Publisher's note: The movie plans discussed below were scrapped and are currently outdated. We're preserving the article here for historical purposes. For more recent information about the Atlas Shrugged movie project, see our 23 Nov 2010 interview with producer John Aglialoro about the Atlas Shrugged movie.
It is exceedingly difficult to make a good film of any kind, and I’ve had my own private worries about the Atlas Shrugged movie project for a long time.
So many elements — screenplay, casting, acting, cinematography, editing, set decoration, and especially directing — have to come together, just right, or a film can simply run off the rails (to use an appropriate metaphor here).
But Atlas Shrugged — a novel of gargantuan scale, as beloved by many as was Gone With the Wind in its time, and with characters and scenes just as cherished and iconic — poses extraordinary challenges for filmmakers, especially in meeting fan expectations.
Moreover, the book upon which the film is based is a controversial philosophical novel, which means that to succeed, the producers must get the ideas right, too.
At thirty chapters and, depending on the edition, about 1,200 pages in length, Atlas would seem impossible to do with justice at any feature-film length. It’s long been contemplated — first by NBC, later by TNT — as a television miniseries, but those ideas have fallen through.
The first was killed when Fred Silverman took over NBC, the latter when the AOL/Time-Warner marriage collapsed and key production heads rolled. (Turner Network Television was then part of Time/Warner.)
More recently, “part one” of a projected three-part
screenplay was written by Jim Hart, who envisioned the Atlas Shrugged theatrical movie as a trilogy, like Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, or the first three Star
However, there are important differences between Atlas and these other works — which the panel of producers and the director appearing at last week’s Atlas Shrugged 50th Anniversary event in Washington, D.C. clarified for the audience.
One important difference is that those other trilogies broke down easily into self-contained films, each with its own beginning, middle, and climactic ending. Not so the three sections of Atlas: the first two end on cliffhangers and do not stand on their own as complete, satisfying stories.
Given the fact that it would be quite a few months, even a year or more, between the three film releases, that would constitute an enormous financial gamble for the film’s investors. Would there be sufficient remaining interest, after the first film, to generate enough revenues to produce the second and third installments?
Or, if you wished to film all three at once, where would the enormous capital investment come from? As Lionsgate vice chairman Michael Burns told the audience (paraphrasing): “We’ll be glad to make a trilogy if you send me $180 million.”
With a miniseries and a trilogy off the table, the producers
engaged Randall Wallace, who scripted the impressive epic film Braveheart, to write a new script.
Wallace didn’t bother to look at any previous writing effort. Starting with a fresh, independent view of the novel, he set out to capture its essence at feature-film length.
According to people who ought to know, Wallace did some ingenious integrating of plot elements to condense and mesh the most important scenes, and to convey the philosophical elements in action and dialogue rather than long speeches by the characters.
Second, in a speech on the printed page, there’s no visual element that intrudes on the reader’s concentration on the words. Long speeches onscreen would make the film seem more like a static, narrated documentary than a riveting drama.
How long will the film be? The producers prefer to come in
at something under two-and-a-half hours.
They cite audience boredom as a worry, although a more likely issue for them is commercial — how many times the film can run in a day. The longer the film, the fewer daily showings, thus the lower the box office receipts.
However, a number of us implored the producers and directors to expand the running time up to three hours. We argued that any number of great films (e.g., David Lean’s masterpieces, Patton, etc.) ran longer than that and were great commercial successes. It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving the theater as Atlas roars towards its apocalyptic climax. And if it’s a great film, fans will return to the theaters repeatedly.
Presently, newly-hired director Vadim Perelman is working to adapt Wallace’s draft script to his own understanding and artistic style. Perelman is supposed to complete his adaptation by the end of this month — October 2007.
The working goal is for a script of about 140 pages. With one page equaling about one minute of screen time, that means a film of approximately two hours and twenty minutes. However, the precise length is still under discussion and debate.
Shooting is projected to begin early next year and will last approximately three months total, with post-production to follow. Michael Burns, vice president of Lionsgate and a panelist, anticipated the release to theaters in 2009.
For those unaware of how movies are made, the director is the god of the film. It’s his vision that rules and is imprinted on everything — from the script to the acting to the camera angles to the casting.
This means that the fate of the Atlas Shrugged film will rest mainly on Vadim Perelman’s shoulders. Can he handle that burden of responsibility?
