I really hate having to writing this.
I’ve read all of Ayn Rand’s novels and a lot of her non-fiction. I’ve read Anthem and We The Living; I love The Fountainhead and its intransigent hard-line main character Howard Roark; I’ve read Atlas Shrugged twice, once in my late twenties/early thirties, and again about six or seven years ago. I love the book, even though I’m not one of those that will gush with praise on the prose — it can be a little turgid, at times, and could have used some better editing. (The same can be said of War and Peace, after all, and I’ve never been able to get through that one.) That said, as an exposition of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, in a medium she was comfortable with (i.e., the “Romantic” novel), Atlas Shrugged is a great novel. The point of the book is to tell us what that philosophy is, through the characters of visionaries Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, Ellis Wyatt, and especially, John Galt, the self-exiled capitalist, in that amazing speech she wrote for him towards the end of the book. That speech is more relevant today in 2011, than it was in 1957. If you haven’t read it, you won’t know why.
All great adaptations of books to film must begin with an unbounding respect for the source material and a burning desire to put the author’s vision on the screen. When I saw the first few minutes of Peter Jackson’s first installment of The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring) on opening night ten years ago I knew he had a winner. Why? It was obvious Jackson had a great love and respect for Tolkien’s works — and it showed on the screen from the first moment of the film. A good director must have good material if he is to deliver something that, while not being the original work, is a work of art on its own. Does anyone remember how sleazy Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was before Coppola took it and made it into grand opera? How Cormac McCarthy’s boring novel, No Country For Old Men was turned into a minor masterpiece by the Coen Brothers? Ayn Rand’s own adaptation of The Fountainhead is far from perfect, but it’s terrific to look at, and the characters (portrayed by Gary Cooper, an incredibly sexy Patricia Neal, and Raymond Massey) are there, if you know what I mean.
I was hoping against hope that the screenwriters would adapt this leviathan and write a script that a director would properly translate to the big screen. While I think the screenwriters who adapted Atlas Shrugged respected the novel, it just fails to deliver as a movie. It is, I’m sad to report, a dull and lifeless husk, going from one little set piece to another without really engaging the audience in the back story or the life of the characters.
The two principal characters we meet in Part 1 (Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart) are so boring that their message, their philosophy, their reason for being and doing what they do, flies by without a thought. In the novel, Rearden and Dagny are representations of a capitalist ideal. They are industrialists, in the good sense of the word: they are builders and inventors and makers and thinkers. They have Vision, with a capital “V” — but in this movie they are just another couple of ho-hum CEOs, going through the motions. The acting is okay, but other than a hint of Hank Rearden coming through, and the character of Ellis Wyatt, they are wooden and dull. The set-pieces are monotonous. From office to limo to office to party to limo to house to limo to train to warehouse, and on and on. There is no magic here to engage the viewer in the story of the characters. They overuse the “who is John Galt?” line to the point of parody and then use overlaid text to tell of the disappearance of industrialists, without really telling us who the hell they are and why the hell they are disappearing. A movie, after all is not a book. It requires a a completely different delivery in order to the get the same message across.
The best thing in the movie was the “John Galt Line” bullet train that finally rides on Rearden steel. And even that is ruined by the silly intercut scenes of Dagny and Rearden in the cabin of the locomotive, traveling at 175 mph, standing as still as they would on unmoving ground. Kinda silly.
I will give the film makers the benefit of the doubt and hope there’s a lot more material they can add back in when the DVD and Blu-ray are released. But until then, skip the movie. Read the book.