A Roman copy of a Greek original

For successful transmission into the broader culture, great artwork must be copied into different mediums, by different artists with different visions and different capabilities. In the new Atlas Shrugged movie, this process is well at work.

I watched the preview screening of Atlas Shrugged Part 1 in New York City last week, and here is my take on it.

This is a sincere attempt to portray Atlas Shrugged. The production team genuinely liked and respected Atlas Shrugged and it appears they tried to portray it to the best of their ability within the constraints they had.

Making a movie is a large-scale endeavor, and working for nearly two decades to bring the movie to fruition required considerable tenacity, resourcefulness, and purposefulness. I must thank especially John Aglialoro, the producer who spearheaded the project, for making that happen.

My overall impression of the movie can best be described by an analogy. A few years ago, I began studying the cuture of Ancient Greece. I did so by immersion into Greek literature, visual arts, history, philosophy, science, descriptions of daily life and customs, learning rudiments of Ancient Greek language, and visiting Greece.

I found the Ancient Greek culture to be so dramatically and radically different from the culture around us that most modern attempts to portray the culture captured only the outward trappings while missing the core view of man that animates the culture.

Capturing the political, economic, and social aspects of Atlas Shrugged is an achievement itself.

Similarly, this movie does a good job of capturing the political, economic, and social aspects of Atlas Shrugged while missing the deeper moral, psychological, epistemological, and metaphysical aspects of the novel.

As someone who deeply loves Atlas Shrugged, and knows that the heart of Ayn Rand’s achievement is metaphysical, epistemological, psychological, and moral, I was left with a sense of emptiness — of seeing a work of art that looks like Atlas Shrugged on the surface, but with something critical missing.

Capturing the political, economic, and social aspects of the novel is an achievement itself, and I certainly enjoyed seeing that brought to life on the screen. That said, the movie versions of Ayn Rand’s characters were oddly similar to people I see in New York every day. They talked, looked, moved, and related to each other somewhat like most people do today, not in the highly stylized manner of the novel’s characters. I had the odd sensation that I was watching a world halfway between Ayn Rand’s world and my New York today — a hybrid of naturalism and romanticism.

The production quality is high and the movie is well-executed visually.

The clearest and most damaging way in which this was executed was by unnecessary replacement of Ayn Rand’s dialog by those of the movie’s writers. My guess is that having the characters talk more like most people today was an attempt to make the characters more “believable.”

Though I know next to nothing about movie making, I have one sure-fire piece of advice that could make Atlas Shrugged Part 2 significantly better while reducing production costs: Please, please use more of Ayn Rand’s lines.

The good portrayal of Hank Rearden and a dramatic and innovative use of “Who is John Galt?” lines were the highlights of the movie for me. The production quality is high and the movie is well-executed visually. I again thank the production team for making this movie and I encourage my friends to see it. It is not an experience you want to miss.

"Laocoon and His Two Sons," a Roman adaptation of a Hellenistic work

Let me expand on the analogy to modern portrayals of Ancient Greek culture. The central difficulty in modern portrayals of Ancient Greece lies in what I will call the “cultural distance” between the modern view of man and the Ancient Greek view of man.

Making a great movie based on a great book is not the mere translation, but the creation, of an entirely new artistic integration.

The cultural distance between Ayn Rand’s view of man and the modern view of man is equally large. Some of us who have spent years internalizing and making operational in ourselves Ayn Rand’s metaphysical, epistemological, psychological, and moral principles, are aware of this distance, through the sheer effort it has cost us to traverse it.

Traversing that cultural distance in one’s own person, however, is easier than making a piece of art that objectively enables others see the new vision of man in a concretized form across that massive cultural chasm. That is precisely Ayn Rand’s achievement in creating Atlas Shrugged. Even with her phenomenal artistic skill, it took her over 1000 pages and over a decade of unremitting labor to make her vision real.

Because a movie is a distinct art medium with its own unique constraints, strengths, and weaknesses, making a great movie based on a great book is not the mere translation, but the creation, of an entirely new artistic integration that matches the original in meaning. It would take an artistic achievement on the order of Ayn Rand’s to make a movie that fully lives up to the novel. All this needs to be kept in mind while judging the movie.

We need both the Greek ideal and the Roman transmission network.