Perelman spoke openly and at length — during the panel discussion, the subsequent Q&A period, and to some of us in the hotel lobby later that night — concerning his vision of the novel.
Perelman is a quirky, self-confident, outspoken maverick, and no doubt those qualities will rub off on this film in countless ways, large and small.
Born and raised under the Soviet boot, he identifies with Rand’s strong opposition to collectivism. He doesn’t consider himself to be a creature of the traditional right or the hard left, and since I don’t either — and neither did Rand — that’s fine with me. He strikes me as an exemplar of the “principled individualism” we promote in The New Individualist.
Here are some of the important qualities I think he’ll bring to the film.
Integrity. As a screenwriter and director who has adapted other literary works, Perelman cares deeply about the books he translates to the screen. He described the director’s role as the servant of the novelist. He also emphasized that he wants to do a serious, superb, definitive adaptation — one loyal to the soul of the source material.
Independence. By statement and by public reputation, this guy doesn’t give a damn about what anyone thinks of him. He also declared, with complete self-confidence, that he was the man to get the job done, and that he had absolutely no doubt that he would. Rand would have approved.
Creativity. Based on what he told some of us later, and from what I hear about his earlier House of Sand and Fog — which I’ve not yet seen — he obviously has a great imagination, plus a terrific storytelling ability and visual sense. Whatever else its possible shortcomings may be, this film will not fail as effective, stylish storytelling. In fact, I expect it to be riveting and emotionally overpowering.
Subtlety. Perelman stressed that he doesn’t want the characters to be crude symbols of ideas or one-dimensional cartoon creatures, but real, flesh-and-blood, credible people. That is hugely important. It’s easy to populate a story of ideas with wooden characters who merely symbolize various Ideas — what I have called elsewhere “premises with feet.”
For example, Perelman indicated that he didn’t care for some of Randall Wallace’s characterizations (especially of villains) because he thought they were too simplistic. On the other hand, he does not intend to diminish the stature of Rand’s heroes. When asked during the banquet Q&A how he intended to present the heroism of Rand’s characters, he answered without hesitation: “Like Ayn did.”
That is greatly reassuring. If the film is to succeed artistically — and if Rand’s ideas are to be portrayed sympathetically — then the audience must understand, identify with, and truly like Ayn Rand’s heroes and heroines. The novel’s fans will expect no less.
Style. From what he told the small, late-night group of fans, he aims to film in a “distinctive visual style.” Intriguingly, he also envisions it as a “period film” and a “fable” — although he didn’t specify what period (past or future), nor clarify exactly what he meant by “fable.”
I don’t think that he meant an other-worldly fantasy, but perhaps an “alternative history” — a tale set in, say, the 1950s “as it might have been,” had there been a John Galt around to lead a strike of the producers. These are tantalizing hints.
That’s both good and bad. He believes in himself and his vision, and he’s stubborn about it.
Does that mean he might be unwilling to listen to people who
know the material better than he does, and go off the rails at points? Only
time will tell.
If the film project has a vulnerability, it may be the same quality that will get it made: Vadim Perelman’s sheer stubbornness.
In short, I think this man can pull this off. No, it won’t be exactly how any of us might have imagined the translation of Atlas to the screen. But I don’t think it will be a mess, or uninvolving, or — most importantly — contrary to Rand’s core ideas and spirit. In fact, I’m no longer worried. I’m very encouraged.
Perelman was surprisingly, publicly forthcoming about various details of the film, as they are emerging in his mind and into the screenplay. So, in mentioning some of these public revelations here, I’m not telling stories out of school.
Obviously, The Atlas Society’s forthcoming DVD of the conference will contain a more complete and accurate record of his precise public statements to the conference audience.
Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to know anything about the plot of the coming film, skip to the next section.
The following elements will appear generally as they do in the novel.
Yes, there will be a strike, led by John Galt.
Yes, there will be “Galt’s Gulch,” and Galt’s identity will not be revealed until Dagny arrives in the valley.
Besides Dagny, all three major heroes — Francisco, Rearden, and Galt — will be in the film.
Francisco d’Anconia will be Dagny’s childhood lover and sweetheart.
Hank Rearden will be Dagny’s current lover.
