I just got back from watching the matinee showing of Atlas Shrugged Part 3 in Times Square with a few friends (and a girlfriend). Times Square is of course the qibla–the teleological Mecca–of Objectivism, but you wouldn’t have known it from this showing. Though the film opened just yesterday, no one in midtown Manhattan seemed interested enough to come to see it the afternoon after it opened. Kate and I walked right past the theater showing the film without even noticing that it was playing there. And we were specifically looking for it! As it happened, the film itself was playing in theater 23 of 25 on the abandoned sixth floor of the theater, and was attended (in our showing) by about a dozen people. Neither today’s nor yesterday’s New York Times ran either a review or even an ad for the film. In other words, unless you were looking for it, you’d never have known that it was playing. If that’s an indication of the film’s impact in Objectivism’s holy city, I don’t think it’s going to have much impact outside of that city. Sad but true.
Though I haven’t read it cover to cover in more than twenty years, I regard Atlas Shrugged as a great but flawed novel. And though I enjoyed part 1 of the Atlas Shrugged film sequence–mostly for the chemistry between its Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) and Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) characters–I don’t think any of the three films did justice to the novel, and didn’t enjoy the second two films at all. That’s not to say that any of the films deserved the savaging they got at the hands of hostile critics, but the bottom line is that they weren’t particularly good films. You might understand, appreciate, and enjoy them to some extent if you were familiar with and admired the novel, or if you had doctrinal sympathies with Objectivism or libertarianism. But otherwise, it seems to me that the films would strike the uninitiated viewer as uninteresting, uninspired, or preposterous. It pains me to say that, because I happen to know the filmmakers and I appreciate and respect the sincerity of their efforts. But the bottom line is, as a strictly aesthetic matter, the films–or the three films considered as one piece of art–are a failure.
Why uninteresting, uninspired, or preposterous? In the case of part 3, the following flaws leap to mind:
- John Galt was, to my mind, badly miscast. I didn’t find him forceful enough to be believable. (Some of my friends disagreed.)
- Huge amounts of plot were excised. (To avoid spoilers, I won’t elaborate.) Some of the scenes that were included seemed to have been included in a pro forma way, out of a sense of fidelity to the plot of the novel, but were so abbreviated and elliptical as to be unintelligible to anyone who hadn’t read the novel.
- Putting aside Laura Regan (who played Dagny Taggart), the dialogue was uninspired–preachy, pedantic and badly-delivered stuff that sounded more like standard-issue libertarian anti-government ranting than the actual dialogue of the novel. To a certain degree, I’ve had the uncomfortable feeling that all three films were made, not for a general audience and not for aesthetic purposes, but to turn the novel into a propaganda vehicle for the Rand-friendly elements of the Tea Party. I’ve also gotten the uncomfortable sense that the praise I’ve heard of the film (meaning the earlier two parts) is movement-motivated, an instance of circling the wagons rather than objective appraisal.
- The villains came across as cartoon-character buffoons rather than as adversaries worthy of the heroes’ struggle. That made the villains look stupid and contemptible (and all of the actors portraying the villains did a fairly good job of it), but also diminished the achievement of the heroes and adversely affected the credibility of the film itself. How could villains this preposterous achieve the positions of prominence that these villains had? And how hard would it be to defeat them if one were in the position of the heroes? (To be fair, this problem originates with the novel itself, but my point is that the film made it much worse.)
- There are virtually no scenes in the film depicting the suffering of the average person in the street.
- The film is, on the whole, far too “talky.” At least a third of the film takes place in Galt’s Gulch, and consists of dialogue. Huge parts of the rest of the film consist of dialogue. A narrator voices over large swatches of plot progression. But the novel is an action-packed thriller. As far as the film is concerned, there’s no action and no thrills. The dialogue plods along as a narrator tells you what’s supposed to be happening in the physical world. I felt uncharitable thinking this, but I couldn’t help remembering a line from the novel. In it, John Galt tells Dagny: “In this valley, Miss Taggart, we don’t tell, we show..” But in this film, Galt and his companions do just the reverse. They don’t show. They tell.
- When they do act–e.g., when they stage their famous revolt near the end–the resistance they get from their would-be adversaries is feeble enough to inspire incredulous laughter in the audience. In interests of spoiler-avoidance, I won’t elaborate, but if you see the film I think you’ll know what I mean. I think you’ll also see that the ease of the heroes’ defeat of the villains mirrors the facile picture that so many Objectivists, libertarians, and conservatives have of the political left: as a bunch of reality-fearing, reason-evading weaklings and losers, incapable of thinking straight, making hard decisions, or managing even the smallest enterprise. (I’ve recently been reading the blog Neo-Neocon where this fatuous point of view gets a vigorous daily airing.) But surely this raises the question: in that case, why are these reality-averse liberals in power and defeating the political right at virtually every turn? Despite its best efforts, Atlas Shrugged 3 leaves the answer to that question a mystery, as do the sorts of people who spend large swatches of their time fulminating about “Barry Hussein Obama” and how much they hate his foreign crypto-Islamic ways.
- There are some minor plot incoherences as well. How is it that as the world is crumbling and falling to pieces, everyone’s cell phone works perfectly and it’s still a cinch to hail a cab?
