The Ayn Rand Factor and the “Atlas Shrugged” Movie

Originally published in TIA Daily.

After more than 50 years, a movie version of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s perennially best-selling pro-capitalist epic in finally coming to the big screen—but through the strangest route possible.

That the film hasn’t been made long ago, despite being one of world’s most successful literary properties, is surprising—but not too surprising. No, it’s not because the novel is difficult to adapt to the screen, as you will sometimes hear from both its critics and its admirers. Yes, the book has long, complex exchanges of dialogue that have to be ruthlessly condensed. But Ayn Rand started out her career—in the 1920s through the 1940s—as a Hollywood screenwriter, working for such legends as Cecil B. DeMille and Hal Wallis. She wrote her novels in a very cinematic style, with stark visuals, sharp exchanges of dialogue, and peaks of high drama. She gave a director everything he could ask for to keep the audience in their seats: visually beautiful settings from the skyline of New York City to the mountains of Colorado, large-scale action scenes set on railroad lines and in steel mills, big ideas expressed in sharp-witted exchanges of dialogue—and, of course, passionate love scenes with handsome leading men and beautiful leading ladies.

If you can’t figure out how to make a good movie out of all of that, then brother, you don’t know your own business.

Hollywood, as many of us have long suspected, does not know its own business. Plenty of big-name directors, writers, producers, and stars expressed interest over the years. But whether it was the pro-free-market politics, the larger-than-life heroic characters, or the big philosophical ideas, the book forced modern Hollywood outside its comfort zone, and no one was able or willing to figure out what to do with it.

So the version that comes to us now is one that was hastily put together at the last minute, with only weeks to go before the film rights lapsed. It has a small budget, no recognizable stars, an inexperienced director, and a script co-written by a producer with no literary or artistic experience whatsoever. The resulting film was unable to find a major distributor, so even though it was scheduled for April 15—a perfect symbolic date for a protest against big government—the movie was originally set to open only in a dozen small “art” theaters in a few big cities.

That was about six weeks ago. Then something remarkable happened.

Atlas Shrugged is set to open tomorrow in 300 theaters across the country. True, that’s still a fraction of the opening distribution for a big blockbuster—but it’s an awfully big fraction. This means that the film won’t just be opening in a few big cities but will play in quite a number of towns across the heartland. Places like Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, and Lakeville, Minnesota. In politics, we ask: but will it play in Peoria? Yes, it will, at the Grand Prairie 18 in Peoria, Illinois.

More remarkable is how this happened: as a result of grass-roots pressure and agitation from fans of the novel. This allowed the producers, who decided to self-distribute the film, to convince many local theater operators to give the movie a chance.

I know from local experience that a lot of this pressure came from Tea Party groups or individual Tea Party members, many of whom have taken inspiration from the novel, so this huge jump in distribution has to be seen as the latest success—and as a show of strength, numerical and ideological—for the Tea Party movement.

I have never seen a film spread through this kind of grassroots groundswell of enthusiasm, with zero support from movie critics, cultural elites, or celebrities. This is all the more remarkable because most of the people clamoring for the film are doing so sight unseen. So we have to interpret this as an enormous demonstration of support for Ayn Rand’s novel, which readers hope will be faithfully adapted in the film.

I have seen the film, at an advanced screening arranged by the producers, and I am afraid that it is a pale shadow of the book. A friend of mine calls it “a Roman copy of a Greek original,” a reference to the Roman empire’s penchant for copying Greek sculptures of gods and heroes—but when you compare the copy and the original side by side, you inevitably find that the energy in the limbs has gone slack and the life has gone out of the eyes. The details are reproduced, but the animating spirit has been lost.

The movie does not adulterate or rewrite the ideological content of the novel. Rather, the script has a tendency to take Ayn Rand’s complex and original characters and reduce them to Hollywood clichés. Yes, you read that right. Contrary to the usual literary smears against Rand, it is her characters who are fresh and complex, while it is Hollywood’s stock heroes and villains who are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts. The novel’s version of Lillian Rearden, for example, is a fascinating study in how the left uses its pose of moral and intellectual superiority to keep the people who do the actual thinking and the actual work—the world’s innovators and wealth-creators—intimidated and suppressed. Lillian’s goal is to prevent these men from expressing pride in their achievement and to make them eager to demonstrate their subservience to their “progressive” overlords. She does this in high society by using her husband’s money and position to support a salon of leftist artists and intellectuals. Much more memorably, she does it at home by subjecting her husband—an innovative, self-made steel tycoon—to a constant drumbeat of emotional abuse intended to make him feel that business, like sex, is not a subject to be mentioned in polite company. (He eventually learns to question both of those assumptions.) Lillian Rearden is a totally original yet instantly recognizable archetype of manipulative power-lust—yet in the film, she is reduced to not much more than a catty trophy wife of the type we’ve seen many times before. So Hollywood found a way back to its comfort zone, after all.

