Atlas Shrugged: Vice-President of Exposition

Atlas Shrugged: Vice-President of Exposition March 28, 2014

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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