Atlas Shrugged: All There in the Manual

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, The Movie

These past few weeks, we’ve been discussing why the first Atlas Shrugged movie flopped so badly at the box office. I’ve argued that it failed to appeal to hardcore Objectivists, at least in part, because its script disastrously depicts its capitalist heroes and socialist villains as normal human beings, rather than the incorruptible superhumans and leering vampires Rand envisioned.

The other half of the question is why it failed to draw a wider general audience. Surely there are people out there who aren’t familiar with Ayn Rand, who didn’t come for the rah-rah capitalism speeches and take-that-you-dirty-hippies philosophizing, who would just have appreciated the movie as an entertaining story without realizing it’s supposed to be a parable of ultimate good versus evil. What kept them away?

My answer to this is that, if you want to attract the general public, you have to tell a good story, one with well-drawn and believable characters and a plot that follows naturally from their choices. This movie… doesn’t do that. Its creators were so intent on cramming in so much exposition about interstate shipping regulations and the personal biographies of disappearing businessmen that most of the important characterization beats are lost.

The clearest example is the movie’s treatment of Hank Rearden the steel magnate. As we learn from the book, Hank despises his wife and family, speaks to them only through clenched teeth, and has to be guilt-tripped into attending a party for his own wedding anniversary. Rand asserts that he’s fully justified in this, because he’s one of the productive elite and his family members are all worthless parasites who don’t deserve life.

But none of this makes it into the movie. For instance, the film version of the anniversary party looks like a perfectly enjoyable, fancy black-tie ball, with lots of expensive food, booze and music, and Hank just looks like an inexplicably standoffish jerk (which he is, but we’re not supposed to think that):

Even more unintentionally hilarious is this sex scene between Hank and his wife. The novel asserts that it’s Lillian’s fault that his love life at home is boring and passionless, but you’d never take that away from the movie. Just watch and cringe, and be incredulous that this man is supposed to be the one we sympathize with:

If Lillian doesn’t like having sex with him, no wonder! He’s terrible at it. He cares absolutely nothing for her pleasure or satisfaction. (Can we get Dan Savage to give this man some advice?) This is also true of book-Hank, for that matter, but the movie accomplishes the amazing feat of painting him as even less likable.

Without the novel’s copious omniscient narration to explain why its protagonists are in the right despite all appearances, a naive viewer will wonder why the movie is focusing on these rude, unlikeable people as protagonists. Plenty of successful TV shows and movies are about antiheroes – but they’re good antiheroes with complex characterizations that keep you guessing or a backstory that conspires to make you feel sympathy for them. These characters don’t have either of those things.

There are also a few places where the filmmakers did something even more poorly-advised, namely trying to improve on the book. This is clearest in the scene where Dagny and Hank find the magic motor in the ruins of Starnesville. No doubt deciding that “atmospheric static electricity” sounded a little too archaic, the filmmakers tried to come up with a new explanation of how it works, and ended up with a word salad that sounds like Star Trek technobabble, only without the plausibility:

Also, it reverses the polarity of the neutron flow.

By producing an imperfect adaptation of the book, the filmmakers turned off the most devoted Rand followers. By writing a script that makes no sense if you haven’t read the book, they turned off everyone else. This is the same problem that confronts any film adaptation of a popular novel, but it applies with a vengeance in this case, where the finished product was bound to be judged for both its entertainment value and its adherence to the ideological party line. In trying to satisfy both groups, inevitably, they ended up pleasing neither.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: Good Men Are Hard to Find
Atlas Shrugged: Kiss with a Fist
Book Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Bangladesh Is Killing Atheists
About Adam Lee

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.

  • Elizabeth

    “I have some work to do.” The first time we watched this I almost spit beer all over myself. The second time I knew it was coming and waited for the funniest sex scene in history.

    A reviewer for the “Razzies” (awards for bad movies) called Atlas Shrugged Part 1:

    One of the most unintentionally funny movies I’ve ever seen.

  • Michael

    Well the Casimir Effect and vacuum energy are real, but… that’s probably about it. I’ve heard both are used in actual “free energy” claims too.

  • eyelessgame

    “Atmospheric vacuum”. That is either a contradiction in terms or redundant, depending on how we’re supposed to take it. But both words sound sciencey, so together it’s twice the science! (Or four times the science, if it’s quantum.)

  • Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Personally, I prefer technobabble that uses made-up terminology to that which butchers real names for real things. As far as I can tell, this gizmo fuses helium (a scarce resource) into a heavier atom, say oxygen, using the resulting energy to prime a Casimir effect. After losing energy doing that, it somehow converts the resulting vacuum energy into static electricity, which is useful in air filters and photocopiers and maybe zapping collectivists with lightning bolts, but not for running motors or powering the electrical grid.

