I have seen few movies that are one hundred percent successful translations of a novel to the screen. Even rarer are the movies that are superior to the novels. “Love Letters” (1945), with Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones, whose screenplay was written by Ayn Rand, bears little resemblance to Christopher Massie’s Love Letters, which is a literary and moral abomination. She was assigned the task of rendering the story into a shootable script. Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock was vastly improved on in the film version (1948) by Jonathan Lattimer, who removed most of the sociological and anti-business content and focused on the suspense. One could cite dozens of other instances of successful or near-successful book-to-screen adaptations.
The key to the successful translation of a novel to the screen is to essentialize the given plot. To essentialize a plot is to identify the key conflict or conflicts, ensure that the characters, dialogue, and action mesh with the plot, and to maintain the integration throughout. Thus the integrity of a novel (if it has one) can be honored. If a fiction writer’s task is to include only what contributes to a story, and to leave out what is not essential or what does not advance a story, then the screenwriter’s task is to repeat the process for transfer of the story to the audiovisual medium.
The credits state that “Atlas Shrugged, Part I” was based on Rand’s novel. Well, Steve Martin’s “Roxanne” was “based” on Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. But was the movie little else but a farce that cashed in on Rostand’s story? Massie’s novel and “Love Letters” also did that, but Rand’s screenplay added a theme to the Rostand story. “Atlas Shrugged, Part I” is not a farce, but a serious attempt intended to reduce a mountain to what its makers presumed would be a comprehensible molehill. The molehill was not the goal, but it was inevitable because of a failure to grasp, take seriously, and essentialize the governing elements of the novel.
There are only two fundamental ways to approach a viewing of “Atlas Shrugged, Part I”: With an intimate knowledge, love, and technical appreciation of the novel – its plot, its characters, its events, and its theme – or from either an ignorance of the novel Atlas Shrugged or a vague recollection of it from having read it long ago. The fortunate members of the audience are those who see the movie with absolutely no knowledge of Rand or the novel; they are pleasantly shocked to hear so much anti-government dialogue.
Most Americans who have seen or will see the movie fall into the second category. They have heard of the novel, and of Ayn Rand, its author, and have a foggy notion that she foretold the future – now their present. They recollect a very long story but have forgotten its details, or have never read it, and are now boosting sales of the novel over half a century after its publication. But most have a glimmering that she was right, and that the crisis and disasters confronting them in the news every day are too real to dismiss as fantasy or a matter of opinion, and are replicated in the novel and partly shown in the movie.
An intimate knowledge of the novel, however, should clash violently with what transpires on the screen. An ignorance or vague recollection of the novel’s story will not clash in the same manner with what happens (or does not happen) on the screen, but engender confusion and bewilderment. That should cause people who do read the novel, once they are deep into it, whether for a first time or after a long hiatus from it, to wonder what the movie’s makers were thinking.
If one is intellectually honest, the clash between the novel and the movie should lead one to conclude that the makers of the movie did not understand the novel, were consequently incapable of translating it successfully for the screen, and possibly did not think they needed to know either the novel or how to dramatize it. They had a budget, a cast, props, cameramen and digital capabilities for special effects, and all the other paraphernalia for making a movie. And a script written by a person who understood neither the theme, nor the spirit, nor the purpose of the novel, working with a director and producer who did not understand them, either. If the theme of the novel Atlas Shrugged is the role of man’s mind in existence, then the movie’s makers discarded the novel’s mind, its theme, and everything else. If they could not understand these things, then neither could they genuinely appreciate the novel.
If intellectuals have any purpose in the context of evaluating this movie, they will point out its many shortcomings and failings. But conservative intellectuals have used the debut of the movie as an excuse to (again) attack Rand and her philosophy without much critiquing the movie. So have leftist critics. These intellectuals and critics will not be discussed at length here. Most conservative critics are aghast by the public response to the movie. They treat it as an affront to their moral and political philosophy, and take their anger out on Rand herself. Their petulance is futile, and it must be especially enervating when they read that the movie has boosted sales of the novel, a development they could not have ever wished for. Leftists are in the same conundrum. All conservatives and leftists can do is throw printable and unprintable tantrums. This allegedly “badly written” novel has been trumping their malice, ad hominems, and bile for fifty-four years. They are feeling their own irrelevancy, and it hurts. That is some kind of justice.
