Monday, July 26, 2010

Atlas Shrugged: The Movie?

The ludicrous, appalling news came out on Saturday:

After nearly four decades of development hell, a movie adaptation of Ayn Rand's doorstop novel Atlas Shrugged finally went into production this past weekend. If you're a Rand fan who had been patiently waiting for years for a quality film based on the book, prepare to be disappointed: The picture, which will tell only half of the epic story, is being helmed by One Tree Hill actor Paul Johansson, who will direct and star as the mysterious industrialist John Galt. Johansson took the gig at the last minute, since producer John Aglialoro would have lost the rights to the novel if the film hadn't entered production by last Saturday, with almost no prep time, a rushed production schedule, a relatively tiny $5 million budget, and a cast of unknowns.

I sighed when I read that press release. But I go back a long way with Ayn Rand’s magnum opus.

Like many people I first read the book in high school, where I was swept up into its binary view of human existence -- the geniuses versus the boobs. Of course, I identified with the genius contingent – the Hank Reardons and Francisco D’Anconias, rather than the boobs, whose very names were a form of moral onomatopoeia: Wesley Mouch, Kip Chalmers and – my personal favorite – Balph (“Not Ralph,” he tells everyone around him, “Balph!”) Eubanks.

I sensed even then that the book had major problems from a screenwriter’s point of view as well as a literary critic’s – all the geniuses fleeing the world seemed to sound exactly alike, in ways that say … Leonard Bernstein, Lee Iacocca and Pablo Picasso, probably wouldn’t. Or, as a random update … take Steve Jobs, Billy Collins and Philip Glass – what are the chances they’d be standing around in some top secret Colorado valley barking out Ayn Rand’s philosophy and finishing each other’s sentences?

I’d say, close to zero.

Then there’s the speeches … not two or three page soliloquies – I’m talking about ten or fifteen page slabs of indigestible didactic ‘kwonking’ – a term my father coined years ago for the sounds made by veteran bores …or the grown-ups in animated Peanuts cartoons. As the inimitable Sam Goldwyn remarked many years ago, “Arias went out with Shakespeare” And that’s not even counting the endless reiterations and redundancies of John Galt’s dreaded final lecture to a captive audience of American boobs reduced to the Stone Age by the disappearance of Galt and his elitist cronies.

Ever more problematical was the setting. In 1957, Ayn Rand was writing about the future … but that future looks as antique as an issue of Life Magazine from 1977 right now. Ayn Rand’s ‘future’ doesn’t work, and setting the book in the past is futile because the past never resembled her America, either.

What a quandary.

Ultimately, I stopped caring, because I got sick of Rand herself and her pre-Tea Party libertarian politics. But I always followed the film-making attempts with a mild rooting interest. There are great dramatic moments in the novel – when Dagny Taggart trades her diamond bracelet for the ‘clunky’ piece of Reardon Metal jewelry that Reardon’s icky wife is sneering at during a big party; Reardon and D’Anconia stopping the steel mill ‘break out’; the bum telling Dagny the story of the ruined car company where Galt designed his motor; the young physicist working on Galt’s unfinished formula seeing three months of work erased from the blackboard by a janitor …and replaced by a single perfect equation. Yes, Galt is the janitor, and if that sound suspiciously like Good Will Hunting, take it as an homage. There’s so much more: Galt’s torture scene, where the machine breaks and he instructs his clueless interrogators how to fix it; the first run on the John Galt Line, the perfect hamburger made by the exile philosophy professor in a Colorado greasy spoon, because he can’t doing anything .less than perfectly (even grilling a burger).

So, as various deals to make the movie rose and were shot down over the years (kind like skeet), I kept thinking g about arranging all these good scenes, cutting out the stupid stuff and the speeches, and stringing a tight, exciting story line out of them. Of course, I knew no one would ever hire me to do that and even if they did, the Rand estate would never allow such radical changes.


But I was particularly irked recently, when I realized exactly how they could update the story, using the railroads. We need our railroads now. They represent our greatest infrastructure investment and asset. Building the John Galt line would be a stroke of political genius today, and at least a partial solution to our connected problems of fossil fuel addiction and global warming. You don’t have to set Atlas Shrugged in the real past or Ayn Rand’s future. You could set in the present and make it unexpectedly relevant at the same time.

Oh well.

That’s not going to happen. No, they held out for the TV pretty boy’s five million dollar vanity project.

And I have to say, it feels like poetic justice.

Seriously: for thirty-five years, Ayn Rand herself, and then the Ayn Rand estate has guarded the book with such virulent orthodoxy and paranoia, turning down a virtual Who’s Who of talented writers and directors over the years because they threatened to change one word of the holy text, that no film or TV series had ever come close to production. Even the effort before this more recent one, with a script no less a screenwriter than Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and a stellar cast that was said to include Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, fizzled over questions of length and content. And now, because of this relentless, almost feral posture of steely eyed unflinching integrity, the book is going to wind up as a hopelessly compromised piece of inept, straight-to-DVD trash.

Wesley Mouch would be proud.

But it makes me sad for Ayn Rand. That obsessed, brilliant, batty old dame deserves a whole lot better.


Joe Iriarte said...

I had exactly the same relationship with Rand's writing as a teen. You absolutely nailed it on the head. Atlas Shrugged is what cured me, actually, and one of only two books that I have begun and not finished. When I saw that it was a series of rehashes of The Fountainhead, over and over again, I just stopped. I hear I'm lucky to have missed the eighty page speech by John Gault.

Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said, of Atlas Shrugged, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly; it should be hurled with great force." (Or something to that effect.)

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