Sunday, May 1, 2011

Movies: Atlas Shrugged, Part I

Talk of an Atlas Shrugged movie has gone on for decades. I had always hoped that it wouldn’t get made because, for one thing, I didn’t think any movie could do this particular book – which I first read in 1968 - justice. It is at once an action novel and a philosophic treatise; not just any treatise, but one that challenges convention at the deepest and at multiple levels, from ethics to love to psychology to economics to politics and more. It is literally a book that requires extensive study.

On another level, I had always feared that Atlas Shrugged in the wrong Hollywood hands would distort and undermine the important things Ayn Rand had to say. Agree or not, Rand desperately needs to be honestly and objectively understood and debated. What she had to say is, in my mind, of great importance both historically and for the future of mankind.

To be sure, a bad movie could never derail ideas, even if it sets them back for a while. In their more than half a century long effort to defeat her, Ayn Rand’s critics of Left and Right have given us almost exclusively a steady barrage of lies and distortions, continuing at an accelerating pace to this day. Yet, they could not stop the expanding (though still limited) penetration of Objectivist ideas into the culture. A distortive movie would be no more successful. Ideas cannot be defeated except by confronting them openly and by means of better ideas. Nonetheless, a bad portrayal of Atlas would make the job of we Objectivist activists a lot harder.

Well, I’ve just seen the movie Atlas Shrugged – part I. Someone said that the movie and the novel each stand on their own, because the movie version of the story is, as the screen says at the end, "based on the novel by Ayn Rand". Considering that the movie was rushed into production, on a low budget, just before the movie rights lapsed, it wasn’t bad. But the fact is the movie is only very shallowly based on the novel. It deals with the political aspect of government controls vs. free markets, which is not the main theme of the novel.

So, the movie does not do justice to the book. On the other hand, it does not damage Rand’s message such as it deals with.

Having gotten my worst fears out of the way early on, I am pleased to say that I enjoyed the movie. It was a pleasant surprise not so much because it was as good depiction of the book – it is not – but because what it does tackle is depicted correctly. Aside from the many omissions – understandable maybe, given the novel’s length, but still a disappointment – the movie remained essentially true to the novel’s political message. Of course the political message – that economic freedom rather than central government planning is the path to prosperity – is the most superficial of Rand’s messages. The case for economic freedom has been thoroughly demonstrated in practice and in theory. On a practical level, that debate is over. One of the deeper themes in the novel is to answer the question, “If capitalism is so successful, why does statism keep winning, even in America?” The deeper answers are only vaguely hinted at in the movie, at least in this first part of the trilogy.

The movie did not drill down into the wide philosophical depth of the book. Not even close. Nor did it even begin to capture the depth of the characters, their conflicts, motivations, or passions. In these respects, it was very shallow. But the movie was engaging from start to finish, and I couldn’t believe how fast the hour and forty-two minutes went.

It’s questionable whether even the political message really got through to those unfamiliar with the novel or Rand’s ideas. For example, the connection between the actions of the political class and the disappearance of one after another prominent figures seemed blurry to me, at best. As an Objectivist and three-time reader of Atlas Shrugged, I of course “got it”. But I’m not sure the casual viewer does. Of course, this is part one of a trilogy. Perhaps the producers will do a better job of bringing it all together in Parts II and III.

No one is going to walk out of the theater with the sense that age-old ideas, especially moral ideas, have been challenged to the core. No one is going to exit the theater thinking about the role of human intelligence in human affairs, which was Rand’s main theme. The movie is simply way too incoherent for that. The best that can be said is that Rand’s revolutionary ideas sustained no harm, and that sales of Atlas Shrugged and her other works could well be stimulated. On its own, the movie will do nothing to change the debate. Not directly. Indirectly, quite possibly. To the extent that the movie inspires people unfamiliar with Ayn Rand to investigate and debate her ideas, the movie will have been influential.

In short, to me as an Objectivist, the movie is both a relief and a disappointment, even though as a “stand alone” production I enjoyed it. (I know, I sound contradictory here. Perhaps that’s a reflection of my very mixed feelings about the movie.) Perhaps parts II and III will offer partial redemption. Then again, this first big screen Atlas may not be the last. A much more serious attempt may eventually surface. “Al Ruddy, the charismatic producer of The Godfather (and a Democrat)”, writes the NY Times Leftist Maureen Dowd, “thinks the story will have a second life with stars. 'Atlas Shrugged is the most important novel of the 20th century,’ Ruddy says, ‘It will rise again.’ ”.

Which means, maybe my relief is premature. But for now, I’ll leave my worrying about a Democrat-produced Atlas for some future time, and simply recommend that people see the movie … and then read the novel and learn about the Objectivist philosophy that grew out of it.

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