My approach to the movie falls into the first category. I have read all manner of reasons, in the most benign mainstream reviews and also in personal correspondence, why I should like the movie, or at least not condemn it or subject it to any but the most superficial and irrelevant tiers of critical examination. These reasons fall into two main categories, as well: That, given the state of the culture, it is the best that can be expected from Hollywood; and that seeing it makes one feel good.
My reasoning in the first instance is: If one can be critical of the culture, why should the movie’s makers and the movie itself be exempt from such criticism? After all, they are products of the culture. In the spirit of pragmatism and anxious expediency, they took a priceless value and twisted it out of recognition for the sake of “the message.” The producers, director, and screenwriter all attempted a task that was beyond their talents and vision to successfully complete. What they produced was an entertaining polemic.
In the second instance, if one holds Atlas Shrugged as a supreme literary, moral, and philosophical value, then one cannot respond emotionally to “Atlas Shrugged, Part I” as a value that in any way complements the novel. One could not honestly be “entertained” by it and also hold the novel in the highest esteem. If one does, therein lurks a grave conflict in the valuer. The standard critical appraisal of the novel, however, one that has been repeated for decades by Left and Right alike, is that it is an anti-government polemic, which is not what Rand wrote.
Esthetically, the difference between the novel and the movie is the difference between Michelangelo’s “David” and a Hummel figurine. Or, in terms of literary accomplishment, the difference between the Empire State Building and a 7-11 convenience store.
To understand what Ayn Rand did write, see Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (Lexington Books, 2009).
An anonymous, non-Objectivist critic wrote one of the best appreciations of Rand’s abilities as a writer, and focuses on her writing craft in the novel. Towards the end of his appreciation, he notes:
Too often, amateurs are too obvious and throw out too few questions and reveal answers too quickly. I think many great authors are more disciplined about waiting until much later before revealing the big and little answers. They also toss up interesting developments to make you keep guessing and asking more questions.
Which is what the movie does not do, but that is a venial offence when compared with what other offences the movie commits.
Brian O’Toole, the chief screenwriter for the movie, in an interview offered a number of excuses and rationalizations for why the movie does not follow the novel, even though he claims it does.
When the pre-production screenplay was done, it was a very strong representation of the spirit of Ayn Rand’s novel.
Since we stayed very close to the structure of the novel, there was little reason for us to play fast and loose with the material. Except for the very beginning, fans of the novel will hopefully find themselves in very comfortable territory as we tell the story cinematically.
The “spirit” of Rand’s novel is not a gussied-up, big-budget daytime soap opera, and the movie is nowhere near the structure of the novel. It indeed plays “fast and loose” with that structure, as anyone familiar with the novel will attest to. In fact, the movie completely abandons it.
Among other obfuscations uttered by O’Toole is his repeated assurance that “purists” and “Rand fans” will like the movie even for its not following the structure of the novel and for omitting “small” details from the novel.
Since our production was modestly budgeted, we certainly couldn’t create a period piece (although the book was really a near-future story) nor create a Metropolis-type movie with big sets and futuristic props and vehicles. Luckily, the book is set in a realistic world. We have small updates like cell phones and no smoking, and the freight train on the John Galt Line may be a bit flashier than we see chugging along today, but I really think audiences will quickly ease into our world and be spellbound by the story being told.
Luck had nothing to do with it. Fantasy and horror appear to be O’Toole’s chief genres, so dealing with a “realistic world” must have been an educational experience for him. Cell phones? I once saw a stage production of Othello in which the principal characters produced cell phones to conduct the dialogue; this was the director’s way of saving himself the trouble of actually staging the play. It was also a way of saving the movie’s director the trouble of shooting crucial scenes (in which Rand’s dialogue does not appear anyway) in which it is critical that the characters are face-to-face.
