Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Film: Atlas Shrugged: Part I

Ayn Rand wrote her monumental (1,168 pages) tome, “Atlas Shrugged,” more than a half-century ago and her fans have been waiting for a motion picture version of the book to appear ever since. They finally have been rewarded – or at least partially so – with the limited release of Atlas Shrugged: Part I in movie theatres nationwide on April 15 (appropriately commemorating Income Tax Day). (Parts II and III are expected to be released on April 15, 2012 and April 15, 2013, respectively.)

This has been a difficult book to bring to the screen and, for a long time, it seemed as if it might never get made at all. Albert S. Ruddy’s initial attempt to make a movie out of the book in 1972 fell through when Rand insisted on final script approval. Six years later, Henry and Michael Jaffe cut a deal to make the book into a television mini-series on NBC, but a year later, when Fred Silverman assumed the presidency of that network, he killed the deal.

Subsequently Rand began writing her own screenplay, but she died in 1982 with it still largely incomplete. The film rights then vested in her estate and, a decade after her death, John Aglialoro paid her estate more than $1 million for an option to produce the film. In 1999, under Aglialoro's sponsorship, Ruddy re-appeared, negotiating a deal with Turner Network Television for another mini-series, but that deal also fell through. Enter Lions Gate Entertainment which expressed an interest in funding and distributing the film – should it ever be made. Drafts and screenplays were written and re-written and negotiations were held with a number of A-list Hollywood stars as potential cast members, including Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron, but it all came to naught. At which point, in May 2010, with Aglialoro’s option close to expiration, with no star power, and with no Lions Gate backing, Aglialoro bit the bullet, wrote a screenplay himself (with Brian Patrick O’Toole) and began filming. The movie was filmed in five weeks and came in on budget at about $10 million.

And that is the movie that my wife and I, both hoping for the best and fearing the worst, have just seen.

(In the interest of full disclosure, before continuing with my review of the film, let me admit at the outset that I am an enthusiastic libertarian who, even while recognizing Ayn Rand’s shortcomings as both a novelist and as a philosopher, remain a huge fan of her work and share her basic philosophy.)

This adaptation of the first third of the book “Atlas Shrugged” (entitled “Non-Contradiction”) was directed by Paul Johansson and stars Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart and Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden. It envisions a dystopian America much as Rand described it (although it is set in the year 2016 in the film). Some of the nation’s leading industrialists and most productive members of society have disappeared, their eyes apparently having been opened by the mysterious John Galt to their own exploitation by a government controlled by parasitic second-raters who disdain the value to society of the profit motive.

Dagny Taggart, the chief operating officer of Taggart Transcontinental, and Hank Rearden, who owns Rearden Steel, are aware of society’s collapsing about them, of the degree to which it has been caused by the government itself, and of the evils being perpetrated by that government in the name of altruism and concern for one’s fellow man. Against this backdrop, they do all they can to fight the system while attempting to remain within it but, ironically, it is they, themselves, who thereby indirectly support it.

If you have read “Atlas Shrugged,” there is no point in my outlining the remainder of the plot of the movie: you’re already familiar with it since it hews very closely to that of the book. And if you haven’t read the book, I’m not going to spoil it for you by telling you in advance what transpires. Suffice it to say in that latter eventuality, that the book, “Atlas Shrugged,” is an exciting tale, a mystery story, and an important philosophical work all rolled into one and that the movie, Atlas Shrugged: Part I, does make a valiant attempt to bring the book to life on screen.

But does the movie succeed in that attempt?

Sadly, not all that well. The actors are certainly competent but they lack the star quality that Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts or Charlize Theron would have brought to the production. And for those unfamiliar with the original work, the movie tends to trivialize the important ideas that Rand was seeking to convey. (That, unfortunately, may have been unavoidable since Rand devoted long passages in her book to the philosophical ideas she was attempting to impart and it might well have been impossible to do that in a movie while retaining the audience’s interest.)

So should you see the movie?

Well, that all depends. If you’ve read the book, and if you’re an Ayn Rand fan, by all means yes! The movie will disappoint you in spots but you will be able to fill in the gaps with your own recollections of what Rand actually said in the book and your understanding of what she really meant. And a lot of the movie is good fun.

On the other hand, if, having read the book, you are not a Rand fan, skip the movie. It will only reinforce your reasons for not appreciating Rand in the first place, so why bother?

And if you’ve never read the book? Then it’s about time you read it! Read the book first and then, only after you’ve read it, decide if you want to see the movie. This is, after all, one of the most important books of the twentieth century and one that every educated American should read, movie or not. Rand’s influence has never been greater than it is today (just think of the fact that Paul Ryan, the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, is a Rand acolyte, that he urges all his staff members to read this book, and that he likely will be as responsible as anyone else you might think of in determining this nation’s economic future).

Me? I’m looking forward to seeing Atlas Shrugged: Part II next year and Atlas Shrugged: Part III a year after that. Meanwhile I think I’ll re-read the book for the umpteenth time.

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