Atlas Shrugged: Part I, directed by Paul Johansson. Written by John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole. Starring Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Michael Lerner, Graham Beckel, and Paul Johansson. Released by Rocky Mountain Pictures. Rated PG-13 (for brief language and sensuality).
Although Ayn Rand published her epic novel Atlas Shrugged fifty-four years ago, and although it has consistently sold hundreds of thousands of copies annually, Rand’s magnum opus has spent decades mired in Hollywood “development hell.” Numerous producers, stars, screenwriters, and film production companies have endeavored but failed to execute a film version (see: “Atlas Shrugged’s Long Journey to the Silver Screen,” p. 35). All the while, fans of the novel have anxiously waited for the day when they could watch the story come to life on the silver screen. That day is finally here.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the first in a planned trilogy, should, for the most part, please the novel’s patient fans. Fortuitously following a blueprint similar to one outlined by Rand in the 1970s (see “Adapting Atlas: Ayn Rand’s own Approach,” p. 38), the film covers the first third of the story. Like the novel, the movie focuses on Dagny Taggart as she endeavors to save her struggling railroad from both intrusive government regulations and the mysterious John Galt, who is hastening the nation’s collapse by causing the great entrepreneurs and thinkers of the country to disappear. She is aided in her efforts by Henry “Hank” Rearden, a steel magnate who is also being squeezed by government regulations and is anxious to put an end to John Galt’s activities. Those familiar with the novel know generally what to expect: the disappearance of more and more industrialists and other great producers, the banning of Rearden Metal, the “Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Rule,” the initial run of the John Galt Line, and finally Wyatt’s Torch and the collapse of Colorado.
The film substantially delivers these parts. Each plot point is there, as is much of Rand’s dialogue sans most of the overt expressions of her philosophic viewpoint, which first-time feature director Paul Johansson does his best to illustrate instead through the actions of the characters and the events of the plot. For the most part, the script stays true to the novel while updating it in ways that do not blunt the power of Rand’s theme—no small feat.
Translating the book into a workable script has been the biggest obstacle facing producers for decades. This is an epic novel filled with big, complex ideas that have to be adapted in such a way that viewers—who may not be familiar with Rand’s work—will understand the plot and grasp the philosophic message conveyed thereby. Adding to the challenge of adapting the novel is the fact that certain elements of the book now have an anachronistic quality due in large part to technological advances and changing cultural mores since Atlas Shrugged’s 1957 publication. Although it is easy to add cell phones and drop cigarette-related subplots, it is impossible to change Dagny’s Taggart Transcontinental railroad into an airline or trucking firm—transportation methods that, since the 1950s, have mitigated the use of railroads—without ruining the story. Screenwriters John Aglialoro (who also produced the film) and Brian Patrick O’Toole solve the problem admirably by setting the film five years in the future, at a time when the Middle East is in crisis and America is on the brink of economic and social collapse. With truck and air transport crippled due to Middle East oil shortages, the burden of shipping and transportation returns to rail lines. The opening montage quickly and ingeniously establishes this new context—which is radically different than that of the novel—and provides those familiar with the source material with an indication of the script’s narrative efficiency.
This departure from the novel continues into the opening scene at a diner, in which a waitress asks a bum if he has money to pay for his order and he replies: “Who is John Galt?” To quickly show the relevance of this question to the storyline, Aglialoro and O’Toole take us outside the diner to follow banking magnate Midas Mulligan (Geoff Pierson), who is accosted by a shadowy, Bogart-esque stranger in a slouch hat and trench coat. After the stranger asks Mulligan a series of questions, we learn that the magnate has abandoned his business and disappeared. Although some fans of the novel might balk at such departures from the text, they serve to quickly establish the primary storyline of the film: Great producers, such as Mulligan, are disappearing for no apparent reason when the country is most in need of their ability.
Apart from these substantial alterations, Aglialoro and O’Toole generally stick with the overall arc of the first part of the novel, paring away its narrative scope and streamlining the story to its essence. The adaptation focuses primarily on Dagny’s and Rearden’s characterizations (illustrating the theme of egoism versus altruism), their efforts to stave off the country’s total collapse, and the plot elements surrounding these efforts. Less attention is given to subplots and to the development of secondary characters. For instance, Francisco d’Anconia (Jsu Garcia) comes across as a complete lout in Part I because the film lacks those great moments in which Rand provides intriguing clues that he may be more than he at first appears. The script also excises all of the flashbacks found in the novel, so we do not learn about the childhood relationship between Dagny, Francisco, and Dagny’s assistant, Eddie Willers. In fact, Eddie, a favorite of many of the novel’s fans, is reduced to the barest of supporting players, his contribution to the film being mainly to call Dagny and let her know how her brother, Taggart Transcontinental’s president, is trying to destroy the railroad. (The film contains none of Eddie’s memorable lunchroom scenes.) But, again, such omissions and alterations to the novel are necessary, given the medium, and serve admirably to keep the storyline focused on the essence of Rand’s plot. Overall, it is a good, lean adaptation.
Particular praise should go to stars Taylor Schilling (Dagny) and Grant Bowler (Rearden). The film is a showcase for them, and they execute their parts almost perfectly. Although the mostly unknown Schilling (a star of the short-lived television series Mercy) does not have the box office power of other stars who have been considered for Dagny, this works to her advantage. We have no expectations going into the film and are thus able to focus on her in the here and now as she portrays Dagny in a manner that is true to the novel. She is at once steely, energetic, and vulnerable. Schilling brings just the right amount of femininity to the role—making her both attractive to and intellectually equal to the male heroes, particularly Hank. Bowler is also quite good—particularly in portraying Hank’s rational self-interest. Among the scenes highlighting his expert handling of the part are those in which he and his friend and competitor, Paul Larkin (Patrick Fischler), discuss the state of the world, and a scene in which Hank has to relinquish several of his companies because of a government directive forbidding a person to own more than one business concern. But the film really sings when Bowler and Schilling share the screen. Their relationships—both business and, later, romantic—are intense and believable. They interact with easy give-and-take, and have a powerful chemistry that is exploited to good effect. In the scene in which they discover the abandoned static electricity motor, their reaction is highly charged—almost romantic. These are characters who love technology, discovery, and production, and when they find the motor together their joy is palpable.
