Where the Atlas Shrugged movie falls short

The new film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged offers first-rate set design, editing, music, wardrobe, and camerawork. Overall it was much stronger than expected. Why, then, are some viewers left unfulfilled?

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.

Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart
And yet, considered as the screen adaptation of Ayn Rand’s masterwork, Atlas Shrugged Part 1 fails in a most critical area. When the house lights came up, following the 7 p.m. screening I attended, the audience was remarkably subdued, especially considering that most were likely Rand supporters.

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.

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.

Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden

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.

We are given so few opportunities to get inside the heads of the characters and empathize with what they are feeling.

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.

Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) with the Rearden Metal bracelet
It is far more difficult to convey a character’s thoughts in a movie. It requires an incredibly specialized skillset. Ideally, the screenwriter (and director) create cinematic “cues” that allow the audience to share the feelings of the characters. This is often newly invented dialogue that didn’t exist in the novel or new character “business” that gives the viewer a hint of the character’s emotional state.

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.

22 comments from readers  

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An "Atlas" movie faces tough challenges. It must be entertaining (not necessarily instructive) for Objectivists, for general fans of the novel, and for casual movie goers. Otherwise, there will be a lot of naysayers (not necessarily unjustified). Schwalbâ??s insightful criticism will help the production of Parts 2 & 3.

Iâ??ll be happy and impressed if the movie achieves any of the goals. Most importantly, will it send throngs of new readers to the novel? Especially, in the face of expected opposition from mainstream cultural sources?

Word of mouth promoted Ayn Randâ??s novels. Hopefully, history will be repeated with the movie, DVD, streaming sales â?? generating enough revenue to finance Parts 2 & 3. From the quality of the trailers and tone of the reviews, Iâ??d be proud to donate money for their production right now. The producers may not need deep pocket backers to continue?
Ms Schwalb nailed it. After viewing the private screening in NYC, I was of the same opinion, and grateful that this author put into words those thoughts.

I'd add that certain revelations in voice-over which were used to expose plot points actually dminished the mystery which was a great element of the book, and such voice-overs could have been used instead to reveal thoughts and motivations of the characters the viewer most needs to understand.
"Ideally, the screenwriter (and director) create cinematic â??cuesâ? that allow the audience to share the feelings of the characters. This is often newly invented dialogue that didnâ??t exist in the novel or new character â??businessâ? that gives the viewer a hint of the characterâ??s emotional state."

If Katheryn could give a concrete example or two - either from what she would have wanted to see in this movie or of a great, classic movie that does this well - it would be easier for non-film experts to understand precisely what she has in mind.
Well written. I have not seen the movie myself, but your review seems carefully-studied and provides what others have not: an analysis of the audience and its reaction along with the content itself. I suspect the audience was quiet for another reason too: anyone viewing this pre-screening is likely very well versed in Rand's story and philosophy. My first response to seeing this film, regardless of how good or bad, will be to reconcile it with my Randian experience. This is no small task. A less Rand-informed audience however will also be left thinking (I hope), but more in reconcilliation with their own world view, as we all were in the reading of her works for the first time.

Thanks for taking the time, and to the makers of the film, should they read this: you have taken on what I perceive to be one of the most challenging movie-making projects one can imagine, and you have executed it with a budget that is more suited to a small mini-series. If the criticism here is the worst received, then I would say you've done an incredible job in achieving the goals: to make a strong first step and to ensure that the rest of the story can be made with resources more fitting to its magnitude.

I look very much forward to seeing the film and its sequels.
Schwalb says that at the final scene, "we don't really care" and that if we do care, it would be ironic. This is a very effective put down of a better than creditable job of bringing Atlas Shrugged to cinema.

As far as speechifying the movie, I think the producers and director made the right decision not to do that. I thought Grant Bowler presented Readen's thoughts perfectly with just his wry smile when Philip said he wanted money, but not with Rearden's name on the check.