Romans revered Greek sculpture and made a massive number of copies of it, but they never could capture the deeper meaning — the dynamic, living soul of the Greek sculpture.

In focusing on the political, economic, and social aspects of the novel as opposed to its deeper spiritual aspects; in using a more colloquial dialog and characterizations to replace Ayn Rand’s highly stylized one; and by using the extremely efficient mechanism of the movie medium itself — the Atlas Shrugged movie does to the novel what Romans did to Greek art. The movie is a Roman copy of a Greek original.

While the Greek sculpture is far superior in esthetic value, Roman sculpture through its sheer quantity and superlative transmission ability has served a critical cultural value as the transmission mechanism for the Greek ideal. Just as the Renaissance sculptors discovered Greek art largely through their Roman copies, this movie trilogy will help a wider audience discover Atlas Shrugged.

Both Greece and Rome are the foundations of our civilization. We need both the Greek ideal and the Roman transmission network. While it would be wrong to blame the Roman transmission network for not having the Greek delicacy, it would also be wrong to let ourselves forget the full grandeur of the Greek ideal, due to the ubiquity of Roman copies.

With this in mind, I raise a toast to both — to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and to Atlas Shrugged the movie — each for what they are.

Shrikant Rangnekar lives in New York City. This article originally appeared on his blog, where he is still updating the original post in response to reader feedback.

10 comments from readers  

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Excellent analysis. Hopefully, the next two movies will delve deeper into her philosophy in a more expicit manner.
I'm still waiting to see the entire Atlas Shrugged Part 1, so I shouldn't confirm your analysis yet. I do like your Greek to Roman analogy though and "cultural distance" reference. Perhaps this first installment is mostly crafted to attract new audiences who otherwise wouldn't think to read AS. Hopefully the next two will be increasingly more Objectivist while continuing to attract new AS readers.

Books and films are two almost entirely different artistic mediums. While they share in the role of storytelling, they do it with almost completely opposite methods. Ayn Rand finally accepted this herself after tackling her sceenplay of The Fountainhead and its subsequent troubled Hollywood production politics. She left Hollywood shortly after and said that Hollywood filmmaking as an art form was still in it's infancy due the conflicting sense of life that the separate artists involved. Let's hope that ASP1, 2, & 3 will be more mature without losing their epistemological aspects.
Of the two movies made of Rand's books I found "We the Living" better. Rand had no input. I find this hard to explain. With her background in movies I would expect the opposite. In fact, I had held the belief that Rand would be necessary for a faithful adaptation. I was wrong. Evidently, making a movie is much more complicated than I guessed from the sidelines as a movie buff who judges movies on the highest level (as described by Rand in her comment on levels of consciousness). If Shrikant is correct, as I suspect he is, I can only hope this shortfall is corrected in Part 2. If necessary, I will do whatever I can to help. Movies are our best mass communication device. And the ideas of Rand are necessary for civilization to advance. The stakes could not be higher.
That was an exceptionally insightful review. Thank you.

Iâ??ve not yet seen the film, but from all the advance publicity, trailers, and reviews, I had already reached preliminary conclusions about the film similar to yours. However, your analogy to the Roman copying of Greek culture is brilliant, and it sounds to me as if youâ??ve nailed the essential difference between the source and the adaptation.

Iâ??m also impressed by your sense of proportion about what may be called the spiritual deficiencies of the film. You properly consider the context in which this production was made, and what was reasonably possible under the circumstances. And you also do not simply dismiss the adaptation as being without value, let alone as vandalism. I see no evidence from the cast and crew of a desire to produce anything less than the best film adaptation of which they were capable. Just because they didnâ??t communicate all of the Randian worldview does not mean they should be damned for communicating some of it, and communicating it well.

On that score, it has always been far easier to communicate Randâ??s social philosophy, including her political and economic views, than it has been to present her radically challenging sense of â??man-worship,â? let alone to objectify and embody it. Itâ??s one of the reasons that Iâ??ve long felt that the focused psychological-spiritual theme of The Fountainhead represents, in some respects, a more radical and pointed challenge to contemporary culture than the more sweeping and all-encompassing themes of Atlas Shrugged. It is all too easy for many, through selective skimming, to read the latter work as primarily a social novel. That kind of reading is precisely what contributed to some of the aberrations of the libertarian movement: a movement that sought to detach Randâ??s political-economic outlook from its deeper philosophical context, and to jettison the latter.

