Thoughts on the movie Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

We just saw the movie, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, starring Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart and Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden.

Rotten Tomatoes gives it an 11% score. It is the highest rated of the Atlas Shrugged trilogy of movies, and the score is justified. It is not a good movie.

Still, I’m not here to damn the movie, exactly, but to discuss it, comparatively, to Part 1 of the novel.

The movie starts off with providing some of that context I’ve talked about in previous posts. The movie doesn’t assume that people will understand why the US is so messed up – it says that there is a major oil crisis (gasoline is nearly $40 a gallon) that has grounded most airplanes and returned trains as our primary method of long distance travel.

While it is plausible that energy prices that are fifteen times the current level would bring back rail traffic – at least for a while – this presents a problem in the movie as a whole.

Taken from the book, Dagny and others often wonder why things are so bad. Well, $40 for a gallon for gas is a pretty damn good answer. My wife and I drive a hybrid, and it would cost us over $400 to fill our tank at those prices. People who own SUVs? They’d face $1600 for a full tank.

No one would go anywhere! More than that, air conditioning? Ha ha. Even heating oil would be tightly controlled, and you’d start to find wood was becoming a common way to heat homes lucky enough to have fireplaces.  Many couldn’t afford any heat, and some would die of exposure in their own homes.  At the same time, food prices would also skyrocket because the whole agricultural industry is highly dependent on the oil biz.  There would be famines, even in the US, and that would combine to create ripe conditions for pandemic diseases.

It would really, really be a disaster if energy prices went that high.

But . . . the problem of very, very high energy prices also suggests a solution. The global economy would be working very hard to transition to a hydrogen-based energy economy from wind, solar, and nuclear sources. (Environmentalists, including myself, would complain about the last, but with gas at forty bucks a gallon, no one would listen.) So while things would suck, for the industrialized world the solution would be obvious: to build solar towers, wind farms, and nuclear plants, and related infrastructure to transition to a hydrogen-based energy economy.  Things would be bad until this was up and running, but what to do would be obvious and there would be an end in sight.

The movie doesn’t discuss these obvious fixes to the problem of incredibly high energy costs. Indeed, other than using it for a pretext to rationalize why a movie set in 2016 is about TRAINS, the high energy prices don’t come up at all. Which is a bit odd considering that the steel industry is also extremely energy intensive: about 20% of the cost of steel is power, so if energy prices are about fifteen times higher than they are, now, energy costs would be the dominant costs in steel manufacture – meaning that the prices would skyrocket to about four times their current price, meaning that a lot of things wouldn’t get built and the industry would collapse, along with a lot of other industries.

More context about the story shows how fragile the ideas of the book are. I believe that any additional context for why the US is falling apart in Atlas Shrugged would reasonably transform the entire text.

In Part 1 of the novel, at least, the characters do walk around asking why things are the way they are. Ayn Rand makes no effort to tell us. There is no history of the US before the events in the book, which is intentional on her part, so she can focus on the undiluted malice of the “collectivists” that she hates so much. Any context would allow us to answer the question “why are things so bad?”, and the context might give us the freedom to question the motives of her protagonists and antagonists alike. But without such context, all supposition of complex motives for any character is like screaming into the abyss – meaningless. So the structure tries to force the audience to take the premises of the novel seriously.

It is part of the way Rand constructs her straw men and paper tigers, in other words. Without any specifics upon which to draw alternate conclusions, attempts to criticize specific events in the novel are pointless. While there is no support for the paper men, there is no support against them, either. I find this to be literary nihilism, and it is one of the reasons that many skillful readers think Atlas Shrugged is a lousy novel.  But if you’re just looking for a way to confirm your biases you’re likely to love this style of writing. It is, after all, the same context-free BS that one sees on Fox News.

