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Atlas Shrugs Off an Opportunity, Alienates Viewers

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Most Americans will find Ayn Rand’s worldview distasteful, immoral, and absurd.

Few mainstream movies celebrate business owners and entrepreneurs. Indeed, as Jay Richards has written on these pages, “Survey novels, plays, and movies with business people as characters. Ordinarily, those characters are the villains, not the heroes.” Though he and Michael Auslin later followed up with scattered suggestions, the trend holds strong.

Contra this Hollywood tendency, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 will pierce theaters on April 15, 2011, in a strong adaptation of her popular novel glorifying the innovative, productive individual. Part 2 is slated for 2012, and Part 3 for 2013.

“Creative people, the ones [studios] empower to make movies, are the ones for the most part not familiar with the book or who despise its philosophy,” producer Harmon Kaslow said in an interview.

The Audience for Objectivism

Atlas Shrugged has several cultural tradewinds blowing in its favor. For one, despite Hollywood’s lack of fare to serve this interest, Americans like entrepreneurs. Polls confirm that Americans hold hugely positive views of small business, entrepreneurs, and capitalism: 95, 84, and 61 percent, respectively, view these positively in Gallup’s latest poll, for example. So pro-entrepreneur plots have a large potential audience.

The vision undergirding Atlas Shrugged ultimately alienates viewers from the consumer-oriented, selfishness-curbing benefits at the very heart of American free enterprise.

Rand’s novel has captured this audience for decades. Back in 1991, a joint survey by the Library of Congress and Book of the Month Club dubbed Atlas Shrugged the “second most influential book for Americans today,” after the Bible. Since the financial crisis hit in 2008, Atlas Shrugged sales have surged. In 2009, the book sold half a million copies, and more than 7 million copies have sold since it published in 1957. The book is No. 2 on Amazon’s bestseller list for political fiction and No. 2 for classic fiction.

Another tradewind: Americans doubt that activist government measures such as the stimulus have done much to ameliorate the recent recession, and are increasingly wary of government regulation.

Atlas Shrugged: The Movie

Into this climate steps the steely Rand via her heroine, Dagny Taggart. Taggart runs Taggart Transcontinental, a train line central to American transportation because oil shocks and world disasters have destroyed road and air shipping. When a train running through Colorado derails, Taggart must navigate crippling federal regulations while attempting to rebuild the track. She puts her trust and money in a new metal invented by Hank Rearden, and the two battle inside and out against legislators, business partners, and family members sponging off Taggart and Rearden’s hard work and ingenuity. Rearden and Taggart also attempt to track the inventor of a new type of super-efficient engine.

Despite Hollywood’s lack of fare to serve this interest, Americans like entrepreneurs.

At the same time, the world’s brilliant businessmen and inventors keep disappearing after whispering the repeated phrase, “Who is John Galt?” The film (part one of a trilogy) ends in a fiery climax as one of Taggart’s new business partners abruptly vanishes amid explosions lighting his Colorado oil wells.

The movie version of Atlas Shrugged has been held up for years due to concerns from her estate and those who bought the movie rights about keeping the screenplay on message. Indeed, Rand was writing her own adaptation of Atlas Shrugged at her death in 1982 because the film of another of her books, The Fountainhead, did not ultimately fit her vision and frustrated her. And concerns about ideological purity have also precluded Angelina Jolie and other A-listers from taking the lead role, as such top-tier actresses demand and get influence over the script, casting, and other creative aspects of movies.

“What guided me was having the words and the meaning be philosophically pure. 100 percent. No compromise to the greatest of my ability. Have the approved script, have the words philosophically make sense according to Ayn Rand,” said the movie’s producer and financial backer John Aglialoro.

Ayn Rand appeals to the natural and highly American intolerance of abused authority; but she locates a replacement authority inside the individual himself, stripping away any mediating institutions, deity, or natural law.

Refusing a philosophical compromise on the book’s message makes the script and its performance, in some scenes, as unconvincing as the book. For example, [spoiler alert!] as Taggart and Rearden successfully drive their first train on the rebuilt Colorado line, the music builds as they forge westward, Taggart tears up slightly, and the two are overjoyed when they finally arrive in the western United States with no trouble from Rearden’s “untested” metal tracks. Many movies pivot on scenes of emotional triumph, but most moviegoers will find it difficult to find great sympathy at an impersonal scene of mechanical victory. Though the movie has decent technical quality and the acting and settings are generally vivid and believable, sticking rigidly to Rand’s message has, more than anything, underlaid the movie with cold, inhuman steel—as if Rearden’s metal, and not blood, runs through Atlas Shrugged’s veins.

