Atlas Shrugged: Vice-President of Exposition

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, The Movie

Part of the problem confronting any film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged is the sheer ponderous scale of the book. It includes loads and loads of characters, giant weighty speeches, and many minor asides that become important plot elements later. A 100% faithful adaptation would have to be impossibly long and complicated. The only realistic alternative is to cut and rearrange for the screen. But doing that requires a deft touch, and that’s a challenge the filmmakers were in no way equal to.

From the very first scene, where a trenchcoat- and fedora-wearing John Galt meets Midas Mulligan outside a diner at night and spouts ludicrous dialogue (“Someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself and not let others feed off the profits of his energy”), we get an idea of how this is going to go. Rather than let the plot unfold and the audience gradually get clued in to what’s happening, the script decides to tell, not show. At every turn, it has to chaotically cram in as much exposition as possible, plodding through plot points and Randian philosophy as if going down a checklist.

Much of this thankless duty is given to Eddie Willers, who has to repeatedly pop up in Dagny’s office giving her As-You-Know-Bob speeches about how the looters have nationalized this, or decreed that, or passed yet another evil law to hobble the heroic and sexy millionaires. It happens so often that, while watching the movie, I joked that his official job title at Taggart Transcontinental must be vice-president in charge of exposition. Here’s a particularly egregious example:

Francisco d’Anconia falls victim to the curse of clunky, confusing dialogue as well. In the scene where he meets Hank at the latter’s anniversary party, many of his lines come straight from the book, but they’re so heavily and confusingly truncated, it seems like the filmmakers threw half a dozen different Randian speeches into a blender and pasted together the shredded strips of paper that came out. Not a single conversational gambit or leading question is followed up on. You can almost hear him thinking, “Wait, what battle? What is their weapon? Why do you think I’m unhappy? You said you’d give me words I’d need, so what are they?!”

But the epitome of crammed-in exposition must be the scene when Dagny goes to visit Robert Stadler (whose character was made Latino for the movie), trying to find out why his State Science Institute has condemned Rearden Metal. He gives her a vague answer, then when she gets up to leave, he demands she sit back down just so he can deliver a totally unrelated, rambling monologue about his three old students, which is of no perceptible relevance to the plot or to the question Dagny asked him. Dagny herself asks him why on earth he’s telling her this, which might have been seen as Lampshade Hanging if the filmmakers had been clever enough for that kind of self-deprecation.

As I’ve said before, I’m not claiming that you could never make a good movie out of Atlas Shrugged. The elements are there for a decent screenplay: ruggedly handsome heroes and a beautiful tough-as-nails heroine, shiny period-piece images of trains and skyscrapers, a cabal of sleazy bureaucrats for villains, and a mystery plot about how powerful industrialists are disappearing while the world slowly collapses. But doing it well would require a looser approach to textual fidelity than the filmmakers seemed willing to take. It would have required the excision of multiple minor characters and plot points, as well as a more ruthless trimming of Rand’s clunky dialogue. The filmmakers clearly weren’t willing to be so daring with what they see as almost a sacred text.

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Alex SL

    Funny, the more you write about the film the less I want to watch it.

    I have wondered about some other books whether they would not better have been turned into a TV series instead of films, e.g. the Harry Potter series or Lord of the Rings. With a Song of Ice and Fire it seems to work well, although in that case I have personal experience with neither books nor series, so I can only judge from the success of the latter.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    The TV adaptation for SoIaF does work though there were several changes made between the books and show, which is to be expected when a property moves from one media to another. Most are inconsequential though and usually done so that the audience that has not read the books can follow what’s going on easier in the time frame allotted. Most of the main changes that are glaring between the books and series are due to age changes of the characters and melding of several minor characters into a single character. This has resulted in some oddities in hindsight but it hasn’t been that distracting to me.

  • Elizabeth

    The elements are there for a decent screenplay: ruggedly handsome heroes and a beautiful tough-as-nails heroine, shiny period-piece images of
    trains and skyscrapers, a cabal of sleazy bureaucrats for villains, and a
    mystery plot about how powerful industrialists are disappearing while
    the world slowly collapses.

    This is why I find the movie so hilarious even though it’s terrible. There’s a lot of salient aspects to the story, which is why its not entirely unwatchable.

  • J-D

    The typical novel has more content than can comfortably fit into a film. Cutting elements is close to inescapable.

    A short story can be a better fit. For example, the film of _Brokeback Mountain_ uses pretty much all the content of the story and even adds a little. If you think just about scale, short stories, plays, and films are all on roughly the same scale while novels are bigger, although obviously there’s variation in each category.

  • X. Randroid

    I get the sense there was a serious behind-the-scenes conflict between writing an effective screenplay and sticking to Rand’s words. The problem is that Rand’s characters aren’t all that realistic, and having normal humans uttering their lines just makes the viewer painfully aware of how unrealistic it is. It seems that the writers sensed this and threw in quite a few (fairly modest) changes from the novel to try to make the characters relatable. But, knowing the novel as well as I do, I couldn’t help noticing as I watched that the moments where the characters seem most plausibly human are precisely the ones where they’re deviating most from the novel. Then, just when a scene is starting to feel believable, somebody utters a line straight from the novel, and the whole charade falls apart, either because the line doesn’t fit or because the actor can’t deliver it convincingly (or both). The example I remember best is where Lillian says the bracelet is “the chain by which he holds us all in bondage.” She doesn’t give it quite the right note of contempt (and she isn’t helped at all by the fact that whoever was responsible for designing the bracelet managed to make it look almost but not quite entirely unlike a chain).

    I also remember very loud complaints from hardcore Objectivists about how the movie failed to be true to the novel. It started when the trailer came out and the clip of Dagny saying she was “gambling” on Rearden’s metal gave everyone the vapors. (“Dagny sooo does not gamble, how dare they portray her as not CERTAIN it’s good??!!?!”) It extended to things like the bit where Hank asks Dagny if she’s coming to his anniversary party (which commits the unforgivable sin of suggesting Hank gives a damn about the party or Lillian). And so on. I think the tension between the devout and the “humanizers” never got resolved, and it shows in the screenplay. I think there were a bunch of lines the “philosophical consultants” (yes, there were some) insisted on preserving, so the writers jammed them in whether they fit or not.

    I’ve heard several people (including a commenter here and even an Objectivist or two) suggest that a better approach to filming Atlas Shrugged would be animation. You could draw something that looked like Rand’s “stylized” world, and the unrealistic lines would seem less jarring since the characters wouldn’t look like normal people. I think they’re right.

  • Science Avenger

    Lord of the Rings would have been just fine as a Trilogy with a competent director. To see what Peter Jackson produces when he isn’t given can’t-miss material, see King Kong, if you dare. As J-D says, cuts to any novel-made-a-movie are unavoidable, but adding superfluous nonsense as Jackson did, as well as changing things for no apparent reason, was near unforgivable from my LoTR geek perspective. Cut Bombadil, sure, but change the Council of Elrond from a thoughtful examination of their peril to a low-rent race riot? Sacrelige.

    The more I think of Atlas Shrugged the movie, the more I think someone could make a hilarious satire by making everything dead on with the book, except have one absolutely normal character walking through every scene a la Frank Underwood making critical comic commentary to the audience. Imagine Galt droning on in the background as Underwood turns to the camera and says “Can you believe he’s still talking? Who would still be listening at this point?”