Otherwise? The movie is generally bad in a pedestrian way. Rand’s dialog coming out of the faces of actual actors does seem to heighten how unrealistic it all is – though the movie cuts out almost all of the straw man speeches and pseudo-philosophical speeches of the various characters. And, of course, the movie lacks the long internal monologues of the various characters. Which means it’s one of those movies that you’ve got to have read the book to understand, which is bad film making. But it’s bad in a boring way.

What did bother me, however, is the love scene between Dagny and Hank. The book was extremely clear: the sex was rough. Hank Rearden wants to sexually dominate women – it’s why his love life with his wife is so bad, he’s not in sex to have fun or express love with anyone, but to be worshiped by the girls he fucks. So when he fucks Dagny, he tears off her clothes without any concern of her consent. She, coincidentally, is okay with this, but one gets the impression that even if she had resisted he would have continued – again, the book is clear, he does not seek her consent.  She merely happens to give it.

Afterwards, he calls her a slut and tells her he continues to keep fucking her like a slut. Again, her consent is not asked. Dagny is coincidentally good with this.

The movie turns this scene into some tender, soft-focus bullshit. Sure, if a person wrote Atlas Shrugged today, the rapey stuff would be pilloried. People would point out that the relationship between Hank and Dagny is, at best, abusive, and it is quite possible Hank is, legally speaking, a rapist. To turn their relationship into some soft-focus sub-Cinemax lovemaking is cowardly.

It also takes away one of the primary reasons people ever read the book. Atlas Shrugged has enough sexy times in an otherwise fairly heavy, philosophical novel to convince lonely youth that the book’s titillation serves a higher purpose. They’re not reading Atlas Shrugged for the rough sex, oh, no, they’re reading it for the IDEAS.

The movie takes that away. No Objectivist porn for you! So lots of the target audience are also going to be turned away, though the movie is then more palatable for the rest of us . . . or would be if it wasn’t so bad, otherwise.

Incredibly, if one believes Rotten Tomatoes, Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 is the best of the trilogy. It’s score is 11%. Part 2 has a score of 4% and Part 3? ZERO percent.

Some of this is because the first one didn’t make any money. Wikipedia tells me the budget was $20 million, and it made less than $5 million. Ouch. And at least one of the stars, Taylor Schilling, got her starring role in Orange is the New Black just after Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. But NONE of the cast returns to Part 2, and NONE of Part 2’s cast returns for Part 3.

Mostly, the movie was made because of an Objectivist schism. The primary rightsholder to Ayn Rand’s written work is the Ayn Rand Institute, which is still chaired by one of Rand’s students, Leonard Peikoff. The ARI is very fundamentalist in interpretation of Rand’s work.

Somehow, though, the schismatic, less doctrinaire Atlas Society got the move rights to Atlas Shrugged . . . but they were about to expire. So they had to make the movie in order to preserve those rights, to prevent them from going back to the ARI.  Both groups hate each other, so there’s no realistic way the Atlas Society was going to let ARI have the movie rights to Atlas Shrugged.

It is a rare thing, indeed, that a movie made to preserve a person’s IP rights is a very good movie.

One of the funny things about this is . . . I think that it would have been possible to get someone very good to make the movie. Vince Vaughn, for instance, is apparently quite the enthusiast of Rand. And at one point, Oliver Stone was looking to remake The Fountainhead.

But Stone’s idea about The Fountainhead might have been the problem. Stone, a great director, would have made it about the importance of beauty in public architecture . . . which is not the “official” interpretation.  Both the ARI and the Atlas Society would have hated Stone’s version of The Fountainhead.

It is possible that any producer or director of status in Hollywood would demand to do it their own way. Which no group dedicated to Ayn Rand could allow. They couldn’t take the chance that some individualist director/producer, looking to make money or any other concern, might adapt the work away from it’s philosophical purity. This thought amuses me: that the Atlas Society couldn’t get a big name to adapt Atlas Shrugged out of fear of the movie not being “right” – being made to merely make money or according to the passion or whims of an artist.

As Rand repeated, again and again, there are no contradictions. When you find what appears to be a contradiction, check your premises.

Indeed. Check your premises.

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