You are standing in a gallery with another critic before two paintings hung side by side, one by William-Adolphe Bouguereau and one by Pablo Picasso. Let us say they are Bouguereau’s Idylle (1851), and Picasso’s La Vie (1903). You both agree that the Bouguereau is a fine painting, depicting two lovers in a classical setting, the young man seated on the ground, looking up with adoration at the young woman. His hands clasp her legs possessively; she glances down at him in worship. Their glances are obviously fixed on each other. Everything in the painting works because the colors, the anatomy, the composition, the theme are integrated. You can enjoy the painting, even be inspired by it, and want to own it, without having to analyze it. Your introspection gives it a “10.” You accept it as a completed entity, without the necessity of dissecting its attributes. You explain in detail these virtues to the other critic, but he merely grunts in agreement.
The Picasso painting is a “Blue Period” monochrome that initially is repulsive, and on inspection is depressing. Aside from the annoying blue, the figures in it are anatomically impossible, none of figures or the four groups is thematically connected to any of the others, and the malevolence of the picture telegraphs itself from across the gallery. The whole work seems to be an arbitrary jumble of random figures that just happen to be on the same canvas. The composition is erratic and happenstance. Its theme is the futility of existence. The figures could just as well be inanimate objects or a menagerie of zoo animals. It doesn’t matter.
You state that La Vie is not merely bad, incompetently done art; it was perhaps deliberately intended to be such. The other critic defends the painting with some emotion, claiming that while there are flaws in the anatomy and composition, and other lapses and errors one might object to on mere technical grounds, they aren’t important, and so one really had no justification to judge the painting so negatively. The figures are recognizable, and there seems to be a theme, though he cannot quite put his finger on it, but denies it is the futility of existence. And how would we know that Picasso was an incompetent artist with nothing of value to say? Besides, he says, if this painting were by chance seen by someone uneducated in art, he might move on to appreciate the Bouguereau.
You walk away, shaking your head. You don’t know what else to say to the other critic, but you sense that whatever else you said, would be taken as offensive.
That is the situation I find myself in regarding John Aglialoro’s film, “Atlas Shrugged, Part I.”
The rebranding of that movie as a defensible work of art by writers who form an ad hoc but wishful consensus to give a disastrous cinematic rendition of Ayn Rand’s monumental novel, Atlas Shrugged, a passing mark has produced some curious reviews. That rebranding calls into question not only the critical skills of those writers, but their understanding of and dedication to reason and Romantic art. The latest of these defenses is C.A. Wolski’s review of the movie in the Spring edition of The Objective Standard.
This rebuttal is by no means exhaustive. Readers of this blog know what I think of the movie. There are numerous assertions in Wolski’s article that need correction, and this rebuttal will focus only on the most flagrantly egregious ones. But while I wish the movie to fade into the periphery of my concerns – there are, after all, more pressing battles to fight – my esteem for Rand’s novel is too high and too personal to allow his article to stand unanswered.
I could have begun instead with a comparison of the Atlas movie with another that I used in my previous commentary, “Judgment at Nuremberg.” But I decided that a comparison of two paintings and two judgments of them would more simply dramatize the issue. Comparing “Judgment at Nuremberg” with the Atlas movie would be like using a flamethrower to extinguish a nest of termites. Hardly fair.
Where to start? It would be appropriate to begin with Wolski’s companion article in The Objective Standard, “Atlas Shrugged’s Long Journey to the Silver Screen,” which is an account of all the attempts to produce a feasible script of the novel, including Rand’s own attempts. In that respect, it is an informative article. But, in a boxed sidebar in the article, “Adapting Atlas: Ayn Rand’s Own Approach,” Wolski writes that Rand made changes in the novel’s dialogue and events, and omitted and created new material. For example, he notes:
Rand also introduces the idea of extensive television news coverage—absent in the novel—reporting on the country’s rejection of Rearden Metal and visually depicting the collapse of industry. Where necessary, she wrote new dialogue that presented the theme more overtly, for instance changing the opening by adding new lines that explained the meaning of the giant calendar and that featured the bum telling Eddie, who expresses unease about it, “your days are numbered.”
