A Second-Hand Review of Atlas Shrugged: Part I (Print Version)

by Bradley Doucet*
Le Québécois Libre, April
15, 2011, No 288.
Link: http://www.quebecoislibre.org/11/110415-14.html

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's magnum opus, is a novel that changes lives. It celebrates reason, liberty, and joy while telling an inspiring story filled with compelling characters. John Steinbeck wrote in his journal while he was composing his masterwork, East of Eden: "It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage." Ayn Rand does just that in her fiction, showing what glory is possible to human beings.

The film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged opens today (April 15) in theatres across the United States, 54 years after the book's publication. It covers the first third of the book, with two other films planned to complete the story. It was produced for the relatively modest sum of $10 million. Its director and stars do not have the kinds of names that command huge salaries. It does not have an established distributor. It has, however, been booking theatres across the country one at a time on the strength of the buzz it has been able to create. At last count, it was set to open in some 300 theatres in 44 states.

I hope that Rand, who wrote often about the evils of living second-hand, would be amused by my decision to write an explicitly second-hand review. I will see the film soon, either when it comes to Canada or possibly somewhere in upstate New York. (For Canadian fans who just can't wait, it is currently playing in or around such northern US cities as Seattle, Spokane, Fargo, Minneapolis, Detroit, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany. See the film's official website for details.) In the meantime, the views of some of those who have seen the film will just have to suffice.

You Either Hate It…

So, what is the word on the street? Well, some people clearly disliked it. Silas Lesnick gives it a 2 out of 10, and writes:

Atlas Shrugged is double-feature material for Battlefield Earth, offering a slavish interpretation of a story whose primary reason for being retold in the first place is cult devotion. While said devotees may deem the film successful at literally bringing the events of the book to the screen, there's zero sense of character, dialogue or pacing.

Timothy Farmer gives it a C-:

Interwoven into this PG-13 drama/mystery/science-fiction are countless scenes of rough, bleak dialogue that never seem to stay on the track. This soon becomes the tone of the entire film: incomprehensible gibberish.

P. J. O'Rourke, who is certainly in the classical liberal camp and so would agree with much of Rand's message, was also unimpressed, writing that the acting reminded him of cheesy primetime soap operas like "Dallas" and "Dynasty." He opens his review:

Atlas shrugged. And so did I. The movie version of Ayn Rand's novel treats its source material with such formal, reverent ceremoniousness that the uninitiated will feel they've wandered without a guide into the midst of the elaborate and interminable rituals of some obscure exotic tribe.

… Or You Love It

But many reviews were quite positive. Chris Bedford was pleasantly surprised:

While the acting is at times melodramatic (I heard a giggle or two from the audience), and the plot is a bit wonky, the movie comes together very well. The directing and dialogue (screenplay by Brian Patrick O'Toole) take a difficult subject with no action and turn out a fast, sleek and handsome movie that pulled this reviewer—no fan of Ayn Rand or epic book-to-movie conversions—right in.

Tabitha Hale was downright enthusiastic:

The movie reads as current, the ideas are timeless, and the characters embody the values that America was built on. Taking ideological narrative and turning it into a three-part cinematic event is no small undertaking, but I left the theater ready to watch the next two installments.

David Kelley, executive director of The Atlas Society (for whom I also write), consulted on the film to make sure its philosophical message was clear and consistent with the novel. To say the least, he is pleased with the final product:

It is simply beautiful. With a screenplay faithful to the narrative and message of the novel, the adaptation is lushly produced. The acting, cinematography, and score create a powerful experience of the story. […]

For over half a century, Rand's novel has been a lightning rod for controversy. It has attracted millions of devoted fans—and legions of hostile critics. A poor adaptation could be ignored by both sides. This adaptation can't be ignored. It is way too good. It is going to turbocharge the debate over Rand's vision of capitalism as a moral ideal. Whether you love the novel or hate it, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is a must-see film.

Barbara Branden, longtime associate of Rand's and author of The Passion of Ayn Rand, writes that she was "delighted, overwhelmed, and stunned" by the film:

The movie is not so-so, it is not OK, it is not rather goodit is spectacularly good […] The script is excellent, as is the acting. The music is first rate, and immensely adds to the tension that the action and the tempo of the film create. Visually, it is very beautiful. And wait until you experience the first run of the John Galt Line! […]

To a remarkable degree, the movie captures the spirit, the sense of life, that was Ayn Rand's alone. Does it have faults? I suppose so. I could not care less—and I suspect you won't care either.

Sign Me Up

So is the film good or bad? Does it live up to the book? Could any adaptation realistically live up to that singular achievement? At any rate, I would never pass judgment on it one way or the other sight unseen. But I will say that I am encouraged. I think it might be good. I think it might be very good. And if it's good enough to lead more people to read the book, then that's a win.

* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.