Unfortunately, this persistent flaw takes a good deal of the ideological and dramatic punch out of the story and may leave some new viewers of the film wondering what all of the fuss is about. I hope they take the time to find out by picking up the original novel, because there is a lot there that will justify the enthusiasm of Ayn Rand’s fans and of the Tea Partiers who have picked up her novel in recent years.

The film covers just the first part of the novel. The producers wisely chose to divide Ayn Rand’s densely plotted thousand-page epic into three segments, with the plan of presenting them in a trilogy of films. The main story line in Part 1 is the struggle of the protagonist, railroad executive Dagny Taggart, to hold her railroad together and save an American economy dying from suffocating taxes and government regulations. Sound familiar?

But Dagny’s story isn’t just about economics. It is about her sense of loneliness and isolation in a world where men of enterprise, initiative, and ability seem to be disappearing. And more: we see her loneliness in a culture where clear-eyed rationality and self-assertive ambition are no longer valued. Dagny faces a world that has fully adopted, in all of its ugly actual details, the left’s credo of “need, not greed.” Everyone has needs—expressed in long, whining complaints about how “sensitive” they are—and no one has the guts to take responsibility for supporting his own life and achieving his own happiness. In short, these guys have taken over.

Dagny finds an ally in the steel tycoon, Hank Rearden, who helps her build a crucially needed rail line to the nation’s last remaining industrial boomtown—and I think you can guess that they find, in each other, a solution to their problems.

Dagny’s main obstacle is her older brother, Jim, who is no good at running the railroad but knows how to run to Washington. While Dagny tries to keep the railroad alive by supporting the last growing industrial enterprises, Jim is always scheming for short-term profits from political favors and government subsidies. Again, sound familiar? He is the perfect fictional villain for the age of bailouts—the era of Government Motors and banks being turned into “government sponsored entities.”

It is Jim’s cabal of politicians and politically connected businessmen who begin the action in Part 1 by plunging the nation into an economic crisis, from which Dagny saves them, and they end Part 1 by causing another, worse crisis. Again, sound familiar? But while the film presents Jim as another Hollywood cliché, a soulless young corporate schemer, the novel’s portrayal is more complex, interesting, and relevant to today’s political environment.

In the novel, Jim has pretensions of being an intellectual and a deep, sensitive, “spiritual” type. Even when his schemes have the obvious ulterior motive of extorting unearned wealth, they are always pitched in terms of altruist bromides. But he really means the bromides, and Ayn Rand’s point is that you can’t tell where the “idealist” motive leaves off and the cynical one takes over. Jim believes that someone needs to be sacrificed to “the public good”—and he always tries to make sure he is “the public” and not the one being sacrificed.

This is summed up in a scene early in the novel when Taggart concludes the negotiations for one of his corrupt deals by offering a macabre toast: “Let’s drink to the sacrifices to historical necessity.”

This same combination—vaporous leftist “idealism” and cynical looting by gangster government, all of it wrapped up in appeals to “sacrifice”—might remind you of an important political leader in today’s environment.

This is just scratching the surface of an epic novel, and the story widens and deepens as it goes beyond Part 1. But I think you can now see how an obscure, low-budget film has become a grassroots crusade before it even opens in the theaters. The spread of the Atlas Shrugged movie is just part of a wider Atlas Shrugged phenomenon—and part of the Tea Party phenomenon.

The Tea Party movement began, in late 2008 and early 2009, during a huge surge in interest in Ayn Rand’s masterwork, when talk of “going Galt”—a reference to one of the novel’s heroes—sent Atlas Shrugged back onto the best-seller lists after more than 50 years. The two phenomena are connected. The financial crisis and the giant government bailouts sparked a renewed interest in Ayn Rand’s intellectual and literary defense of capitalism, and in turn Atlas Shrugged helped give ideological confidence to the nascent Tea Party movement. Now the Tea Parties and their supporters have repaid the favor by winning a 300-theater opening for the small, unheralded film version of the novel.

The novel has not yet found anything near its fullest and best expression on the screen—nor have we seen anything near the full scope of its impact on American politics.


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