How Was the Movie? It Was a Great Book

Originally published in TIA Daily.

I’ve been surveying the reviews for the movie version of Atlas Shrugged, and I’ve noticed something odd about them. Most reviews say little about the movie itself and focus instead on criticizing or praising the book. It is as if the reviewer were asked, “So how was the movie?” and answered, “It was a great (or terrible) book.” And even then, the reviews are less about the book, or about Ayn Rand’s philosophy, than they are about the current political battle between capitalism and socialism.

In effect, the Atlas Shrugged movie has become a proxy battle in the war between the socialist left and the pro-free-market right.

Let’s start with the reaction from left-leaning columnists and mainstream movie critics (who are also left-leaning). New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd says nothing about the movie and does not appear to have actually seen it, but she uses it as an excuse for a rambling column with her trademark blend of political news and Hollywood gossip, featuring stories (which are probably apocryphal) about Ayn Rand’s life and previous attempts to bring the novel to the screen.

The only thing of substance Dowd offers is the criticism that “Greed had a less ennobling effect on real genius capitalists. Instead of fighting the looters, they joined the looters.” Did she even read the book? Is she actually unaware that James Taggart, the book’s main villain, is precisely the kind of fake capitalist who we now see running to Washington for a bailout?

The LA Times reviewer uses the opportunity for a snide attack on the usual straw-man version of egoism.

In Rand’s worldview, it is me-time, all the time. The capitalistic visionaries among us have been hounded and taxed and ground down so relentlessly by the federal government and other societal evils, there’s nothing to do but blow the whole thing up and start anew, in a civilization run by the mysterious John Galt, who respects the rapacious dog-eat-dog nature of humankind and the sexy, life-enhancing virtues of unfettered economic competition.

Even when responding to the literary aspects of the novel, these reviewers can’t help invoking stock caricatures of Ayn Rand, as in a Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer’s description of the film as “speechy, preachy.” Ayn Rand is, of course, famous for the philosophical speeches in her novels. But this film only covers the first third of the novel, and do you know how many speeches there are in Part 1 of Atlas Shrugged? Exactly zero. Ayn Rand writes nearly 400 pages of dialogue and action—enough to fill an entire novel in its own right—before she gives us the first speech. That’s not so surprising when you consider her views on epistemology: before she starts giving the reader big philosophical abstractions, she gives him a lot of concrete facts to support those abstractions.

I’ll be kind to my readers and give you only one more sample, because it contains a revealing formulation. The Washington Post review intones that “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.”

And here’s the problem. A lot of the film’s defenders on the right agree with treating the film as a “free-market fable.”

Fred Barnes at The Weekly Standard says that it’s “a terrific movie.” But that turns out to be a somewhat backhanded compliment.

Pauline Kael used to write about “good bad” movies. Atlas Shrugged may qualify as that. It’s not great drama, nor, as best I can tell, great filmmaking. But I’ve seen movies that were hailed as achievements in filmmaking and won awards. And I was bored.

Atlas Shrugged is definitely not boring…. The story is at least as relevant today as it was when the novel was published in 1957. It plays up the virtues of free market economics. Its heroes are capitalists and entrepreneurs and innovators who pursue wealth for its own sake and, as a result, produce a society that is better, richer, and more creative. That may be counterintuitive, but it’s the way Adam Smith’s invisible hand works. The pursuit of self-interest boosts everyone.

In a much worse review in the Wall Street Journal from P.J. O’Roark, we see this outlook in full regalia. There are the usual aspersions against Ayn Rand’s elevated view of man—he sneers that “upright railroad-heiress heroine Dagny Taggart and upright steel-magnate hero Hank Rearden are played with a great deal of uprightness”—and he makes it clear that he did not like the film. But then he gives us his view of Ayn Rand’s role in the culture.

The woman is a force. But, let us not forget, she’s a force for good. Millions of people have read Atlas Shrugged and been brought around to common sense, never mind that the author and her characters don’t exhibit much of it. Ayn Rand, perhaps better than anyone in the 20th century, understood that the individual self-seeking we call an evil actually stands in noble contrast to the real evil of self-seeking collectives….

In Atlas Shrugged Rand set out to prove that self-interest is vital to mankind. This, of course, is the whole point of free-market classical liberalism and has been since Adam Smith invented free-market classical liberalism by proving the same point. Therefore trying to make a movie of Atlas Shrugged is like trying to make a movie of The Wealth of Nations. But Adam Smith had the good sense to leave us with no plot, characters, or melodramatic clashes of will so that we wouldn’t be tempted to try.

So Atlas Shrugged, in the view of quite a number of conservatives, is nothing more than a dramatization of the famous quote from Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” The novel’s romantic subplots and “melodramatic clashes of will,” in this view, are just there to dress up the boring economic message.