I could go on, but I won’t. The truth is that I don’t think anyone could have done better than the filmmakers did, and I think they deserve respect for having made what ended up being a quixotic attempt to produce the film. But I don’t think Atlas Shrugged can successfully be made in the early twenty-first century, and it probably won’t successfully be made for the next forty or fifty years, if that. Atlas Shrugged is, to my mind, too complex and idiosyncratic a novel to be made into a film right now; we simply lack the cultural synapses for such a film for the foreseeable future. Those of us who appreciate the novel do so because the author gave us 1,082 pages of nine-point print to lay out the complexities of plot, theme, and characterization. She also wrote two previous novels and a shelf’s worth of non-fiction to clarify what she had in mind–and she didn’t entirely clarify it.
But a film can’t do that. A film version of a great novel has to depict the author’s vision but leave implicit all of the background assumptions and inferences needed to make the film coherent and emotionally resonant. If the culture lacks that, the film simply won’t get off the ground. No actors will be found who are capable of depicting its characters’ personalities or expressing their dialogue. No scriptwriters will be found who can streamline the novel in a way that makes it a coherent film while doing justice to the original text. No composers will be found who can compose music adequate to its moods. No funding source will exist to capitalize the film project in a way that does justice to the epic vision of the novel. No audience will be found that can follow the plot of the film, appreciate its characters, grasp its theme, or revel in its sense of life. And no critics will be found that can appreciate any element of what the film got right. What you’ll get, instead, is an unintentionally comic effort at creating an epic film on the cheap, which is what has happened in the case of Atlas Shrugged. For all these reasons and more, I think the Atlas Shrugged film project was practically destined to fail. Like so many things about Objectivism, it was half-baked, over-hyped, and premature.
The problem, incidentally, is not that Atlas Shrugged’s message is “politically unpopular.” Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was politically unpopular, too. But Passion of the Christ was a brilliant film that provoked the culture into a rage. By contrast, Atlas Shrugged is a dull film that has gone entirely (and justifiably) ignored. The difference is that we all, as a culture, know how to process the story of Christ’s rise, prophecy, and crucifixion. We know who Christ was, and what he stood for; we also know how we’re supposed to react to the vicissitudes in his life, and to those who persecute him. Whatever we think of the Crucifixion, we grasp what it symbolizes, and we’re familiar with the symbolism itself. Even those hostile to Passion of the Christ had to admit that they were, while watching Gibson’s film, in the presence of a work of art that in some sense did justice to the Gospels; the film had a gravity appropriate to its subject matter.
Atlas Shrugged lacks all of that. Almost no one knows how to process the story. No one knows who John Galt is, and no one has reason to care. Almost no one has any sympathy for the trials or tribulations he or his comrades endure, and no one can quite conceptualize who his persecutors are supposed to be aside from floating abstractions and rhetoric about cartoon-like “government regulators.” (Since we obviously need some government regulations, “government regulators” in the abstract do not usefully function as villains.) The symbolism of Atlas is too pagan to have caught on in our residually Christian culture. The result is that the film version of Atlas Shrugged lacks the gravity and intensity appropriate to its subject matter. The filmmakers took on a project that was too overwhelming in its scope and dimensions for almost anyone to have been able to pull it off–at least right now.
My suggestion to Rand-friendly film-makers would be to leave The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged alone, and try to make a successful re-make of We the Living, the only Ayn Rand novel that has so far successfully been turned into a film. It shouldn’t be that hard to go to St. Petersburg nowadays and do the job, even under the reign of Vladimir Putin. It would, obviously, be a more modest task than a film version of The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, but that’s why it would have more of a chance of success. Few people in the world put any stock nowadays in Soviet socialism. We all hate the Soviets intensely enough to be receptive to a well-done anti-Soviet film like We the Living. The plot, theme, and characters are familiar enough to be depicted in early twenty-first film, but idiosyncratic enough to remain a challenge and retain their interest. Anyway, we’ve been beating the Nazis up in cinema for decades now. The time has come, at last, to beat up on the Soviets–and not Stalin’s Soviets, but Lenin’s, the ones closest to the Bolshevik Revolution itself. The original We the Living film is moving and beautiful, but it needs a specifically Russian update.
And if you regard We the Living as somehow philosophically light-weight, I’d suggest reading it again, asking some hard questions about the relationship between Kira and Andrei. Are they friends? Lovers? Would-be lovers? Are her feelings for him genuine, or entirely fabricated? If genuine, why? If fabricated, how is that possible? There’s a lot more there than has been discussed in the so-called “literature,” and a lot more than meets the eye.
Anyway, I can’t recommend anyone’s watching Atlas Shrugged, Part 3, or indeed any of the Atlas films, with the possible exception of part 1. (And of course, there’s no point in watching part 1 and leaving at that, so perhaps there’s no point in watching any of the films at all.) Fans will want to see it, if only to see what’s been made of their favorite novel. But I’m afraid no one else will, and no one else has good reason to. I doubt it will become an “underground sensation” in the way that Rand’s books have. I have a feeling it will just wither on the vine and fade away. That’s sad but inevitable, and the only thing we can do about it is ask why–which is what I’ve tried to do here.
(Thanks to Kate Herrick, Carrie-Ann Biondi, and Ray Raad for seeing the movie with me, and discussing it over dinner. As is probably obvious, I’ve expressed some of their observations here as though they were my own. None of them, however, is responsible for anything I’ve written in this post.)