Although the script and the acting by the leads are generally good, crucial aspects of the film unfortunately lack dramatic energy. For instance, in the novel, the building of the John Galt Line has a sense of urgency. Dagny must succeed not only to save her railroad, but also to rescue the industrialists of Colorado, the last economic powerhouse left in the country. There are a few scenes of Dagny building the line, but there is no energy here, no sense of racing the clock. This deficit undoubtedly is due, at least in part, to the television roots of director Paul Johansson, cinematographer Ross Berryman, and editors Jim Flynn and Sherril Schlesinger. Although the film is competently made in many respects, it largely lacks the epic scope and pacing that the material demands. Other factors contributing to this dearth include occasionally watered-down dialogue, a shortage of close-ups, flat rather than atmospheric lighting, and generally listless editing.
This lack of dramatic momentum is due also, in part, to moments of weak acting, even on the part of the otherwise laudable stars. Although Schilling and Bowler deliver many powerful scenes, they occasionally fail to meet the emotional and dramatic requirements of a scene. For instance, right before Dagny and Hank prepare to enter the train for the initial run of the John Galt Line, a reporter calls out “Who is John Galt?” It is a tense moment, with all of the antagonists watching the live news coverage, and everyone wondering whether Dagny has some insight on the significance of this catchphrase that she adopted as the name of her new rail line. She replies, “We are”—but without the confident, knowing, defiant countenance that would have made the scene. Schilling simply says the line, leaving informed viewers to provide the emotional content themselves and leaving those unfamiliar with the novel ignorant of the importance of this moment and its thematic meaning.
The lack of dramatic energy diminishes other important scenes as well. For instance, when Dagny meets briefly with Dr. Robert Stadler (Navid Negahban), the government’s top scientist and the biggest impediment to her ability to use the untested Rearden Metal for the John Galt Line, he tells her about his time as a professor and how his three brightest and favorite students went on to waste their lives, one by becoming a pirate (Ragnar Danneskjold), one by becoming a worthless playboy (Francisco d’Anconia), and one by vanishing into nameless anonymity (John Galt). But there is no pain in Stadler’s voice when he relates what is supposed to be a heart-wrenching story. He just says the lines.
(Other actors are simply miscast. Graham Beckel, who plays Ellis Wyatt, is too over-the-top and almost hysterical in some scenes and disconnected in others. Michael O’Keefe, who plays Hugh Akston, a philosophy professor who left academia to open a coffee shop [in the film], acts as if he is smoking something other than a cigarette in his single scene late in the film.)
Of course, the main reason that Atlas Shrugged has touched so many lives is that it is an epic story filled with profound events and ideas, and many of these are here and well-dramatized. Rearden and Dagny are proudly selfish and convey genuine independence, without appearing Nietzschean or arrogant. Unfortunately, however, the character who serves as the main transmission belt of Rand’s ideas, John Galt (Paul Johansson), comes off as ham-fisted at best. He typically walks up to entrepreneurs on a dark street or in an abandoned railroad station and abruptly begins asking them big, profound questions about productiveness and self-esteem—yet somehow immediately connects with these put-upon capitalist dynamos. At worst, the scenes with Galt seem tacked on; and because the ideas in them are presented in such an out-of-context, stream-of-consciousness way, it is likely that those who have never read the novel will find them strange and jarring, if not laughable.
Finally, some viewers will lament that the film, beyond the opening montage, does not effectively show the disintegration of American society due to the altruistic ideas and policies America has accepted. In the novel, Rand shows the practical implications of these ideas for everyone—the office worker who can no longer find parts for his typewriter, the tobacconist who laments that there are fewer and fewer cigarette manufacturers, the heirs of a failed company who must live with the bitter truth that Marx’s famous maxim is fatally flawed, and the businessmen who are forced to move down from the tops of their skyscrapers because the upper floors cannot be lighted or heated any longer. In the movie, however, beyond the opening montage and a passing reference to gasoline being $37.50 a gallon, there is little indication of the nation’s collapse.
But Atlas Shrugged: Part I is not the novel and it does not pretend to be. It is a fairly competently made, credible adaptation of one of the most complex novels ever written. Even with its flaws, the film is enjoyable and has wonderful moments, including some in which it captures the power of the novel—such as the party during which Dagny gets the Rearden Metal bracelet, the scene during which Hank hands over his ore mine to Paul Larkin, and the already mentioned scene during which Dagny and Hank discover the motor. Fans of Ayn Rand’s masterpiece likely will enjoy these scenes in particular and appreciate the movie generally. Those unfamiliar with the story will probably enjoy the movie as well and may find their curiosity sufficiently piqued to read the book. If so, they will be even more richly rewarded. All in all, Atlas Shrugged: Part I will be a satisfactory journey for many viewers and could help increase awareness of Rand’s work.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I is slated to open on April 15 in ten cities across the country. Additional distribution plans are still being developed and could include a campus tour or a pay-per-view event. (Conversation with Producer Harmon Kaslow at Atlas Shrugged: Part I screening, Culver City, California, February 24, 2011.)