Charles Petzold

The Lost Opportunity of the "Atlas Shrugged" Movie

May 27, 2011
Roscoe, N.Y.

I still have the $1.75 Signet paperback of Atlas Shrugged that I read sometime in the mid-1970s. Fortunately I was old enough to emerge from the experience without permanent scarring. By that time in my life I head read enough real literature to recognize the inferiority of Ayn Rand's cardboard characters and leaden prose. Regardless, there was no denying that in Atlas Shrugged she achieved a marvelous narrative drive with a skillful arrangement of toy soldiers in an epic battle between collectivist cretins and industrialist gods.

At the time I read Atlas Shrugged I also had no illusions about the grotesqueries of Ayn Rand's politics. I had even seen her on TV condemning Earth Day and celebrating pollution as a sign of a healthy triumphant capitalist economy! Forty years later, the Randians still hate Earth Day and are extremely active in the climate-change denialist movement.

Ayn Rand seemed to view capitalism as some kind of "natural" relationship between people, and believed it would surely flourish if only the goverrnment collectivists would keep their meddling hands out. In reality, of course, capitalism requires an elaborate infrastructure to prop it up, to smooth out its normal tendency to bubble and crash, and to ameliorate its brutality. Economic libertarians always remind me of someone touring a house who comments "You know, you'd have a lot more room in here if you got rid of all the beams and pillars."

More recently I read Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns for a book group I belonged to, and I discovered that Ayn Rand's whole Objectivist philosophy is premised on a shocking faith-based epistemological blunder that would surely have been avoided by anyone familiar with the 18th century British empiricists. This epistemological error has deep ramifications, and even causes Objectivists to reject fundamental 20th century scientific concepts, such as quantum mechanics.

In connection with reading Goddess of the Market, I also took the opportunity to watch the 1949 film of The Fountainhead again, and I enjoyed it immensely. Although most of the characters are simple-minded mouthpieces who espouse hopelessly absurd ideas simply for the purpose of being ridiculed, the two leads (Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal) bring real life to the story. The inventive sets and camera angles accentuate the architectural theme, and the elevator ride at the end is truly thrilling.

Could the same movie magic be applied to Atlas Shrugged?

Atlas Shrugged is a preposterous novel about how the government disrespects brilliant industrialists who invent magic metals and perpetual motion machines, and hence they go on strike until the world wakes up to their genius. But for many decades there was hope that Atlas Shrugged might get a first-class cinematic treatment and benefit in the same way as The Fountainhead with actual people fleshing out the flat characterizations of the novel.

By now, the story of the Atlas Shrugged movie is well known: Because movie-making is a profit-motivated yet collaborative enterprise, sometimes people can't quite come to a agreement about how to spend their money. In Hollywood, this is known as "development hell." With Atlas Shrugged it had gone on for so long that the movie rights were about to be lost, so businessman John Aglialoro quickly scraped together $20 million and shot Part 1.

Twenty million dollars is plenty of money to make a romantic comedy, or a romantic tragedy, or a family comedy, or a family drama, or a horror movie, or a suspense thriller, but it's not enough to make an epic. Suggesting that even the first third of Atlas Shrugged could be filmed for $20 million is akin to suggesting that Ayn Rand could have told the story of the novel in 200 pages.

Certainly $20 million was not enough to make a period piece set in the 1950s, but updating the film to the present was a real problem, because central to the plot was the romance of the railroad, and in today's poltical climate, only liberals still like railroads, so they had to set the film in the future and explain that, mumble, mumble, we now need railroads again.

The result is a ghastly plodding muddle of stock footage and wood-and-leather interiors, completely drained of emotion, with lines read blandly by actors whose fledgling TV careers are now threatened. The stock footage is so pervasive that in one scene I was startled to see the Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden characters actually standing next to an actual railroad and actual railroad tracks on which actual workmen seemed to be actually working, and then they walked halfway across an actual bridge! See for yourself:

It doesn't look like much, I know, but in the context of the rest of the movie, this scene qualifies as spectacularly breathtaking, like a glimpse of sunlight after being buried alive.

In the weeks leading up to the movie's release, we were also treated to an embarassing spectacle of the movie's official web site promoting a campaign to persuade theater-owners to violate their own profit-making instincts by altruistically allowing the movie to play at their theaters!

And then when the movie totally tanked, producer John Aglialoro — in a move that would have caused the real John Galt to die of shame — blamed the film critics for his own shoddy product and threatened to abort Parts 2 and 3.

I can't avoid thinking that an opportunity was lost here. Certainly with a budget of $20 million, you can't shoot an epic, but maybe there was another solution.

"OK, Charles," — I hear you saying — "You think you're so smart: How would you have filmed Atlas Shrugged for $20 million?"

Thank you for asking. I would have put out a call for non-professionals to come in and audition by reading monologues or dialogues from the novel. I suspect we'd get mostly incredibly enthusiastic fans of Atlas Shrugged of a variety of ages. From these auditions, I'd cast all the parts, arrange a shooting schedule, rent our a warehouse with a whole pile of props, and hire about half a dozen videographers to record the proceedings.

And then I'd shoot the whole novel — every single word — with all the video cameras going at once, with each character reading his or her own parts, and the narrative parts read by others. I'd let the actors themselves assemble their sets from the available props (and fake it for unavailable props), just like in a scene-study class in acting school, and I'd let them read right from the pages of the book with as much or as little interaction as they wanted. And then I'd take all the footage and edit it into something that would be a weird cross between a real movie and an audiobook, but certainly something more than a filmed table read.

How much time are we talking about? Well, the unabridged audiobook of Atlas Shrugged is 63 hours in length, but I suspect that when read by multiple characters, it would be rather longer. Let's guess a final movie 100 hours long. (Given that the word count of Atlas Shrugged is 645,000, that's about 100 words a minute, which is often cited as a comfortable rate for presentations.) If 2½ hours (or 15,000 words) could be shot per day, all shooting could be completed in 2 months.

I'm not sure how such a thing would be released. A 100-hour movie could be sold in a set of 25 DVDs, but wouldn't it be great to have theatrical showings of perhaps 12 hours a day with breaks for meals and sleep over 8 consecutive days? What a great way to spend spring break for a certain kind of college student!

Despite the artifice of the entire enterprise, I think such a movie would achieve much more authentic passion and feeling — and as a result, be much more real — than the travesty that John Aglialoro made. I can picture this thing in my head, and what I see are dedicated fans totally absorbed in the experience of living the parts of their favorite novel, interacting with each other in overwrought passionate dialogue, holding their tattered copies of the Atlas Shrugged paperback as talismans, tears streaming down their faces, in the happiest moments of their lives.

It probably wouldn't be art, but at least it would be interesting.