Atlas Died

I saw the movie of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 last evening, and found it flat and dull. I was bored and depressed by it. Whatever life and meaning, brilliance and originality, is in the novel (along with its huge flaws), is not in the movie. The movie rushes with breathless speed and in rote fashion through the incidents of the book, leaving unexpressed their dramatic and intellectual core. It’s a cinematic Cliff Notes.

I’m not saying the film is worthless. Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart has an openness and responsiveness in her eyes, especially during her encounters with the evil looters, that add to that character’s humanity, and Grant Bowler captures the strength and hardness and also occasionally the bewilderment of Rand’s flawed hero Henry Rearden. But the other major character in Part 1, the all-round genius and prodigy Francisco D’Anconia, is reduced to a messy-haired non-entity. Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 remains a sketch of a movie, not a real movie.

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Dan K. writes:

You wrote: “It’s a cinematic Cliff Notes.”

Exactly! And that is exactly what is now needed.

Lawrence you are a very bright, possibly genius level, well educated, no, super educated, literate, extremely well read man and have standards shared by a splinter of this nation’s population. What would attract you has nothing in common with the 99 percent or more of the rest of the country. “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1” is meant for them and as things deteriorate the movie will, I am certain, resonate with their less capable minds to reject Socialism. The movie is a brilliant INTRODUCTION to Rand’s concepts served up in a “fast food” meal instead of the “20 course tasting menu with carefully paired wines” dining extravaganza favored by you. Accept the movie for what it is and promote its dissemination during this time of troubles.

LA replies:

I have a B.A. from the University of Colorado. The pulse of America beats in my veins.

A reader writes:


A correspondent who is not a fan of Rand and has only read parts of Atlas Shrugged, but who likes the movie, writes:

Dan K. has a good point!

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

I haven’t seen the new Atlas Shrugged movie and I feel no calling to see it. Based partly on your remarks and partly on intuition (I know Rand’s novel well and have written about it), I can address the film’s failure. Even in Shakespeare’s tragedies one finds abundant comedy; even one of Dostoevsky’s novels, like The Brothers Karamazov, offers alleviation now and then from its obstinate delving in the dark depths of the human soul. Outbursts of humor and irony in the direst of situations affirm something for which Rand had a name—precisely a sense of life—but which regrettably she did not have. Rand’s novelistic esthetic excludes any mixing of the humorous with the serious, which is to say that it excludes the actual representation of life, which is a mixture of the deadly serious and the absurd and everything in between. Rand’s view is nihilistic. When Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden ride in the locomotive on the new Galt Line, Dagny at one moment explicitly disavows spiritual exaltation. For her, for Rand, matter is all.

Consistent with this is the novel’s dim view of pregnancy—which is, after all, the continuation of life. There is a moment, when Dagny and Rearden are searching for the inventor of the motor, when they ask directions at a run-down shack in the ruins of a mostly abandoned town in the rust belt. A pregnant, barefoot woman is unable to respond to them articulately. She symbolizes the de-civilization that Rand is keen to depict. Much later—it sounds absurd in the description, but it is there in the novel—Dagny prepares scrambled eggs for Galt. [LA replies: In one scene Galt prepares eggs and bacon for Dagny and himself; I don’t remember a scene where Dagny prepares eggs for Galt.] There are many inadvertent divulgences in Atlas Shrugged of Rand’s essentially anti-vital outlook, which she disguised under her false claim to possess that sense of life. The point is that these divulgences are inadvertent. We can laugh at them, but she did not intend us to laugh at them. What are the Prometheans going to do in their Colorado gulch? Tinker with machines, I suppose, until, old and sterile, they drop dead one by one, and no one buries the last.

Rand’s contempt for pregnancy was consistent throughout her life. In a speech at Boston’s Faneuil Hall in 1979 or ‘80, she repudiated Ronald Reagan explicitly because of his commitment to restrict the legalization and normalization of abortion.

Rand was a competent critic of liberal “psycho-epistemology,” as she called it, but she had nothing positive to put in its place. I do not count her cult of selfishness as something positive.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

On her first morning in the valley in Colorado, Dagny prepares scrambled eggs for Galt. She intends them to be the best scrambled eggs ever. (I omit quotation marks, but I’m sure the wording is close to Rand’s.) Earlier in the book, at a restaurant run by the ex-philosophy professor Hugh Akston, Dagny eats the best hamburger ever. Even Nietzsche had a senes of humor.

LA replies:

What do you mean, even Nietzsche had a sense of humor. Nietzsche is famous for his sense of humor.

In any case, this is irritating, because I threw out my paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged a few months ago as it was falling apart, and now I don’t have a copy to check these passages. Dagny does say that Hugh Akston’s hamburger is the best she has ever tasted. I don’t think she says that she intends the eggs she prepares at Galt’s cabin to be the best ever; but she does devote herself to the cooking and other domestic tasks that she does for Galt, like fixing his shirts, and everything about their relationship during her month’s stay with him is intended to suggest a marriage-type relationship.