Ayn Rand: The Philosopher

Rand’s fiction illustrated and glorified her philosophy, a set of ideas she named Objectivism. The basic tenets, as she described them in 1962: a metaphysics of objective reality, an epistemology of reason, an ethics of self-interest, and a politics of capitalism.

Ayn Rand preaches innovation, creativity of thought and expression, self-direction, and the overruling demands of Nietzschean super-geniuses. But she never allowed deviation from her rules and preferences among her followers.

Rand attacks both liberals and conservatives (take, for example, her speech, “Conservatism: An Obituary”); but it’s her attack on conservatism that’s worth visiting here, since it’s so out of touch with the American character. She appeals to the natural and highly American intolerance of abused authority; but she locates a replacement authority inside the individual himself, stripping away any mediating institutions, deity, or natural law. Man becomes his own measure; yet somehow never disintegrates in her fiction the way he does so often when adopting this mentality in real life.

This Rand hallmark makes her extremely attractive to young people and those whom government has abused or burdened. Rand is an intellectual Siren; she attracts travelers with the sweet songs of freedom, individual responsibility, and creativity; yet her narrow worldview in the end also hacks these ideals to bits.

The case against Rand was perhaps most forcefully made by Whittaker Chambers in National Review in 1957. Benjamin Wiker makes a more recent, and more biographical, case against her in chapter 15 of his recent 10 Books Every Conservative Must Read. And AEI’s own Charles Murray discussed her relative merits and demerits in the context of two excellent new Rand biographies in the Claremont Review of Books.

Rand’s philosophy is solipsist: since, for consistency if nothing else, man must have guiding principles, institutions, or ideas, she removes all others and places herself in their stead. Rand preaches innovation, creativity of thought and expression, self-direction, and the overruling demands of Nietzschean super-geniuses. But she never allowed deviation from her rules and preferences among her followers, even to the most minuscule instances. She liked Chopin and disliked Bach; therefore for anyone else to enjoy Bach indicated mental weakness. She wanted to have an affair with Nathaniel Branden, a married man; therefore, it was rational for her to do so and destroy his marriage and wife.

Concerns about ideological purity have precluded Angelina Jolie and other A-listers from taking the lead role in Atlas Shrugged.

This mode of living she celebrated as exemplifying the “virtue” of selfishness. As she said, “My personal life is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence: And I mean it.” If anything, her life and novels as illustrations of and promotions for her philosophy illustrate exactly the dangers and shortcomings of Objectivism, not just personally, but morally, and for society. Perhaps Rand didn’t care for society, except of her own making—that’s probably why her geniuses in Atlas Shrugged withdraw to a secluded mountain to let the rest of humanity crumble under its own weight. But most Americans, as human beings and citizens with a national heritage of voluntary community resourcefulness and charity, would find this not only distasteful, but immoral and absurd.

Back to the Big Screen

At times Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 strikes sound and timely notes. When Taggart meets a union representative, he tells her his members will not run trains without raises, want better working conditions, and don’t want to use Rearden’s metal. At this point, the company is straining for money and needs the metal to survive. She snaps back: "You want me to provide the jobs and you want to make it impossible for me to have any jobs to provide?"

Excited by this, Tea Party-influenced and other grassroots conservative groups have expanded the number of theaters and markets where Atlas Shrugged will open on April 15 (yes, Tax Day, and deliberately) from 11 cities to more than 100 and counting. They believe a movie with anti-government, pro-enterprise themes will appeal to a broader audience than Hollywood.

So the unfortunate part of this tale is that finally a pro-enterprise, pro-individual movie based on a bestselling book comes to market using serious actors and production; yet the vision undergirding it ultimately alienates viewers from the consumer-oriented, selfishness-curbing benefits at the very heart of American free enterprise.

Joy Pullmann is assistant editor of THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Pullmann also wrote “The Homeschool Movement’s German Lesson.” Jay Richards discusses Ayn Rand in “The Miser versus the Entrepreneur” and “Greed Is Not Good, and It’s Not Capitalism.” AEI hosted an event titled “Can Christians Be Capitalists?” and Steven Hayward writes of Rand in “Reading Up on the Right.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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