However, as Perelman revealed publicly to the audience, John Galt will be depicted as Dagny’s emerging love interest; as currently envisioned, their relationship will not be consummated onscreen. By movie’s end, though, it will be clear that it will happen.
This is a prudent artistic choice. If, in the span of a couple hours of screen time, Dagny is seen to have three romantic relationships, it will tend to make each look frivolous and less important. The fact that these relationships take place over a period of years won’t matter to the viewer; the condensed time “reality” of a film will make it seem as if Dagny is simply bed-hopping.
In a similar way, and perhaps for similar reasons, Rand chose to omit the marriage of Dominique and Peter Keating in her screenplay version of The Fountainhead, in order to play up the romantic rivalry of Gail Wynand and Howard Roark.
The iconic dollar-sign cigarettes, as un-PC as they may be, will not only appear in the film: They will play an important role in the plot.
James Taggart is a major villain, and it’s obvious that he’s eaten by envy and resentment against the heroes.
Lillian Rearden is a key villainess. David Kelley (Objectivist philosopher, philosophical consultant to the film script, and a co-producer) and I had a long discussion with Perelman concerning his “take” on Lillian. Perelman regards her as one of his favorite characters — not, of course, because she’s admirable, but because she’s complex.
David and I didn’t agree with Perelman on his (perhaps preliminary) interpretation of the character, which struck me as somewhat too conventional or superficial. However, nothing is yet set in stone; and, in any case, Lillian Rearden’s precise motives are hardly pivotal to the overall meaning of the story or Rand’s philosophy.
Two characters who, unfortunately, will probably not appear in the film: Cheryl Taggart, James’s naive young wife, and Dr. Robert Stadler, the scientist who betrays John Galt. Neither will “Project X,” the nightmarish government-manufactured weapon, be in the film.
Perelman explained, with regret, that there just wasn’t enough screen time to include these characters and subplot elements. In truth, if you reflect on it a bit, these all represent non-essential variations and elaborations on the novel’s central themes.
While fascinating, and while they greatly enrich the novel, they can be omitted from the film without damaging the core plot or the main subplots and complications — just as Rand herself did in omitting Peter Keating’s girlfriend in her screenplay of The Fountainhead.
For all these reasons, my longstanding worries about this film project were much allayed during the movie panel discussion and our subsequent conversation with Perelman.
I want to emphasize this as strongly as I can: These people are all absolutely committed to doing a great film, faithful to Rand’s story, characters, and ideas.
Michael Burns, vice president of Lionsgate, read Atlas at age 17 and even attended Ayn
Rand’s funeral in 1982.
Co-producers Howard and Karen Baldwin are devoted to this
project and have worked on it with John for years.
Co-producer and script consultant David Kelley’s credibility, credentials, and commitment regarding Atlas Shrugged need no further discussion.
Co-executive producer Geyer Kosinski, who is also Angelina
Jolie’s representative, is a long-time, enthusiastic Rand
Angelina herself loves the novel and the lead character, and has insisted
that she wants to “get it right.”
And I’ve just told you my impressions of Vadim Perelman.
At long last, I really think this film will be made — and in a way that Ayn Rand would have liked.
UPDATE (14 Oct 2007): I stand amended on the issue of Perelman not specifying a "period" for the film.
According to someone who was present in the lobby conversation at times when I was not (I don't yet have permission to reveal his name), Perelman indicated that he had in mind the 1940s — which, of course, was the period of time during which Rand began writing the novel.
In other words, I surmise that it would be presented along the lines of an "alternative history."
If what my informant tells me is accurate, then fans of the novel should rejoice. This choice of time period would allow Perelman to retain much of the look, style, and details from the novel, without explanation or modification.
There would be no anachronistic high-tech contemporary gadgets (or their remains) lying around, and the presence and importance of the railroad and steel industries would require no further explanation. In fact, set in the '40s, I would imagine the movie could be shot in the film noir style, which I happen to love.
Let me emphasize: I am not saying that that style is going to be Perelman's choice. Also, I haven't independently confirmed what my source tells me about what the director told him; but I have no reason to doubt this.
Robert James Bidinotto of EcoNOT.com is the award-winning editor of The New Individualist, a monthly Objectivist-based magazine of politics and culture published by The Atlas Society. This article is reprinted from The Bidinotto Blog by permission from the author.