No smoking? Hollywood, always the vehicle of political correctness in virtually all matters, has adopted an anti-smoking policy in its films that requires that smoking is done by villains only. In the movie, the character of Wesley Mouch lights up a stogie in a restaurant (but not in the novel, of course, and the restaurant is not the dark cellar on top of a skyscraper where the villains plot their next moves, as described by Rand in the novel, but a brightly lit, 21 Club-style restaurant), while the bizarre character of Hugh Akston is having a “dollar sign” cigarette in the back of a diner (one had to be quick to recognize the symbol on his cigarette; or was it a diner, and if so, was it his? No explanation). O’Toole boasts that he has big plans for “Atlas Shrugged, Part II.” How does he plan to handle the significant device of the dollar sign cigarettes in the novel, and not violate Hollywood’s anti-smoking rule? Replace them with Chia pottery planters that “grow” dollar signs? And once he gets to Galt’s Gulch, will Midas Mulligan’s tobacco patch be replaced with an avocado ranch?
O’Toole brazenly claims in the interview that he both remained true to the novel and did not.
It was decided early on in the development stage that we should try to personify Part I’s “spiriting-away” of the world’s producers. Producers Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro wanted audiences to know what John Galt said to the “men of mind” that convinced them to go to Atlantis—before the speech in Part III. Again, all of the deviations made from the book were done to make the film as entertaining as possible. Not everyone will agree with these changes. To them, I just want to say that we were always respectful to the novel. The job of the film is to, hopefully, intrigue people enough to pick up the book.
So, it was decided early on to discard all the suspense, mystery, and intrigue in the novel in favor of introducing Galt in the beginning. In the novel, we never learn what Galt actually says to any of the men he persuades to vanish; it is only when he has Dagny in Galt’s Gulch that he makes any statements. O’Toole’s assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, neither he nor Aglialoro nor Kaslow were “respectful” of the novel. One supposes that their notion of being “respectful” would be, for example, to transform someone like Audrey Hepburn into a Lady Gaga.
What follows is a list, by no means exhaustive, of randomly recalled blunders, gaffes, and outrages in the movie. These include plot-spoilers.
• The John Galt Line: The train running through Colorado. Okay. Nice scenery, great special effects. Should that salvage the movie? No.
• The Ellis Wyatt character was an overweight, obnoxious bozo who could have just as well been bragging about his lottery ticket wins. There is a difference between the genuine anger Wyatt shows in the novel and the bullying language of the movie. Further, there are no expletives in Rand’s novel (just a suggestion of one, by Rearden), but in the movie the Wyatt character utters them.
• The Francisco character, alleged owner of copper mines, behaved like Hugh Hefner, and looked like a scraggly, bearded Che Guevara clone with an entourage of bimbos. He displayed none of the elegance, style, panache, intensity, or any evidence that he was an aristocrat of the mind whom one encounters in the novel.
• The Orren Boyle character was a third-rate impersonation of a rival Godfather gangster.
• The "romantic" scene between Rearden and Dagny after the John Galt train run was reminiscent of a bar pick-up episode on "Two and a Half Men." What was lacking was any credible build-up to such a relationship between the characters. All one saw was some ambiguous eye contact between the characters.
• One of the most jarring scenes occurred in what looked like a church (the State Science Institute), between Dagny and Dr. Robert Stadler -- I guess it was supposed to be Stadler, because the character's name was never given, except perhaps once. They sit in a pew and try to have an earnest conversation. When Dagny rises to leave after some contextless chitchat, Stadler wishes her "good luck” in her search for the motor’s inventor. Excuse me?