I must say that by the final scene, I still do care, I don't consider it ironic, I can't wait to see the movie a second time, I enjoyed it thoroughly, and to anyone who asked me what the hoopla was about, I would say, "read the book and find out!"
A good introspective appraisal. Having read the book so many times, I may well impose what I know over what the movie shows. That won't help me bring other fans to her books though, if people being introduced to her via the movie "don't get it."
I appreciate your criticisms and share some of them. One criticism in particular is not justified, however. Francisco's "Money Speech" should appear early in Part Two at the wedding of James and Cherryl, not at the Rearden's anniversary party (see Book Two Chapter Two: The Aristocracy of Pull). The exchange between Hank and Francisco at the party, although abbreviated, was true to the novel. The seeds are planted that will be reaped in Part Two. Although Part One leaves many philosophic threads loose, we can hope many of them will be picked up early in Part Two.

From the publisher: Thank you for this important correction, Hans. I have excised the sentence "Particularly galling for me was that Franciscoâ??s speech on money is virtually non-existent" from the review since it would be misleading for readers. -Joshua
Very interesting Katheryn. I haven't seen the movie yet; but I won't be surprised if I find that your analysis is right on the money. I would imagine that it would take a great deal of emotional context setting for the actors to really feel the full impact of Rand's words. Only when one can connect all the dots and see all the implications of a given idea can one really feel the full power of the emotions which will logically follow.

When a Rand hero hears someone say, "We've got to find a way to protect the little guy."; they see that expression in terms of all the destructive political and economic consequences that follow from the ideas embedded in that phrase. For an actor who may not really see all that it must be hard to get to that passionate level of response. To get to that level of understanding would probably require a consummate actor who also really understands all the implications of Rand's ideas. It would almost require a new kind of actor. So, given the state of today's culture and the naturalist acting that prevails; a pretty good movie is quite an accomplishment; and all concerned should be very proud.
"Those who can - do; those who can't - criticize." Many admirers of Ayn Rand have been waiting a long time for a film adaptation of "Atlas Shrugged." I have not yet seen this new film, but I do not expect it to be perfect, just as the adaptations of "The Fountainhead" and "We the Living" were not perfect. If, however, this film succeeds in conveying Rand's ideas and introducing her philosophy to people unfamiliar with the book - and does so in a manner that encourages a wider readership - then I think we need to be grateful to all those involved in the production.

In the academic world, it is often the case that scholars are reluctant to publish their work because they know that as soon as their book comes out, it will be criticized mercilessly by their colleagues, who do not have the talent or ability to write something of their own on the same subject.

The producer, director, and actors who participated in the extraordinarily difficult job of making a film of "Atlas Shrugged" should be congratulated on having the courage to face the inevitable critical carping that will follow the general showing of their creative efforts. Like good Randians, I trust that they will ignore it - and move on to filming the second and third parts.
I was at Sony for the showing too. I agree with your qualifications. It was not fully satisfying, but eminently watchable for me as an illustration of a work I know almost line by line. I'll watch parts 2 and 3 if they come about for this reason. I might echo you in other words and say that, in emotional terms, the villains weren't villainous enough and the heroes were not heroic enough.

Your most telling line was "It requires an incredibly specialized skill set" to convey the thoughts of charactors. My question is whether anyone, including actors, in the general Hollywood community possesses what would be needed to translate and then convey Ayn Rand's full content? As it is part of the general culture with all it's stereotypes, limitations and inhibitions, I don't think so. This is far too early a time to expect this. If Anthem had been filmed, if We the Living and The Fountainhead had been refilmed, if a mini series of Atlas Shrugged had made it to TNT (cancelled when Turner sold to Time Warner) THEN there could have been real Ayn Rand insight and portrayal capacity developed. I think Rand is going to need specialists like those for Shakespeare and Ibsen. These can't spring into cinematic life in one bound, if I'm right.

As it is, Ayn Rand is yet too strange, too alien for popular consumption in vehicles costing many tens of millions, much less 3 of them, and the pragmatic film funders certainly see that. Ethical Individualism needs to enter the thoughts of both cinema professionals and their audience much more widely first. Smaller steps are needed IMO.