But Ayn Rand’s message is not the same as Adam Smith’s. The conservatives view self-interest as a necessary evil, a “private vice” which is transmuted by the “invisible hand” of the marketplace into a “public virtue,” by means of its ability to produce wealth. In contrast, Ayn Rand championed the “virtue of selfishness,” and she did not regard the romantic subplots as subplots at all. They were crucial to conveying the message that self-interest and trading value for value—the code of the economic marketplace—were also principles that should guide men’s personal lives. Her heroes are not just being exploited by economic parasites; they are also being exploited by emotional parasites, such as Rearden’s passive-aggressive family, who demand his time and affection while insulting him.

Unlike Adam Smith, Ayn Rand would never have contrasted self-interest against benevolence, because she recognized that there can be no benevolence among men without the premise that each man has a moral right to his own life and to the pursuit of his own happiness.

Yet a lot of conservatives seem to be comfortable with recommending the film and the novel because they ignore the parts of Ayn Rand’s message that they would be less comfortable with. Thus, blogger Ed Morrissey is happy that

the film format seems to free the characters in some sense from the limitations of Rand’s prose and give more clarity and purpose to the story, while keeping its message firmly at the film’s center. In morality plays—and this is definitely a large, complicated morality play—this kind of clarity is not unusual, and usually works.

A “morality play” is a very primitive Medieval form of drama that featured stock characters and didactic themes. So you can see what I mean about backhanded compliments: Atlas Shrugged is great—as a simplistic “morality play” about capitalism.

There are a few notable exceptions to this trend. Economist Don Luskin has a good article in the Wall Street Journal describing Ayn Rand’s deeper message of individualism. And a conservative writer with the American Enterprise Institute complains that “finally a pro-enterprise, pro-individual movie based on a bestselling book comes to market using serious actors and production; yet the vision undergirding it ultimately alienates viewers from the consumer-oriented, selfishness-curbing benefits at the very heart of American free enterprise.” You may disagree with the evaluation, and with the whole crackpot idea of capitalism as a system that teaches us to “serve the consumer”—but at least she got the idea that Ayn Rand’s message is the exact opposite.

Please don’t take all of this as a complaint about the reaction to the Atlas Shrugged movie. It is merely a warning about the limitations of the growing Atlas Shrugged phenomenon—and the release of the movie has definitely turned the recent Atlas Shrugged revival into a genuine cultural phenomenon.

How big is the phenomenon? The Hollywood Reporter announces that the film is expanding from 299 theaters this week to 425 next week and to as many as 1,000 screens by the end of the month. That is a real, full-scale theatrical release—and all purely on word-of-mouth, grassroots support. With about $1.6 million in gross ticket sales on the opening weekend, this wider release ought to ensure that the film at least breaks even on its $10 to $15 million budget.

Like I said before, Hollywood doesn’t know its own business, and the producers of this film are teaching them one heck of a lesson. The Hollywood establishment dawdled for 20 years and never got around to producing a film that literally sells itself.

The reaction to the film among Objectivists and Ayn Rand fans has been oddly similar to everyone else’s: a lot of us support the film largely because we love the book and want it to get a bigger audience. A Washington Times article sums up this trend pretty well:

The prevailing concern among many Rand admirers is more evangelical than cinematic…. Far from lamenting the release of a hastily-made, star-powerless, low-budget Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s ardent fans seem gratified by the mere existence of a decent-looking film faithful to the book’s influential philosophy. Certain that the original is a timeless masterpiece of literature, many of Rand’s devotees are heartened by the prospect that the film, masterpiece or not, will lead new readers to the novel and its big ideas.

There is a lot to this, and I’ll have more to say about that in a moment. But it is important to take a few moments to recognize the film’s—well, let’s call them its limitations.

The first limitation is the low budget and rushed production schedule required because the film had to be self-produced. The production values are generally much better than I had feared, but the low budget and second-tier talent are noticeable in a lot of small ways. A number of the minor characters, for example, are poorly cast and don’t “look the part.” And some of these problems don’t have to do with the production budget so much as with the skills and experience of the director. A few reviewers have noted the flat lighting and “push-button” directing style typical of television, and in an otherwise awful review, Roger Ebert notes another telling detail: “everybody drinks. More wine is poured and sipped in this film than at a convention of oenophiliacs.” About halfway through the film I began to notice this, too, and I quickly guessed why. This was the director’s way of giving the actors something to do while they were talking. Film is a visual medium, and long passages of dialogue are easier to follow if they are accompanied by physical action. But there are many ways to do this, and suffice to say that telling the actor to “play with the rim of your wine glass” is not the only solution, nor the most creative one.

None of this is fatal to the film—as its relative box-office success attests—but to a long-time movie fan, it is annoying. Atlas Shrugged is about the worship of competence and creativity, and seeing any touch of mediocrity in the production distracts from that theme.

