Sunday, April 17, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Motion Picture

Last Thursday I was surprised to learn that a film version of "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand was about to open in theaters the following day. It seemed to be almost a stealth release, with little or no advance publicity. There were no reviews available through The Associated Press, although there was both a review and an op-ed piece by The Washington Post. A further search turned up a Roger Ebert review as well.
If you're not familiar with "Atlas Shrugged," it's a massive door-stopper of a novel, written in the early 1950s by Ayn Rand, designed to showcase her philosophy of Objectivism. It's capitalist science fiction in that it extrapolates a future in which individualist industrialists are threatened by socialist thugs who take over the government and culture. Hence it has long been embraced by Libertarians and the Tea Party, as well as (with reservations, in part because of her vocal atheism) the Republican party.
It also extrapolates science and technology that did not then (or now) exist: a remarkable metal alloy, a machine that produces free energy, a sonic disintegration ray.
Prior to this, Rand was best known for her novel "The Fountainhead," which explored many of the same themes through the prism of architecture, art and journalism. It was famously filmed, from Rand's script, with Gary Cooper as her architect hero and Patricia Neal as his love interest/antagonist.
I believe "The Fountainhead" was financially successful as a movie, which begs the question: Why wasn't "Atlas Shrugged" filmed until now? It would have made more sense earlier, as the novel features trains as one of the main and most important means of transportation.
One reason was its length. "The Fountainhead" needed to be streamlined considerably to fit into a two-hour film. "Atlas Shrugged" is even longer and more complex. The current film is only part one of a proposed three. Also, "Atlas Shrugged" was Rand's last published novel, the culmination of her philosophy, and she was reluctant to see it butchered by Hollywood (as she felt "The Fountainhead" had been). In the 1980s, television was interested, but the project died, in part at least because Rand wouldn't compromise on the script. For example there is a very long speech near the end of the novel, delivered on the radio, that Rand would not permit to be shortened.
Now, long after Rand's death, a film has been made, or rather one-third of it. It's been made by a true believer in Rand's philosophy. I think he hopes it will be another "Passion of the Christ." While I haven't seen it yet, I suspect it will be another "Battlefield Earth," the notorious film version, part one of two (part two never made), of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction novel. It shares with Hubbard's novel a certain melodramatic purple prose similar to the magazines of the 1930s and '40s.
For example, Rand's bad guys practically twirl their mustaches and say "I'm an evil bad guy" so the reader isn't confused. While "The Fountainhead" suffers from this, too, in "Atlas Shrugged" the problem is more pronounced. At one point, a bad guy has an apoplectic breakdown when faced with the hero's goodness.
I like "The Fountainhead," for all its stylistic flaws, but find "Atlas Shrugged" to be almost laughably bad.
So I wouldn't recommend you start your acquaintance with Rand with "Atlas Shrugged." First read or watch "The Fountainhead." If you like what you've read/seen, try "Atlas Shrugged." Then let me know what you think.


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