• There is the Galt character showing up and accosting industrialists, looking like Freddie Kruger. I half expected him to whip out steel fingernails. I can imagine Rand’s Galt in a sports shirt and a tuxedo, but she would never have garbed him in a cheesy, thrift-store fedora and trench coat. Throughout the novel Galt is the invisible “immovable mover”; in the movie, he is introduced early on and thus was destroyed any suspense. At the film’s end the Galt character in a voice-over states who he is and why he is causing the industrialists to disappear. End of story.
• When Rearden and Dagny go to the abandoned factory of the 20th Century Motor Company to search for and find the incredible motor, they are all over the map in search of the inventor in no particular sequence that makes any sense.
• In the anniversary party segment, in the novel, Lillian wishes that Francisco hadn't come to the party, because she dislikes him. In the movie, they are shown as old friends and she busses him in welcome.
• In the anniversary party segment, there is little tension between Lillian and Dagny during their bracelet/necklace exchange; it could have been a friendly trade during a yard sale, or a mild spat between characters in “Desperate Housewives.”
• For a reason known only to the screenwriter, also in the Rearden anniversary party segment, one character tells another that "Balph Eubank" is at the party. But Eubank, a popular composer in the novel who appropriates Richard Halley’s music, is not a character in the movie, so there was no reason for his name to be mentioned.
• The guy (I will not call him an actor) who plays Hugh Akston, the vanished advocate of reason, was a diffident, middle-aged, rude slob in what looks like a white jump suit. He was no more a philosopher on strike than I am a retired astronaut. He played the part like Jim Carrey on medication. Alec Guinness he is not.
Another critique contradicts the movie- makers’ assertions that they were compelled to make all the changes they made for budgetary and length reasons. Film School Rejects published a convincing critique of the movie that blasts those assumptions to smithereens.
….[S]ince the biggest problem with the adaptation was buried in the structure of the movie, there’s one thing that would have made Atlas Shrugged: Part I a far, far better film.
Ready for it? Here it is:
Going By the Book
It seems achingly simple, but for some reason the writers, producers, director and editors of Atlas Shrugged took the elements of the book, jumbled them up slightly and turned John Galt into a shadowy, living non sequitur.
I could not agree more, except that the book’s elements were not “slightly” jumbled up, but tossed into a Cuisinart food mixer set on high, which created a pitcher of unappetizing glop. FSR demonstrates, scene by scene for “Part I,” that Aglialoro and O’Toole could have faithfully followed the sequence of events and still produced a great movie near budget and only half an hour longer. To wit:
…[T]he production hobbled itself by creating a foolishly short hour and forty-two minute runtime. They’re adapting a beast of a book, and didn’t even shoot for a full two hours. It’s baffling. A healthy portion of these plot moments exist in the movie, but the connective tissue isn’t there….
The production stripped the novel so far down that great character moments like the cigarette discussion, Halley’s music (as the first sign of the Galt mystery), the juxtaposition of the talks with Conway and Wyatt, Hank rebuking his mother (finally), and the announcement of everyone volunteering for the first run were left out while incredibly long shots of Colorado countryside and a nearly pointless dinner party languished on screen. There are signs that the production simply didn’t understand what made certain scenes important.
The heroes of Atlas Shrugged the novel command reverence, solemnity, and joy. The non-villain characters in “Atlas Shrugged, Part I” ask only that one tolerate their non-distinctive and belabored averageness.
In conclusion, producers Aglialoro and Kaslow have done what should not have been done: produced an adulterated product for the sake of “getting it out there,” regardless of its condition, to cash in on Rand’s growing popularity and relevance to what is going on in today’s world. It is irrelevant that Aglialoro invested $20 million of his own money in the project. If he and his colleagues had understood the novel, they should have “gone on strike” and not went through with the movie. But, they have appropriated the Rearden Metal of Ayn Rand’s novel and produced, not a “Lawrence of Arabia” or a “Gone with the Wind,” but something that is not even a reasonable facsimile of the novel.
They have employed a forged Gift Certificate that Rand never signed.