The other big limitation has to do with the main screenwriter’s attempt to deal with the complexity and epic scope of the novel. (Brian Patrick O’Toole seems to have been responsible for the overall structure of the screenplay. From what I’ve seen—and I have a little bit of inside knowledge—producer John Aglialoro’s main contribution to the screenplay was to remove some glaringly Naturalist touches and to reintroduce more of Ayn Rand’s original dialogue, which was a big improvement.) The solution was to strip down the novel’s plot and theme to the bare bones: the political battle between self-confident businessmen and scheming bureaucrats. As I noted last week, the result is that the script dropped a lot of the non-political content that is important to the story; this shows particularly in Hank Rearden’s relationship with his family and in his romance with Dagny Taggart. And even some of the political punch was lost, since the script does not emphasize the connection between the morality of altruism and the schemes of the corporate bailout-seekers. It is an old Hollywood saying that no villain thinks he is a villain; he always has some way of justifying himself in his own mind. Yet this script spends surprisingly little time exploring the motivation and self-justification of the statists.

All of this gives some basis for the reviewers on the left and the right who have treated Atlas Shrugged as just a “free-market fable” or as an illustrated version of The Wealth of Nations. I think of it as a lost opportunity. Adapting Atlas Shrugged to the medium of film changes how people experience the story. The book’s readers have to provide their own concrete visualization of the characters and actions, and this can limit how they respond to the story emotionally. But the visual medium of film breaks through that barrier, giving the filmmakers the opportunity to shatter the viewers’ preconceptions and show them something new that they might otherwise be unable to see. In the case of Atlas Shrugged, it is an opportunity to show the complexity and emotional depth of Ayn Rand’s characters and to lead the viewer from the story’s political battles to their deeper and wider meaning.

This is an opportunity that I hope the filmmakers will take advantage of in Part 2, since it now looks as if the second installment in the trilogy is likely to be produced, with more pre-production time and hopefully a larger budget.

In the meantime, I think it is important to recognize the film’s limitations, because it is important that people who encounter Atlas Shrugged for the first time are told that there is more to the story than this, that the businessmen-versus-bureaucrats theme is just the beginning of Ayn Rand’s message and there is a lot more to discover by reading the original novel.

But all of this seems a little beside the point, because the Atlas Shrugged film is no longer just a movie. It has become a cultural phenomenon.

I mentioned how the film is expanding to what will potentially be a broad distribution in 1,000 theaters. But there is much more going on. It is popping up in political cartoons, and the pro-free-market, Tea-Party-connected organization FreedomWorks has produced a very popular video melding footage from Atlas Shrugged with footage of Barack Obama and Barney Frank.

The far left organization ThinkProgress has responded by producing a video of its own describing Ayn Rand as “the GOP’s philosopher” and seeking to discredit her by presenting very abbreviated clips from an old interview. Wall Street Journal blogger Christopher Shea notes:

The treatment of Rand is taking on some of the trappings of a modern campaign: she gets the big rollout, including some formidable endorsements (Clarence Thomas, Rand and Ron Paul, Sean Hannity). Then the critics join the fight to, as a political journalist would put it, ‘define’ her…. Will FreedomWorks counter with an attack video on John Rawls?

I’ll admit that I did not expect this kind of reaction. When I first saw the film, some weeks before its release, I thought that there was so much cut from the story that it would find a small audience of existing Ayn Rand fans—who had the context to fill in the missing material—but that it would not attract a larger audience. I was wrong, partly because I underestimated how many Ayn Rand fans there really are out there, but mostly because I underestimated how desperately hungry people are for a statement of defiance against the growing government takeover of their lives. The appearance of Atlas Shrugged in movie form—which is more accessible, concrete, and visceral than a book—seems to have given them a cultural rallying point.

As one aspect of this, I’ve noticed a Sarah Palin effect in the response to the film: the more the mainstream media attacks it, the more fanatically defiant its supporters become. I understand exactly why. The film’s critics are so vile that they make you want to support the movie just to spite the bastards. Some of you may remember that the elder George Bush’s 1992 presidential campaign adopted the motto, “Annoy the media—re-elect Bush.” The slogan of this film might well be: “Annoy Hollywood—watch Atlas Shrugged.”

That’s why this phenomenon has become bigger than the movie itself. Atlas Shrugged as a popular rallying point against runaway government is precisely what our culture needed, precisely when we needed it.

As for those who try to ignore Ayn Rand’s deeper message and reduce Atlas Shrugged to a “free-market fable”—well, the joke is on them. Ayn Rand’s ideas are too powerful and too widely available to be ignored. In adopting Atlas Shrugged as a proxy in the political battle between capitalism and socialism, both sides have unwittingly introduced much bigger issues—and they will eventually find that they are just the proxies in this deeper philosophical battle.

There is a lot wrong with P.J. O’Roark’s review of the movie, but I have to agree with one line: “Atlas Shrugged, Part I has to be praised just for existing, for keeping the premise available.” The movie, and the reaction to it, makes Atlas Shrugged available, with all of the ideas the book contains, as a larger and more powerful cultural influence. This has the potential to radically transform American politics. In fact, I would argue that it is already doing so.

So that is the spirit in which I will respond, when people ask me “So how did you like the movie?” by telling them: “It’s a great book.”

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