    Congratulations to Dagny and Hank, who’ve found the plans to John Galt’s incredibly complex and expensive cattle prod.

  • raylampert

    Plenty of classic science fiction involves the creation of some new and fantastic piece of technology, and then speculates as to the effect that would have on the world. Asimov’s “…The Gods Themselves” comes to mind.
    Instead of what we actually get, we could have had an interesting sci-fi mystery. The characters find the device and have an adventure trying to answer questions like, “Who made it?” “Does it work?” “Why did he abandon it?” “Were they any unexpected effects?” “Did somebody force him to quit?” “Does anybody else know?” and so on. I might like to read that.

  • Adam Lee

    Or novelty joy-buzzer.

  • eyelessgame

    So I’m a bit of a masochist. I transcribed the technobabble.

    “Atmospheric vacuum.”
    “This motor uses the Casimir effect. It’s a small particle accelerator. It throws small helium particles into heavier particles.”
    “Then this (points) must be a secondary cooling system, probably designed to eliminate excess heat generated during the process.”
    “Exactly. And this creates a magnetic field, in place long enough for the collapsing vacuum pressure to be captured.”
    “An engine that uses vacuum pressure to create static electricity.”

    I agree – that’s a cattle prod. But not just any cattle prod: it’s a quantum nuclear-powered electromagnetic air-conditioned suction-cup cattle prod. With atmospheric vacuum, not any of those other types of vacuum.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    Dr. Heller: It’s a process which results in an accelerated flow of electrons that creates such a powerful magnetic force.

    Invisible Boy: So this is, basically, like a huge electromagnet.

    Dr. Heller: Well, actually, it’s an electro-nuclear-magnet. It’s the next inevitable phase.

  • Michael

    Even the made-up technobabble annoys me, most especially where there’s no *possible* known way to have what they depict. A case in point: explanations for powers like creating magnetic fields based on “junk DNA.” *facepalm* It’s a mark in favor of science that people do feel the need to come up with these “scientific” explanations of stuff, however. In the old days it would just be “magic.”

  • Ken Engel

    If it actually fused atoms, that by itself is what releases a tremendous amount of energy – the Casimir Effect would be irrelevant. So in other words, what Hank and Dagny discovered is a Mr. Fusion prototype! The mysterious inventor is Dr. Emmett Brown!

  • VinnyJH

    I finally read the book in 2009 because I wanted to understand all the references I was hearing on CNBC. After about 50 pages, I started skipping ahead every time I saw that someone was delivering a monologue that went on more than a couple paragraphs.I never would have gotten through it otherwise. I was just stunned by irony of a railroad heiress as the heroine of anti- government individualism. 19th century railroads gorged on government land grants, government financing, and government troops to dispossess the original owners of the land.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    The novel asserts that it’s Lillian’s fault that his love life at home is boring and passionless…

    Maybe I haven’t read far enough, but this isn’t quite the impression I got. The problem is that Hank doesn’t really like Lillian, and just has sex with her on rare occasions in order to exercise his “animal” urges, which for some reason he is slightly ashamed of. (That is, he’s ashamed of his untamed urges, not the shitty way he treats his wife.) His original attraction to her was her reticence, but once he bagged his prize, he had to accept her as an actual human being, which he apparently couldn’t do.

    This is actually one of the few parts of the novel that is understandable, at least in terms of why relationships often don’t work out. Of course the lesson we’re supposed to draw from it is fucked.

    I welcome any correction from the more obsessed Rand readers/former acolytes here.

  • X. Randroid

    Another mystery to me is why the writers decided Hank should know about the motor’s existence and go looking for it. Rand had the sense to make it an accidental discovery: Dagny goes to the abandoned Starnes factory looking for machine tools and stumbles upon the motor in a junk heap in a lab. But in the movie, Hank has somehow found a picture of it and heard some rumor or something (I forget the details and am not masochistic enough to re-watch), so he knows it’s there long before he and Dagny go there. This raises even more questions, like why is Hank the only person who’s heard this rumor or seen this photo?

  • X. Randroid

    I think part of what you may be missing is this (end of Part I, Chapter VI):

    … she submitted whenever he wished. She submitted in the manner of complying with the rule that it was, at times, her duty to become an inanimate object turned over to her husband’s use.

    She did not censure him. She made it clear that she took it for granted that men had degrading instincts which constituted the secret, ugly part of marriage. She was condescendingly tolerant. She smiled, in amused distaste, at the intensity of what he experienced. “It’s the most undignified pastime I know of,” she said to him once, “but I have never entertained the illusion that men are superior to animals.”

