ANALYSIS: Is a Good "Atlas Shrugged" Movie Possible?

September 27, 2014 by  

Over the last few years, a trilogy of movies has been released based upon Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged. I was asked by the movie company to review the first installment (you can read my review here), but I’ve not seen the 2nd and 3rd installments. Nor have I paid much attention to what was done in those two installments. Suffice it to say that many Objectivists (i.e., people who follow Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and love her novels) have condemned the trilogy (in some cases, because of some of the advisors and others associated with the production, including David Kelley and Nathaniel Branden). Not having seen parts 2 and 3, I’ll not comment upon them. However, I am interested in the question of whether it is even possible to convert Rand’s 1100+ page novel into a three-part movie that does the book any justice. Would it be necessary – as some hold – to convert the book into a mini-series?

Today, I performed a little analysis. The methodology would rightly be considered weak and incomplete, but it provides one with at least a sense of the nature of the task faced by a person trying to convert the book into a movie.

The Analysis

I took chapter 1 of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, removed all of the non-dialogue (even the “said Dagny” ‘s ). 10,737 words were thereby reduced to about 4,286 words: a reduction of approximately 60%. I inserted the name of the person speaking, followed by colon, e.g.:

Eddie Willers: “Why did you say that?”
Bum: “Why does it bother you?”
Willers: “It doesn’t. Go get your cup of coffee”.

With a 12pt Times Roman font, I ended up with a Chapter 1 that was 18 pages long.

I know that the audiobooks of Atlas Shrugged run about 50 to 52 hours in length, but a great deal of the reading is not dialogue, but description: the sort of non-verbal content handled by sounds and visuals in a movie. Using the 60% reduction in words experienced in Chapter 1 as an estimate of the overall reduction in non-dialogue reading time, it would take approximately 20 to 21 hours to read just the dialogue from Atlas Shrugged. If the book were turned into a 3 part movie, we’d have approximately 7 hours of dialogue for each part. Assuming each part of a three part movie would be 2.5 hours in length, and that maybe 20% of that time would involve no dialogue (e.g., Dagny’s train ride on the Reardon metal bridge), the task is to reduce the dialogue from 7 hours to 2: a 71.4% reduction in dialogue. That means 18 pages of dialogue in Chapter 1 would have to be reduced, on a per chapter average, to approximately 5 pages and change.

Is it doable? It doesn’t seem insurmountable to me. Consider what happens in Chapter 1:

  1. After handing a dime to a bum who disquiets Willers by asking “Who is John Galt”, Willers – while walking to work – remembers a childhood tree on the Taggart estate that he thought would last forever. Lightning proved it hollow. He then approaches the tall Taggart terminal thinking to himself that it will stand forever.

  3. Willers speaks with Jim Taggart about the poor state of the Rio Norte Line in Colorado, the loss of business on that line, and the importance of not abandoning the line. Jim tells him he lacks faith, that nobody will blame the company because it’s not the company’s fault, and curses Reardon, Wyatt, and the thriving upstart rival railroad man in Colorado.

  5. Willers speaks with Pop Harper, who lists off a bunch of shortages being suffered in the economy…everything from woolen undershirts, to lightbulbs, to quality typewriters.

  7. Dagny speaks to the young brakeman about the concerto he is whisting, then falls asleep. She awakes to find the train not moving. She speaks to the engineer, conductor and firemen, who are content to just wait for someone to show up and get the railroad signal system working before they proceed further. She tells them to get going.

  9. Dagny goes to Jim’s office, and tells him that she’s canceled the delayed rail order to Orren Boyle (head of Jim’s taxpayer funded steel company) and instead placed an order for Reardon Metal rails. Jim objects, damns Reardon, Wyatt, competition, change, and the pursuit of profit over public service, and claims that Reardon metal shouldn’t be used because there’s no scientific consensus that it is not unsafe. Ultimately, Dagny, who has studied the metal herself, gets the go-ahead from Jim, provided she takes responsibility for anything that happens.

  11. Dagny speaks with the Ayers music company and discovers that the young brakeman’s song is not a Halley concerto that has been published. Attempting to replace a division head with a talented young Owen Kellogg, Kellogg instead turns down the offer and resigns, refusing to say why.

There are 10 chapters in each of the novel’s three parts. If a movie of Part 1 were to run for 150 minutes (i.e., 2.5 hours), each chapter could be allocated an average of 15 minutes. At 5 pages per chapter, that gives us approximately 3 minutes per page of script. At least a couple of events 1-6 above (i.e., items 1 and 3) could be handled in perhaps 3 minutes, leaving 4 events in 12 minutes or: about 3 minutes per remaining event. Put another way: on average, each event would get one page of script.

I’m not convinced that it couldn’t be done well. Specifically, I’m not convinced that it would be impossible to make a good three-part movie of Atlas Shrugged (consider that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is about the same number of pages as Atlas Shrugged). In particular, I’m not convinced that we’d need a 52 hour mini-series to do the novel justice…even though I’d love it if they did a mini-series.

All that it might really require is a film-maker with heroic creativity and skill. Any takers?


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