Wolski cites other changes Rand made in especially her last script. He feels it necessary to crack the knuckles of those who would object to such changes by suggesting that even “purists” would not like the changes she made. But the sidebar’s function is an obvious attempt to excuse Aglialoro’s butchered version of the story by insinuating that the “text” is not sacred, and that Rand “did not hesitate to change or add details, incidents, and characters to dramatically and visually illustrate the theme of the novel.” In between the lines one can read, “See? Even Rand did this, that, and the other to her own story, so there’s no reason to score Aglialoro for all the changes he made, etc….” Its purpose is to fend off or answer fundamental criticism of Aglialoro’s script by equating his errors with her changes.
But Aglialoro is not Rand, and Atlas Shrugged was not his work to improve on. His and Brian Patrick O’Toole’s script simply assembled body parts from the novel (and perhaps even from Rand’s own script) to patch together a Frankenstein-like creature. Or, if you will, they ripped planks from the novel to fashion a creaky cinematic go-cart, held together by glue, equipped with discarded lawnmower wheels, with no motor, and a Bobble Head of Rand as a hood ornament, with “Atlas Shrugged” painted on the sides should no one recognize the Bobble Head.
Wolski’s featured review is basically an example of that rare literary form, an encomium-cum-apology. It is an overture to the “Long Journey” article. Effusive praise is tempered with extraneous reservations and qualifications, extraneous because he sanctions the movie.
Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the first in a planned trilogy, should, for the most part, please the novel’s patient fans. Fortuitously following a blueprint similar to one outlined by Rand in the 1970s (see “Adapting Atlas: Ayn Rand’s Own Approach,” p. 38), the film covers the first third of the story.
“Adapting Atlas: Ayn Rand’s Own Approach” is a boxed sidebar within the second article. The “blueprint,” however, was possibly pilfered from Rand’s script or others’ scripts. And throughout the article Wolski feels obliged to repeatedly assure readers that viewers will be pleased “for the most part,” and that, “generally speaking,” the movie is true to the novel. Those who are not pleased can be dismissed as impractical and unrealistic.
The film substantially delivers these parts. Each plot point is there, as is much of Rand’s dialogue sans most of the overt expressions of her philosophic viewpoint, which first-time feature director Paul Johansson does his best to illustrate instead through the actions of the characters and the events of the plot. For the most part, the script stays true to the novel while updating it in ways that do not blunt the power of Rand’s theme—no small feat.
The film delivers those parts but in a severely damaged condition. Not all the plot points from the novel are there, either, because many of those points lie in either characterization and/or dialogue. Most of Rand’s dialogue is missing, not “watered down” as Wolski asserts later in his article, and the characterizations of what characters do survive the transition from the novel are so tamely naturalistic that no plot points can be attributed to them. No, the movie does not stay “true” to the novel, and it is “updated” in ways that do not merely “blunt” the power of Rand’s theme (the role of the mind in man’s existence, which Wolski does not mention), but smashes it to pieces. No small feat, indeed.
Screenwriters John Aglialoro (who also produced the film) and Brian Patrick O’Toole solve the problem admirably by setting the film five years in the future, at a time when the Middle East is in crisis and America is on the brink of economic and social collapse. With truck and air transport crippled due to Middle East oil shortages, the burden of shipping and transportation returns to rail lines. The opening montage quickly and ingeniously establishes this new context—which is radically different than [sic] that of the novel—and provides those familiar with the source material with an indication of the script’s narrative efficiency.
Aglialoro and O’Toole solved the problem of staying “true” to the novel by lifting Rand’s story out of its essential timeliness and timelessness by setting it in the near future, and thereby not being “true.” Gone is the cigarette-themed subplot (Hollywood is now anti-smoking) and in come the cell phones, the Middle East, and other recognizable “now” elements. The opening montage is something which, according to Wolski in his “Long Journey” article, Rand wrote herself, or rather incorporated in one of her scripts, the role of television news.
If there was any ingenuity, it was Rand’s, not Aglialoro’s or O’Toole’s. Wolski writes that “those familiar with the source material” will appreciate the script’s “narrative efficiency.” What “efficiency”? Is the term a euphemism for “economy”? I am intimately familiar with the novel (a.k.a. “source material”) and I was completely baffled, not only by the banal characterizations and liberties taken with the story, but also by the illogical sequence of events in the movie.