Youâ??re quite right that the chief value of this film will be to draw uninitiated viewers to the novel. To that single end, ironically, the filmâ??s â??spiritual deficienciesâ? may actually prove to be a mixed blessing. I wonder just how much a modern movie audience would accept the kind of completely stylized and romanticized characters of the novel? In rendering Randâ??s characters as somewhat more conventional (and yes, I hate the spiritual connotations of word), they also may have caused them to be more credible and accessible to audiences yet unprepared to believe in anything greater.

To cite yet another analogy, even in the novel, certain characters had to be gradually exposed to the heroâ??s message before they were psychologically prepared to go the entire distance. My hope is that in giving audiences an attractive glimpse of Atlantis, the film may entice more than a few people to take the plunge.
I think the beauty of this film, Atlas Shrugged Part 1, is that it will stimulate people to read the book. Yes, it's the dialogue of the typical New Yorker. Yes, it's not Ayn Rand's words from the book.

It's a film that SHOWS her ideas. It does what film does best, it PRESENTS her ideas to people who may have never even heard of her or her book. She wrote for everyone. Not just intellectuals. She wanted to reach the entire human race, so they could see the importance of each and every life, each and every individual. I think this film succeeds in doing that for her. I think she would be amazed at how closely the director and the actors have come to giving the American public a typical Hollywood drama, with Ayn Rand's philosophy immersed in the story.

Atlas Shrugged was never intended for "intellectuals," it was intended for the average man, so he could see his own possibilities and his own failure to act.

The intellectuals may have a heyday criticizing this film but who cares? It's not about intellectuals, and it's not about whether the film has met the standard of perfect Objectivism. Its a film that may wake up the world, which is exactly what Ayn Rand wished to achieve. Thanks to all involved in this project. Good work.
Read Atlas Shrugged in 1964, gave me back to me. It is exciting to read Mr. Rangnekar's analysis of a movie I hoped against hope would portray what I knew would be extremely difficult to portray....."Ayn Randâ??s metaphysical, epistemological, psychological, and moral principles" which underlie her characters' values and decisions. How would they have the audience understand that without using her lines? I am eager and apprehensive. Thank you Mr. Rangnekar.
I wish I could give this a higher rating than five. This may well be the most insightful and original single column I've read across the years of The Atlasphere.

And I say that having not seen the movie and therefore having no idea if he is correct about that.

Its brilliance and depth is in the far-reaching nature of the author's point about the incredible distance from the world of the Greeks and ours. And in making the very useful comparison between that chasm and the chasm between Rand's universe at a fundamental level and ours.

I'll have to think about the distinction he makes between the world of the more fundamental issues (metaphysics, epistemology, etc.) and the others he lists. Perhaps he will flesh out what he means by this in his blog:

I'm a book reader not a blog reader, but based solely on this one superb article, I will check out this author's blog.
This is the best review of the movie I have read. I concur with your view and it is so well said. This is outstanding.
Before we say that the epistemological, metaphysical and other philosophical elements are missing, I think that we must see Parts II and III. Notice that in the clips of Rearden returning home and Dagny talking to the union man, a lot of implied morality is at work, and it works well. For it to work well, didn't the writer have to understand Rand's metaphysics, epistemology and psycho-epistemology to a certain degree? I cannot answer with certainty, but the suspense will be sufficient for me to wait for the second and third installments. Only then will be we be able to pass properly considered, factually based judgment on the questions raised.

Cheers, everybody, and remember, Pragmatism is Poison. You heard it here.
Ayn Randâ??s metaphysical, epistemological, psychological, and moral principles are not elucidated in the first part of the book. They are hinted at and the behavior of the characters are replete with examples of morality, amorality and immorality; reason, faith, and hazy confusion. To expect more of a condensed version of part I than you expect of the novel itself is a sign of impatience, at worst, the all too-familiar reaching too hard to be noticed as a 'player' in the scramble for position in the so-called Objectivist hierarchy, and at best, just impatience. We all have different views of how the characters should behave, carry themselves, and such. I suggest that we all see the picture a few times, and then weigh in on its merits.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.