I had the privilege of watching the Atlas Shrugged Part 1 preview screening on February 24th in Culver City, California. A few minutes into the movie, a moment came when I found myself letting go of the deep breath I had been unknowingly holding in my chest. I eased back in my seat, relieved of my long-held worry that this low budget, quickly produced film might be amateurish or even embarrassing.
On the contrary, by the time the end credits rolled, I was impressed with the consistently high production values achieved on such a low budget. The set design, editing, music, wardrobe, and camerawork were all first rate. Even the special effects scenes revealed no evidence of cutting corners. Make no mistake, it’s one handsome film.
After a brief smattering of restrained applause, I noticed a few people glancing around with bewildered expressions and most saying nothing. We filed out quietly. Once outside, I spoke with a few people who were quite pleased with the film. But as I spoke with others, similar themes emerged: “I don’t know what to think.” “I have mixed feelings.” “I can’t put my finger on it.” “I’m not excited but I can’t explain why.”
Was it the casting? Not really. All the actors looked and sounded appropriate for their roles and gave adequate-to-very-good performances.
For my taste, Taylor Schilling projects a persona that is too soft and vulnerable for the character of Dagny. I found it hard to really believe her character ran a transcontinental railroad. And yes, a couple of A-list actors in key roles might have bumped up the overall experience a notch or two; but the budget didn’t allow for that, and this cast did a very creditable job.
Was it the direction? For the most part, no. The movie did alternate between crisp, fast-moving “action” scenes and talky expositional scenes that sometimes bogged down. I wondered, as Hank and Lillian’s anniversary party dragged on, why a few minutes of that time hadn’t been allocated to other material from the novel.
In terms of creativity, the overall direction was naturalistic and straightforward, matching the level of a well-made TV movie. Budget constraints probably left little time for inspired or risky stylistic treatment of the material, much less the larger-than-life romantic approach than Ayn Rand would no doubt have preferred.
Was the dialogue the film’s undoing? Not exactly. Although it was naturalistic and was updated to present day phrasing — I don’t remember any character in the novel saying they were “pissed off” — for the most part it was remarkably Randian in tone and style. Even in scenes not found in the novel, the dialogue stayed true to what one would expect in the Rand universe.
Reflecting the first third of the novel, the film understandably devoted considerable screen time to exposition and to faithfully introducing major and minor characters — perhaps too much exposition and too many characters. There was little time left for even truncated versions of Rand’s hallmark speeches.
We are left with protagonists who seem to hold Randian views but we never hear why! Particularly galling for me was that Francisco’s speech on money is virtually non-existent. Purists might howl at the notion, but streamlining story elements and combining a few of the minor characters would have left more time for Rand’s voice.
So where then does the movie really fall short? Fundamentally, the problem is that a major strength of the novel did not survive the translation to the medium of film.
The movie version of Atlas Shrugged feels flat because we are given so few opportunities to get inside the heads of the characters and empathize with what they are feeling.
Rand’s novel — as with most well-written novels — takes the reader inside the mind of each character. We can read how Dagny agonizes over the disappearance of the productive people of the world. We can revel in the pride Hank feels about his new metal.
We can see the envy and denial at work inside the minds of looters and bureaucrats. Through the thoughts of Hank and Dagny, we get a visceral sense of their growing attraction to one other.
In Atlas Shrugged Part 1 the script succeeds at faithfully adapting the plot of the novel but we have little opportunity for true empathy with the characters and so our emotional responses stay muted. We, the audience, remain remote observers as the story unfolds.
We see this clearly in the absence of any “sizzle” to Dagny and Hank’s romantic relationship. And when Dagny rides the John Galt Line for the first time, we see that she looks triumphant; but we, the audience, don’t share that feeling with her.
The final scene of the film centered on Dagny’s horrified reaction to a shocking and devastating event. The sudden intensity of her emotions seemed unexpected from our detached perspective. As the final shot fades out, we don’t really care.
While Atlas Shrugged Part 1 successfully adapts the storyline of Ayn Rand’s novel, it fails to capture the inner motivation of her characters and therefore the passion of Rand’s ideas. Ironically, some devotees of the novel may still thoroughly enjoy the film, already being intimately familiar with the state of mind of the characters. The uninitiated moviegoer, though, may very well wonder what the Rand hoopla is all about.
Katheryn Schwalb is a filmmaker, television producer, and line producer. She has extensive mainstream, studio, and agency production credits in commercials, indie film, and low budget films, as well as music videos. She has been a film festival programmer and festival director for over 8 years.