Directed by Paul Johansson
There was some excitement on the right earlier this spring as the movie version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—or rather, the movie version of the first third of Rand’s behemoth novel-cum-lecture from 1957—approached its release. The film, made on a modest budget by a first-time director and no-name cast and paid for by a passionate Libertarian businessman, wasn’t sold to them as a gripping yarn or a crackerjack dystopian thriller. Rather, it was marketed almost exclusively as a cultural watermark.
You weren’t supposed to buy a ticket to Atlas Shrugged because you wanted an evening’s entertainment. You should buy a ticket to send a message—a message to Hollywood about making entertainments palatable to conservatives, to liberals about their dogmatic refusal to accept the power and popularity of Rand’s anti-statist ideas, and to Washington politicians who have allowed the government to balloon in size over the past decade.
The marketing team for Atlas Shrugged had the idea that it could turn the movie into a Tea Party version of Fahrenheit 9/11, the Michael Moore screed that caught the wave of anti-Bush hysteria in 2004 and went on to gross an unimaginable $222 million against a budget of $6 million—by leagues the most successful nonfiction film ever made. In one of the most brilliant promotional gambits ever devised, Moore managed to turn the purchase of a ducat to Fahrenheit 9/11 into a substitute ballot, a cultural vote against George W. Bush.
But that wasn’t the only reason for its success. Fahrenheit 9/11 was, to some extent, a perfectly realized piece of work. It both reflected and epitomized the attitude of its audience toward George W. Bush with its depiction of its villain as a moron Machiavel—and with its sniggering humor congratulated its viewers on their utter superiority to the buffoons who bought Bush’s bilge. It’s a hateful piece of work, but undeniably effective.
You can’t say the same of Atlas Shrugged, to put it mildly. Whatever one might think of Ayn Rand as a philosopher, she had a propulsive sense of story, and her book is an amazing mash-up of dystopian science fiction, conspiracy mystery, and political thriller. It is also unquestionable that Hollywood’s refusal thus far to bring Atlas Shrugged to the big or small screen has long been a mark of its cultural blindness. The book has sold over 7 million copies since its publication and continues to sell more than 100,000 copies a year. If any piece of fiction published over the past half-century in America could be said to have proved itself as a mass-culture favorite, Atlas Shrugged can.
The movie could never have been a mass-culture favorite. Indeed, its box-office receipts tapered off significantly after the first weekend once people got a real sense of it and discovered that it was not actually an adaptation of Atlas Shrugged but rather something like the pilot for an unmade Atlas Shrugged miniseries. Since it covers only the first third of the novel—in which Rand sets up her characters and her plot but doesn’t show you where it’s all going—the movie version is all wind-up and no delivery. If you know the novel, it is unsatisfying. If you don’t know the novel, you will leave the theater baffled and angry.
It doesn’t even get to the crux of Rand’s conceit: the existence of a libertarian utopia to which all the great men of society are exiling themselves to live as free men rather than surrender the fruits of their labors to a statist tyranny. We see the men disappearing, but we don’t know where. And just as we’re about to find out, it ends.
The miracle of this modest venture—which was put into production so that its producer could retain the rights to the property—is that it is at all watchable. And the reason for it has nothing to do with Rand’s political or social message. Director Paul Johansson and screenwriters John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O’Toole did one very interesting thing: They figured out how to set the movie in the present, or near present, while effectively retaining the book’s midcentury spirit through the use of old-fashioned settings, clothing, and slightly formal dialogue.
This approach turns Atlas Shrugged into a strangely fascinating update of those stilted but glamorous 1950s/60s movies about rich people you can see on Turner Classic Movies—those adaptations of big, sodden novels of Rand’s day like Youngblood Hawke and Parrish and Written on the Wind. And in so doing, the filmmakers have revealed a core truth about Ayn Rand without meaning to: Rand may have fancied herself a visionary truth-teller, but in the end, her masterpiece is really just the greatest drugstore paperback of all time. And the only quality that makes this new Atlas Shrugged worthwhile is its odd invocation of those kinds of junky but irresistible books and the junky but irresistible movies made from them.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.