    We’re to understand that it was Lillian’s lack of interest that made Hank stop desiring her; that’s why he only has sex with her when he can’t contain his animal need. (I guess Rearden was not aware that he could take care of his “animal need” all by himself. I’m not a guy, but going solo seems like a far more pleasant option than sex with a partner who regards the act with “distaste.”)

    Now one could make up all sorts of theories as to the root of Lillian’s attitude: culture, upbringing, madonna/whore messaging. And you might imagine that these are issues a couple could work through.

    But you’d be wrong. In Part III, we will find out that Lillian is acting this way on purpose, as part of an Evil Scheme against Hank. So yes, any Objectivist will tell you that the state of the Reardens’ relationship is entirely Lillian’s fault. And, taking the story on its own terms, they’d be right.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Thanks, I may have gotten the whole thing a bit inverted. Since I’m a guy, Hank’s “animal need” is kind of what stuck with me; as in he just needs to get off now and then and doesn’t care about love or passion, because it’s Lillian. Also, Queen Victoria aside, I’m not sure that female sexual passivity really exists. Lillian is somehow uninterested in Hank’s physical affection but later practically begs him for it? Nuts.

    Now that I reread this passage, it seems oddly similar to what happened with Winston Smith in 1984. His wife, who I think had been a member of the Anti-sex League, considered sex her “duty to the Party” (only to make babies, of course). Winston was so turned-off by this that he couldn’t do it anymore and was granted a rare divorce.

  • J-D

    Winston Smith’s attitude was the one officially promoted by the Party. And the Party didn’t permit them to divorce, although it accepted their separation.

    And the evidence of her letters and diaries suggest strongly that Victoria was very much attracted to her husband and enjoyed sex with him. Albert hung in one of his bathrooms a painting of Hercules and Omphale, the mythical Queen of Lydia who is described as having kept the demigod as a slave and used him for sexual as well as other purposes.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Winston Smith’s attitude was the one officially promoted by the Party.

    Do you mean his wife’s attitude?

    It’s good to know that Victoria liked to get laid. I was just recalling the famous saying of “close my eyes and think of England”, which she probably never said. It makes Lillian’s character even less believable.

  • simeonberesford

    My impression of Queen Victoria is that she enjoyed her sex life immensely.( They had a mechanical remote control next to the that allowed them to lock the door to keep the kids and servants out of the bedroom. During their more intimate moments) certainly her diaries suggest it and Albert did have her painted in some very suggestive come hither poses.

  • TBP100

    Not to mention that the rugged individualist, go-it-alone, uncompromising artist/hero in The Fountainhead is, of all things, an architect. Architecture is an inherently collective enterprise, with the architect being just one member of the team, albeit a very important one. Virtually all architectural design is done on commission, for clients who have very specific requirements that must be met once the architect accepts the job. And however lofty the artistic ambition, the design must actually be buildable (Frank Loyd Wright’s clients would have been well served if he’d paid more attention to structural engineers).

  • J-D

    Yes, sorry, I meant that Winston Smith’s wife’s attitude was the one officially promoted by the Party.

    A number of sources report that Alice, wife of the second Baron Hillingdon, wrote the following in her journal in 1912: ‘I am happy now that Charles calls on my bed chamber less frequently than of old. As it is I now endure but two calls a week and when I hear his steps outside my door, I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England.’ However, the best sources cast doubt on this and report that no journal survives to provide confirmation. If even Lady Hillingdon never wrote those words (and it is the sort of thing people would love to make up), I think we can be sure that Victoria (who was widowed in 1861 and died in 1901) never said them.

  • Indigo

    Kate Beaton has some amusing comics about it, which you can find here:

  • X. Randroid

    Lillian is somehow uninterested in Hank’s physical affection but later practically begs him for it? Nuts.

    Well, not really. In that scene where Lillian enters Hank’s bedroom, she’s not looking for sex, although sane, non-Objectivist readers might reasonably think she is. That would be a normal, human motivation for a severely neglected wife. But Lillian’s motivations are neither normal nor human. What I think Rand intends here is that Lillian, having noticed that Hank is avoiding her, has become worried that her Evil Scheme is failing, and she goes into his bedroom to try to find out. She comes on to him as a way of testing his reaction, not because she actually wants sex with him.

    In short, “Nuts” is right.

  • SmogMonster

    If it actually fused atoms wouldn’t it incinerate everyone in a couple mile radius? Like isn’t that a bomb?

  • J_JamesM

    The absurdity is slightly lessened by the fact that I desperately wish I could invent cold fusion and FTL travel using nothing but technobabble and bootstraps.

  • Jackson

    It’s ’cause everyone else in the movie understands thermodynamics.