Atlas Shrugged Part 1: Review
October 27, 2011 by Paul McKeever
Tomorrow, “Atlas Shrugged Part 1” will make its first appearance on Canada’s silver screens. Thanks to the generosity of one of the film’s producers, Harmon Kaswell, I was able to watch an advance copy of the film so as to provide my readership with a Canadian Objectivist’s review.
The movie is based on the novel, “Atlas Shrugged”, published in 1957 by author/philosopher Ayn Rand. Over the course of her life and writings, Rand discovered what no philosopher before her had thought possible. Specifically, she discovered and explained that a truly ethical philosophy (which she called “rational egoism”) can be proven by the facts of reality as discovered by man’s only method of obtaining knowledge of those facts: a logical process of thought solely about that for which, ultimately, there exists physical evidence. Rand argued that rational egoism logically implies a political philosophy pursuant to which government ensures that no person’s life, liberty, or property is taken without his consent. Rand argued that capitalism – which she defined as the separation of economics and state – is the only socio-economic system compatible with the moral and political position she advocated.
Starting as it does with the question “Who is John Galt?”, Rand’s purpose in writing the novel was to portray the ideal man. “Who is John Galt?” is really a re-statement of the question to which “Atlas Shrugged” – the novel – provides the answer: “What is the nature of the ideal Man?”. Rand was concerned not with the alleged heroes determined by alleged divine revelation or by a popularity contest, but with the hero dictated by the facts of reality (in particular, the facts of reality that disclose the essential nature of Man).
Rand’s hero – her ideal Man – is not a mindless brute. Being a hero by her standards, he necessarily is a rational being. Accordingly, to tell the reader only that a hero did something would not have served her purpose. To know the nature of a hero by Rand’s standards, it was also necessary to communicate why the hero did what he did, and what purpose the hero intended to serve by his decisions and actions. That being the case, Rand’s novel could not take the form of a melodrama; it could not limit itself to communicating to the reader conflicts between the book’s characters. To achieve her purpose, Rand’s novel also had to communicate to the reader what was going on inside the minds of her characters: what each character relied upon as knowledge; how each character made (or avoided making) decisions; what (if anything) each character considered a value; what each character hoped to achieve by their decisions or indecision, or by their action or inaction; and the emotions experienced by each of the characters, owing to their differing ways of viewing the world and choosing, and owing to their different views of what is a value, what is a virtue, and what is the purpose of ones own life. In other words, in addition to communicating the conflicts between characters, Rand had to communicate the conflicts within characters.
Had Rand discarded her purpose, she most certainly could have written a much shorter novel in the form of a melodrama. Indeed, much of the unwarranted criticism directed at Rand’s novel over the decades has essentially taken the form of complaining that Rand did not do just that; that she didn’t just write a short melodrama about the “competing interests” of individualistic and wealthy industrialists on the one hand, and collectivist looters and moochers on the other. Worse still have been the critics who entirely miss the purpose both of Rand’s novel and of communicating conflicts within the characters; who are unable to comprehend anything but the inter-personal conflicts in a drama and who, as a result, come away from the novel “Atlas Shrugged” thinking that Rand has merely written a needlessly repetitive and wordy melodrama.
In case you think I have forgotten that this is a movie review: I haven’t. But the preceding serves to explain the overall feeling I experienced watching the movie, “Atlas Shrugged Part 1”. The movie’s creators were faced with a daunting task: taking Rand’s 1164 page epic drama, and recreating it in movie form. Prior to the production of “Atlas Shrugged Part 1”, nobody had found a way to do it. Having now viewed the movie, my conclusion is that that remains the case.
The movie depicts, in a reasonably faithful way, the series of events in the early part of the novel. The economy is in trouble. The government reacts by passing wage and price controls, anti-trust laws etc.. A railway company called Taggart Transcontinental is in financial trouble. One of the main movers and shakers within the company, Dagny Taggart, intends to try to save the company by going it alone, for a time, to rebuild a length of track in an increasingly industrialized Colorado using a new metal. The fellow who invented the metal, Hank Reardon, doesn’t want to sell it to the government. Hank’s wife doesn’t like the Reardon-metal bracelet that Hank gave to her. Hank has sex with Dagny after she succeeds in building the train line in Colorado. And, of course, some shadowy figure is encouraging a number of industrialists and railway employees to close shop and disappear. Part 1 of the movie ends with a torching of which the novel’s readers will know the significance. In short, the movie stays respectably faithful to the progression of the events in the novel.