Dan K. writes:

You wrote: “I have a B.A. from the University of Colorado. The pulse of America beats in my veins.”

Your modesty becomes you. I said nothing about college and university certifications which in my opinion amount to mere training or more likely indoctrination. My wife has a Ph.D. in a science from an Ivy and in over 40 years she has never expressed an interest reading any Rand even though I have urged her to and she has seen an entire shelf of Rand’s oeuvre for the past 20 years displayed eye level every time she descends the stairs to our finished basement. She never heard of Rand in her years in college and graduate school and nothing I have said about Rand’s ideas ever gave her a nudge to read anything on that shelf. However, two days ago I took her to see Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. She was enthralled. After leaving the theater and while having supper at a restaurant she talked and talked about how the story line was “just like today’s headlines and politicians.” The next day I overheard her talking on the phone to a friend who is a local coordinator for the Tea Party Express about the movie. After the conversation, my wife said that her friend had not ever heard about Rand, the book Atlas Shrugged, or the movie. She asked me to find if I could a “short summary” of Rand’s thoughts and the gist of the movie. (I did find two articles from the Ludwig von Mises Institute for my wife to send to her friend but my wife said that they were too long. Ah, she knows her friend who, I believe, is a retired school teacher.)

As to me, I spent the better part of nine years at the same Ivy including my terminal degree and one of two post doctoral degrees but I was not educated there, I was trained. What limited education I have has mostly come by reading on my own and following intellectual threads to their sources. Perhaps college was the initiation of my education but clearly self directed study has been more important in my limited case. I suspect you also are an autodidact, so have perfected what you had learned in college and added innumerable amounts of knowledge since.

However you did it, I applaud your erudition and intellectual courage, honesty and ceaseless drive. I wish more of America could have the same pulse as you. We would not be in the fix we are in were that the case.

LA replies:

Thank you. :-)

Also, your wife’s reaction is similar to that of the correspondent I quoted above, who has not read Atlas Shrugged except for a few sections, and has never been a Rand fan, yet liked the movie quite a lot.

Thomas Bertonneau replies:
Yes, Nietzsche indeed had a sense of irony and of humor (as a follower of Socrates, which he was despite his protestations, how could he not have?); but there is something relentless about Nietzsche’s critique of all received wisdom that impresses me as contrary to the principle of irony. Unless, of course, that relentless critique was intended ironically. I prefer Kierkegaard to Nietzsche (not that I don’t admire Nietzsche). Kierkegaard argued that irony, while it might have been invented by Socrates, was perfected under the Gospel. Let the Randians get their minds around that! Once, ages ago, when Saturday Night Live was still humorous, Dan Ayckroyd voiced a fake commercial advertisement for “Kierke-Guard, the Deodorant of Danish Philosophers.”

LA replies:

“Kierkegaard argued that irony, while it might have been invented by Socrates, was perfected under the Gospel.”

Did he explain what he meant by that?

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

Your remark about my remark about Nietzsche reminds me that the Nietzsche-topic communicates with the Rand-topic in surprising ways. Russia “received” Nietzsche in the 1890s and again in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Among the outstanding Russian Nietzscheans were—Ayn Rand, for one, and Nicolas Berdyaev, for another. Rand, who in her published remarks nastily repudiated Nietzsche, nevertheless was dependent on him for his elevation of the Will to Power to a metaphysical principle. This is how I read Atlas Shrugged. But the Will to Power was the only thing that Rand took from Nietzsche, whereas Berdyaev cannily saw that much in Nietzsche was far from incompatible with the Gospel. Berdyaev’s philosophical career can be understood as a quest to reconcile Nietzsche with the Gospel. Berdyaev (who might have benefited from an additional smidgen of humor) fully understood Nietzsche’s fragment on the madman who declares the death of God, which few commentators do. When Nietzsche has his madman say that God is dead because we have killed him, he is at one with the Gospel. Also, in Nietzsche (Berdyaev remarks on this), the “Death of God” is profoundly ambiguous. God is dead for certain people, for a civilization; but this is not the same thing as the categorical declaration that God is dead. But now we are back in the territory of irony, and I should like to watch the last ten minutes of the rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a TV drama that, despite its ornamental gestures to liberalism, is really and constructively about a bunch of enthusiastic Americans (mostly men) who build gigantic starships for exploring the universe. Now there’s the sense of life.