A brief word about the movie’s casting: Wolski praises some actors for their performances, and frowns on others. But, it would be unfair to fault most of the cast of “Atlas Shrugged, Part I” for their skewed or under-performances. They were given roles they did not comprehend and apparently given little time to absorb them. Not that it would have mattered had they the time; the script is a mess. One wonders if any of them had even read the novel. Taylor Schilling is no Barbara Stanwyck, and Grant Bowler is no William Holden. Stanwyck and Holden would have made a far more effective and credible Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, even if they had not completely absorbed the characters. Very few television-trained actors – and that is what most of the cast seems to be – successfully make the transition from formula-driven TV scripts, directors, and sets to the big screen, regardless of the quality of the film. Invariably, they bring their television-honed skills and habits with them, and not to their profit.
The same may be said about directors. One of the original formats for a production of Atlas Shrugged was a TV miniseries. Such a production would have required the producer, director and screenwriter to think “outside the box” of formulaic TV production. Paul Johannsson, TV director, did not. I agree with Wolski when he describes Johansson’s portrayal of John Galt as “ham-fisted” and that his scenes look tacked on. But he does not mention that introducing Galt in the beginning destroyed the mystery present in the novel but not in the movie. Rand once related the maxim about stage plays that if one introduces a gun in the first act, it had better go off by the third. In the movie, the gun goes off in the very beginning, the trigger pulled by the “antagonist” who announces his reasons.
I do not know if Johansson was assigned the role of Galt by Aglialoro, or if he insisted on the part aside from directing the movie. But someone, at some time, insisted that, like Gus Webb in The Fountainhead, he had a right to express his own “individuality” on Rand’s work. That seems to have been the standard operating procedure throughout the whole movie.
Of course, there are successful exceptions to the rule that novels cannot be faithfully transferred to the small screen, too many to cite here. A production of Atlas Shrugged could work in the television medium. It could work – if the skill and talent existed in Hollywood.
Although some fans of the novel might balk at such departures from the text, they serve to quickly establish the primary storyline of the film: Great producers, such as Mulligan, are disappearing for no apparent reason when the country is most in need of their ability. Apart from these substantial alterations, Aglialoro and O’Toole generally stick with the overall arc of the first part of the novel, paring away its narrative scope and streamlining the story to its essence.
Yes, the “primary storyline” is established – on crutches, after a hit-and-run – but if Galt is introduced in the beginning persuading producers to quit and vanish, where is the “no apparent reason”? It is made “apparent” in the beginning. Scratch the suspense so skillfully created by Rand in the novel. And that suspense is just one element of the “primary storyline” that was efficiently hacked away by Aglialoro and O’Toole. Their paring knife was an ax.
(Speaking of “streamlining,” I strongly suspected that I would not like this movie when I first saw the “Part I” poster, before I saw the trailers and the movie itself. When there are so many great renderings of Atlas holding up the world available, why did whoever was responsible for the artwork decide that some faceless, androgynous, elastic human figure in yellow, holding up what looks like a congealed drop of butterscotch pudding, would be a great logo for the movie? One of the blogs that carried my first review of the movie used an interesting illustration which might have better suited the movie. But the chosen poster for it is a perfect signature for the movie and the esthetics of those who made it.)
Less attention is given to subplots and to the development of secondary characters. For instance, Francisco d’Anconia (Jsu Garcia) comes across as a complete lout in Part I because the film lacks those great moments in which Rand provides intriguing clues that he may be more than he at first appears. The script also excises all of the flashbacks found in the novel, so we do not learn about the childhood relationship between Dagny, Francisco, and Dagny’s assistant, Eddie Willers.
I agree with Wolski that “lout” best describes the movie’s Francisco d’Anconia. However, in the novel, he is not a “secondary” character, but a crucial, integrated ingredient in the story. His relationships with Dagny and later with Hank Rearden are plot points lopped off because, while the screenwriters did not know what to do with him or them, they dared not “excise” him from the story. But if Aglialoro and O’Toole regarded him as “secondary,” why introduce the lout at all? Qua the movie’s careening storyline, he contributes nothing to it, except to bewilder anyone not familiar with the novel, who will be futilely “intrigued.” His introduction simply clutters up an unkempt script that boasts no continuity. And it would be pointless to dwell here on the novel’s portrayal of Francisco and the movie’s. If Rand were able to see what Aglialoro and O’Toole did to just Francisco, she would subject them to a tongue-lashing that would leave them cowering and whimpering in a corner.
