg and Robert McNamara, with no background (besides brief narrative) as to why they are important, nor does one see the impact their loss has on the operations of Taggart Transcontinental.
No Dan Conway and his refusal to sell the rail to James Taggart. No dramatization of Dagny’s struggles to find signals, railroad spikes, locomotives, her work crew abandoning her, etc. No effect of Ben Nealy replacing Robert McNamara. No Eureka! moment from Rearden when he makes the bridge feasible with a radical new innovation – right when his business is being destroyed by the passage of the Equalization of Opportunity Bill, and yet still able to provide a beacon of strength for Dagny. Just to name a few.
Thus, the prudence, foresight, and ingenuity of Rearden and Dagny are sucked dry from the building of the John Galt Line, and from their characters.
Many have probably seen the trailer of Dagny’s confrontation with the union boss who refuses to let his members work on the John Galt Line. After this scene, the movie then cuts to Rearden and Dagny boarding the train and the running of the John Galt Line. The emotive impact of Dagny’s success is lessened by not showing her small triumph when all the Taggart workers volunteer against the wishes of the union boss, so much so that they need a lottery to pick the train crew.
Imagine signing up for a sightseeing tour of New York City, and being sped through the city on a train running at two hundred miles an hour while the window shades move up-and-down at random. That’s the feel of the pace and one’s grasp of what is happening and why. In this excellent review, the author provides a much more logical and cogent progression of events that develops the main plot and subplots within a reasonable timeframe, and in a manner that adds drama and suspense.
In The Art of Fiction, Rand also emphasizes bringing the abstraction that is a character to life via concrete actions and dialogue. The characters motives are teased out by these means. And, since art is selectivity, everything said and done denotes something significant about that character that the author thinks is important to convey.
Now consider the first brush with Ellis Wyatt in the movie, which shows him in Dagny’s office with his feet up on the desk while reading a newspaper. As Dagny enters, he throws the newspaper aside, waves his arms awkwardly as if trying to balance himself on a beam, and then begins to rail against the demise of Dan Conway and this “Anti-dog-eat-dog bullshit.”
Is this dynamic entrepreneur from the novel — who had a look of “violence” and such a ruthless integrity that he would rather burn down his empire than let it be taken over by the looters? No, his mannerisms and dialogue have all the attributes of a petulant middle-manager who has not gotten his way and feels the need to ream out an underling — right after his coffee break.
Or consider the filmmakers’ portrayal of James Taggart. He appears in the movie as young, handsome, and well-dressed. In the novel, we first see Taggart with a contorted posture, balding, and the look of middle-age while in his mid-thirties. Miscasting a character based on physical appearance is not a game-breaker and can be redeemed if the essence of the character is skilfully concretized in words and action.
In the novel, however, Rand portrays Taggart as fundamentally weak, constantly evading the necessity to think, and helpless in the face of looming crises, especially when confronted by Dagny. In the movie, the viewer sees a rather poised Taggart that often overshadows a soft-spoken Dagny, played by Taylor Schilling. Dagny’s lack of onscreen presence, of gravitas, does not help the contrast. (If there's a doubt about Schilling’s performance, I urge the viewer to consider whether this Dagny would say as a young woman at a ball: “What men? There wasn’t a man there I couldn’t squash ten of.”)
But more so than the actor’s onscreen presence, the depth of Taggart’s character is victimized by scene selection. The movie shows the boardroom scene where Taggart takes credit for Dagny pulling all assets from the San Sebastian Line before the Mexican government nationalizes it. However, the movie cut the prior scene with Taggart and his girlfriend, Betty Pope. In that scene, Taggart and Pope express mutual contempt for each other after just having had sex. Taggart begins that scene lethargic and mentally unfocused, but comes to life at the prospect of undermining his sister before the Board. His self-satisfaction is quickly deflated when he receives a phone call telling him the San Sebastian Railroad has been nationalized, and then we next see him praising his own foresight before the Board.
This scene also provides a stark contrast to the sex scene with Rearden and Dagny after the John Galt Line run. Sex expressing the celebration of life, as opposed to mutual contempt and futility.
Instead of the Betty Pope scene, the movie depicts the nationalization of the San Sebastian Railroad in a news clip stating that the line has been nationalized and showing soldiers marching under some building with a Mexican flag on top of it. A scene that powerfully conveys Taggart’s motives and goals is replaced with cheap narrative. The net effect on the character of James Taggart is that he is transformed from metaphysically impotent man into a simple Hollywood cut-out of a conniving backroom dealer.
By the same methods, the movie trims down the depth of each character, including the two protagonists. The greatest loss, perhaps, is to Francisco d’Anconia, whom I regard as one of the most compelling characters in all literature.
The viewer first catches glimpses of Francisco appearing at bars/parties surrounded by an entourage of beautiful women, sometimes with cameras flashing. He has a scruffy three-day beard and semi-shaggy hair down to his eyebrows — the “cool” look one sees displayed on the cover of GQ. In his first encounter with Dagny after the nationalization of the San Sebastian mines, Dagny begins the scene by throwing a drink in his face. Francisco chuckles and flippantly says: “That’s refreshing.”
This is how the audience is introduced to the aristocratic-looking character described as “the climax of the d’Anconia’s” who’s talents had been “sifted through a fine mesh” from generations of mastery of production. Does this properly capture the man to whom it is impossible “to stand still or move aimlessly?” Is this the man who, as a twelve year old boy, used rudimentary calculus to erect a system of pulleys to hoist an elevator to the top of a rock? Or the man who began as a furnace boy at the age of sixteen and ended owning the factory by age twenty, while educating himself on the stock market to finance the venture?
Without any of Francisco’s back-story in the movie, nor any display of his unmatched ability, the viewer doesn't experience the disconnect between the productive genius and the playboy now throwing extravagant parties for the brain dead. The air of mystery surrounding his conversion has vanquished. The movie version of Francisco really could be a pop star from the cover of GQ. He certainly looks the part.
When Francisco confronts Rearden at his anniversary party, one gets the impression he was transported from another film. Not only is the dialogue awkward and stilted, as if parts were pieced together with Scotch tape after the novel’s conversation was put through a paper shredder, but his character appears jarring and incongruous because there has been no build-up illustrating his intellectual perspicacity.
Amateurism permeates even small touches of detail. The car crisscrossing the country in search of the motor’s mystery is a…Toyota Camry? In the book, it's a sleek Hammond coupe. The producers couldn't rent something like a Bentley Azure or Maserati Gran Tourismo to illustrate the heights Dagny and Rearden have reached?
Sadly, this encapsulates the movie versus the book. Under Rand’s artistic guidance, one feels the dramatic motor roar to life on each page, yet the progression is expertly controlled. Hairpin plot turns on the cliff’s edge are skilfully navigated, yet invite challenge, thrill, and a suspenseful outcome. In the hands of the filmmakers, the viewer is taken on an ordinary ride from point A to point B, often getting lost along the way.
My song had changed on the ride home from the theater. Resonating in my soul were B.B. King’s words: “The thrill is gone, the thrill is gone away.”
UPDATE: Tony White reckons there is a way to watch the film and still enjoy it.
And with Atlas Shrugged, the novel, now shooting through the roof again on the Amazon best-seller lists on the back of the film (regardless of its quality or lack thereof), it’s the ideal opportunity to to take advantage of all of this recent interest in Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Rational Jenn explains how one sassy lady is grabbing the opportunity with both hands.