However, whereas the movie depicts, to some extent, conflicts between individuals, it does not sufficiently communicate to the viewer the philosophic natures of the characters and the internal conflicts faced by each of them. We see what is decided, and what is done, but there is little if any indication that the characters experienced any internal conflict when making the decisions they make. We know that Hank thinks it is important for the government to acknowledge that his metal is good, but we have no idea why he thinks it so important. We know that Hank is attracted to Dagny, but we have no idea why, and no idea why he and she had sex only after Dagny’s Colorado rail line is built. We know that Dagny’s brother dislikes big “monopolies” and likes smaller companies that “need” business, but it is anyone’s guess as to why he holds those views. We are left with a story but, without a communication of the “why” and “what for”, the movie cuts off the viewer from causes and purposes.
As Rand explained in her most excellent essay, “The Missing Link”, the questions “why” and “what for” are “the prime movers of a human mind”:
“The absense of concern for the ‘Why?’ eliminates causality and cuts off the past. The absense of concern for the ‘What for?’ eliminates long-range purpose and cuts off the future. Thus, only the present is fully real to the anti-conceptual mentality.”
Rand once told Playboy Magazine, “a man without a purpose is lost in chaos”, and such a man “drifts at the mercy of random feelings or unidentified urges and is capable of any evil”. By refraining from communicating to the movie’s viewer the philosophical causes and purposes of the decisions made by the movie’s characters, the viewer is left in a similar state of chaos (which is not to imply that such chaos itself inspires excitement), unable to distinguish between a character who is drifting whimsically, and another who has a purpose.
The best word I can use to describe the resulting effect is: flat. Not engaging sufficiently in the ‘whys’ and ‘what fors’ of the characters’ actions, the story’s characters – its villains and its heroes – are much less polarized, morally, in the movie than they are in the novel. The movie’s Reardon is a good enough guy, but he is simultaneously nowhere near as admirable, in material matters, as the novel’s Reardon, and nowhere near as corrupt, in spiritual matters, as the novel’s Reardon is at the beginning of the story. The movie’s James Taggart is a bit of a useless boob, but he is hardly the calculating anti-Man (the sneaky, lying, influential, conniving snake) he is in the novel. In the movie, both the heroism and the villainy are, as I’ve said, flattened, leaving characters whose purpose is to play parts in a sequence of events and inter-personal conflicts, rather than to communicate to the viewer almost anything about Rand’s views on the essential nature of heroism and villainy. The viewer ends up knowing what happened and who won each inter-personal conflict, but will be left without any guidance as to why one side or the other, in reality, deserved to win or lose.
The same flattening – with the same cause – happens with respect to the film’s ability to invoke strong emotions. For example, having entirely excluded any history of the romantic relationship between Dagny and Francisco D’Anconia, Francisco’s apparent (yet entirely unexplained) inner-conflict over refusing to help Dagny fund her Colorado rail project leaves the viewer not intrigued, but puzzled and perhaps indifferent.
Much of what I am pointing out, above, arguably is owing to the widely-recognized difficulty in delivering sufficient character development in the short time provided in a movie. For example, one of the audio book versions of “Atlas Shrugged” that I own runs for about 52 hours. In comparison, “Atlas Shrugged Part 1” covers a considerable chunk of the story line in about 90 minutes (why the film’s run time was so limited, in an age when most mainstream movies run much longer, is a mystery to me given the obvious character development opportunities that a longer run time would have facilitated). It may have been decided by the movie’s creators that it was not possible for a relatively short film version of “Atlas Shrugged” to serve the purpose Rand’s novel serves; that it was not possible to create a movie version of “Atlas Shrugged” as a drama; that it was not possible to spend time on the characters’ inner conflicts without abridging the series of events so severely that the story would become unrecognizable. In short, it may have been decided that the movie must first and foremost tell the “Atlas Shrugged” story in a relatively short time, and that that could be achieved only in melodramatic form, at the cost of sacrificing the novel’s purpose.
So, what is my take home message to the would-be viewer? That depends upon the nature of the viewer. If you have condemned Rand’s novel on the erroneous belief that Rand was wordy and repetitive, but you end up disliking the movie, understand that if Rand had done with her novel what you claim Rand could and should have done with it – i.e., tell the same story in a fraction of the pages – the resulting novel quite likely would have been the fast-moving melodrama that is “Atlas Shrugged Part 1”, rather than the weighty drama that is the novel. If you never have read the novel and you decide to watch the movie, you might very well like the movie, but – even if you dislike the movie – you quite probably will love the novel. If you have read novel, watching the movie will definitely demonstrate to you the utter magnificence of Rand’s effort and achievement in the novel, which you will, as a consequence, love even more, and it will provide you with an opportunity to sit with others who – more likely than not – share your sense of life. That alone may very well be worth more than the price of admission.
“Atlas Shrugged Part 1” begins screenings this Friday, October 28, 2011 at Toronto’s AMC Yonge & Dundas 24 theatre. You can buy your tickets online, right now, by clicking here.