Particular praise should go to stars Taylor Schilling (Dagny) and Grant Bowler (Rearden). The film is a showcase for them, and they execute their parts almost perfectly….But the film really sings when Bowler and Schilling share the screen. Their relationships—both business and, later, romantic—are intense and believable. They interact with easy give-and-take, and have a powerful chemistry that is exploited to good effect. In the scene in which they discover the abandoned static electricity motor, their reaction is highly charged—almost romantic. These are characters who love technology, discovery, and production, and when they find the motor together their joy is palpable.
This assertion is plain make-believe. The relationship of the movie’s Rearden and Dagny is of the banal soap-opera level, and plods along with no rhyme or reason. They “interact” easily because there is no conflict between them or in themselves that could be said to be “palpable” and which could have made their scenes together “sing.” What Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler are truly ‘showcasing” are the unchallenging limits of their TV-honed acting abilities. This is no fault of their own, as I mention above. Roark, in The Fountainhead, acknowledges his error in placing too great a burden on Keating’s shoulders for him to guarantee the integrity of the design of Cortlandt Homes. Schilling, Bowler, and some of the other actors in the movie, were similarly over-burdened. It is Aglialoro’s fault for casting them in those roles.
Wolski complains in his article that in many spots the movie lacks “dramatic energy.” However, the whole movie lacks it because no attempt was made to infuse it with the power of a moral conflict, which its makers either “pared” from the story or did not grasp enough to even inadvertently suggest it. There is no philosophical undercurrent present in the movie as there is in the novel, and the few anti-government and “this is mine” statements uttered by the Dagny, Rearden and other characters hove to a libertarian mantra.
So lacking in “dramatic energy” is the movie that one correspondent remarked to me, about the bracelet/necklace exchange scene between Lillian and Dagny, that she thought “Dagny was going to point out that her diamond necklace matched Lillian’s earrings.” Me? I had expected some intense acting between the actresses, of a caliber that would have left me rooting for Dagny. Instead, they may as well have been discussing fashion accessories. That scene could have been effective, even without much of a context having been established, and a viewer might have been intrigued why Dagny insisted on the trade. In the movie, Rearden intervenes as though he were dousing a minor spat, and Dagny walks off with no “dramatic energy” being exchanged between her and Rearden – as happens in the novel – and so there is no plausible basis established for their ensuing romance.
Finally, and incredibly, Wolski writes:
But Atlas Shrugged: Part I is not the novel and it does not pretend to be. It is a fairly competently made, credible adaptation of one of the most complex novels ever written. Even with its flaws, the film is enjoyable and has wonderful moments, including some in which it captures the power of the novel—such as the party during which Dagny gets the Rearden Metal bracelet….Those unfamiliar with the story will probably enjoy the movie as well and may find their curiosity sufficiently piqued to read the book. If so, they will be even more richly rewarded.
Those who are “sufficiently piqued” by the movie to read the novel should, once they are deep into it, ask themselves: What in hell did they do to the story?
Wolski, however, claims that the movie is not the novel. But, it certainly does pretend to be. If it is not the novel, then what is the movie? Why the title? Is it a “pretend” title? In connection with what? Another novel that also bears the title, Atlas Shrugged? One wonders about such sleights-of-mind that could discuss how a movie is like and is not like a novel, then state that the movie is not the novel, and then conclude this was a “fairly competently made, credible adaptation.” Of what? What, then, was the subject of the review? Does Wolski expect others to also perceive and blank out at the same time? If so, that is not a prescription for sanity or honesty.
What was the review about? It was about a cinematic go-cart being promoted as a powerful vehicle for “change,” except that it lacks the energy of a motor. Or, one could say it was about an esthetics-starved and conflict-deficient hybrid car that looks suspiciously like a child’s “Big Wheel.”