April 26

Kilroy M. writes from Australia:

All the recent talk about Rand’s book and its conversion onto the silver screen enticed me to purchase a copy of Atlas Shrugged the other week. Randianism never appealed to me, although I was constantly surrounded by what I can only describe as her gen-X “groupies” at university (they constituted almost the entire non-socialist student network). They kept pushing her work onto me but I was repelled by it after reading her “Conservatism: an Obituary” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Her understanding of the conservative worldview is nothing short of retarded. She is as revolutionary in her hatred of tradition as the most ardent campus Trotskyist. This view, which I never shied from publishing to any libertarian who cared to listen, quickly earned me the title of “authoritarian right winger” on campus. It was a lonely existence, but I don’t regret it. I always felt good about not falling into the cult-like borg in which Rand’s followers seemed to live. Ironically, it was these fanatical proponents of unbridled individualism that seemed to be the most conventional and boring lot, but I digress.

I have only read the first couple of chapters in Atlas Shrugged and already I encounter something like this: “he despised causeless affection, just as he despised unearned wealth.” Here Rearden is talking about his family, which is by no means flawless, but try extrapolating an ethical system based on this thought-bubble alone and you will construct a world no human being would endure for long. Rand is the prophetess of a hyper-rationalist, impersonal dystopia.

I look forward to seeing the movie nonetheless; if it has inspired a powerful backlash against the statism being pushed by your present federal government, there must be some value to it. The only caution is that it should never be seen as a comprehensive philosophy.

April 28

Paul K. writes:

A friend who is a real “Atlas Shrugged” fan sent me this review of the movie. I thought you might be interested.

I saw it at the closest theater’s first showing today. Well, the first after the 12:01 am showing. I made up one sixth of the audience. I didn’t think it was that bad, but could have been better. I had my expectations set really low. I was both anticipating it and dreading it.

When I told the ticket sales girl what I wanted a ticket for, she said “I’m going to have to see that. So many people are talking about it … but the only people talking about it are ones who read the book.” That’s probably good, because those are the only ones who will get the full effect.

Sure, people who have not read the book will get the general idea from the movie, but will also miss out on a lot. I know everybody says that about every movie, but I think a non-reader would really be in the dark on a lot of it. A little more dialogue, just telling who some of the characters were would help them immensely. When you have four people sitting around a table in a restaurant planning government limits on steel production, it would help to know that one of the people is the owner of a steel mill who stood to gain and another one is the lobbyist for his competitor who would be hurt from it. As it was, it could almost have been any four guys talking over current events. Later, the … um … employee’s betrayal (trying not to spoil any of it for anyone) was nearly meaningless if anyone noticed at all.

For another example, they made it known that Dagny’s new line needed Wyatt Oil and vice versa, but I don’t think it was stressed enough that it was almost certain life or death for both companies, especially Dagny’s. Because of that, the climax might have some wondering why it was such a big deal to her.

The big jewelry swap between the two women was almost pointless without knowing the entire story.

More content would have helped. It was like a movie made off the Cliff Notes version. If it had been 3.5 hours long, I could see the need to keep it trimmed down. Yet it was not much over 1.5 hours so I don’t see the reason for it (they call it 1:42, but I had the actual run time almost ten minutes less). Another five to ten minutes of setup and background information sprinkled in here and there would help non-readers a lot, and would not have made it too long.

To the good … I thought it was going to look like it was made on a shoestring, but it was a lot better than I expected. The scenes in limousines or conference rooms looked like they were shot in the same set regardless of where they were supposed to be, but most people would never notice.

I like the cast for the most part. Yes, they seemed stiff, but they are stiff people in the book. Most of the cast matched the images I had of the characters, both in appearance and personality, I thought Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden was just about dead on as to how I had him pictured. I’d put Schilling/Dagny at about 90% accurate, which was better than I would have expected and beats anyone else I heard was in the running like Angelina Jolie. In the book, I saw Francisco D’Anconia as a guy who, no matter how hard he tried, couldn’t quite hide his intelligence. He could act like a goof all he wanted, but you knew he was up to something that took a lot of brains. This guy in the movie … no. The one I thought they missed by a mile was the actor playing Hugh Akston. Maybe I need to read it again. but I remember him as an older, regal acting gent who Dagny had a hard time dragging anything out of, and not a smart mouthed guy who used to be on “Rosanne”. Jim Taggart was easy to dislike, that’s for sure.

It was nice to see the blue-green Rearden Metal rails stretching out and that bridge that didn’t look like it would support a train, even if that train didn’t look to be traveling a third as fast as they claimed. But couldn’t they have done a better job on the world-changing invention found at the automobile factory so it didn’t look like part of a third grader’s spaceman costume?

I don’t see it as changing anyone’s life, that’s for sure. I guess I see it as a companion, or visual aid, to the book perhaps and am glad I saw it but won’t be dragging people off to it in order to “illuminate” them. Maybe it’s like the color edition of “Art of the Rifle”: nothing materially to add but something pretty good to look at.

Mark P. writes:

I also saw the AS movie. I actually like it very much.

It was probably a good thing that they did not go too deeply into the philosophy of the book. The scene where Dabny and Henry were commenting on the atmospheric engine company in Wisconsin was a little painfully forced.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 25, 2011 02:25 PM | Send

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