I'll give your comments a 5 as well founded, well expressed personal analysis.
Very good review, in my opinion. I'm sure for any film professional to capture and truly communicate Rand's philosophical persona is truly a daunting task that a low budget film would struggle to achieve. It sounds to me like the production performed a small miracle with the limited resources they could employ.

I certainly hope this first production leads to another, well-funded, movie. I know I'm looking forward to viewing this film.
Finally a review that focuses on the quality of the movie instead of the appearance of the movie. I have been appalled at the overwhelming mediocrity of the movie, and wondering how Rand herself would have reacted to seeing all of her characters going through the motions of life and careers with no obvious passion about them, and reviewers seem thrilled with how good the movie looked in spite of its low budget, and took no notice of the fact that the characters were bland, disconnected, and unreachable by the audience. It's good to see that someone is paying attention.
Jeff O
0 points
Subdued, quiet, reflective, shaken. That is exactly what I would have hoped for and expected. From Ayn Rand/Atlas Shrugged fans I would expect this. I would also expect the movie to hit the general public a lot harder. A lot harder. There may well be incidents of people fainting. People going to hospitals with anxiety attacks. Public outcry for what it does to people. Many, many people will be changed quickly, too quickly. Councilors will be busy after this show comes out. I can't wait!
I have not yet seen the film and have no way to assess the merits of Ms. Schwalb's criticisms until I do, of course. They are certainly well-considered and not mean-spirited.

However, I think that in one respect, she may be reading too much into the reaction of the audience leaving the theater, perhaps projecting onto others her own misgivings.

The most obviously missing consideration is that Part I of the story is a "downer," and ending on the Wyatt oil field fire is a BIG "downer." To expect audiences to suddenly leap to their feet cheering and applauding after Dagny fades out, screaming at this disaster, is to expect something psychologically improbable, to say the least. Part One of this trilogy is a grim installment. So will be Part Two. I don't expect people to leave the theater cheering, because they won't be in a cheerful mood.

That said, I think some criticisms advanced by Ms. Schwalb and others may have merit, and they should be weighed by the production team as they move forward. When they do, they'll have both the resources and the time to pace and polish the next two installments so that we can get much closer to the characters and their feelings. Viewed as just part of ONE film, presented in three parts, what is absent from Part One may not prove to be absent later.

For now, justice requires us to judge Part One as an adaptation of just part of an enormously challenging novel, and produced under severe constraints of time and money. In that context, I expect to see and enjoy a tremendous achievement on April 15.
Great article, thank you.

Most of the book takes place as struggles inside the mind of the characters and there is a significant back story between all of the characters, especially Dagny and Francisco. It seems to me that only a perfectly executed script, direction, and edit would do for all of us what we want this movie to do.

I have not seen the movie yet, but...

My concern is the credibility of the characters. They seam too young to have accomplished what they are said to have done, especially Reardon. Reardon spends 10 years working on a metal, after spending years in an ore mine; long enough to earn enough to purchase that mine. Then he becomes the most reliable steel producer in the country. He's the supplier for Taggart's father, presumably while he is creating his metal. He looks to be 30.

The time seams off as well. The importance of railroads has been so marginalized by the interstate highway system, and air freight, email. I have long thought that period in which Atlas was set was so perfect for the ideas.

The updated language creates a problem as well. The language that the characters use in the book is formal, it purports a sense of dignified respect for the person they are speaking to. She created a stark contrast between how the heroes speak and how the looters speak.

I'm looking forward to seeing the film. Hearing an industrialist say, "I work for nothing but my one profit" is worth the price of admission in itself.
I expect to experience Atlas Shrugged Part 1 over the weekend. Nice to know the "low budget" reality of this production does not have much of an impact - other than missing a cast of well-known film stars. I wonder what Julia Roberts might have done if cast in the Dagney Taggert role?
This is exactly how I felt when the movie ended. Rand's whole premise is to defend the morality and virtue of self-interest but all of the speeches that do this seemed to be taken out. While Atlas Shrugged faithful will probably be alright with this, the whole point of this new medium was to bring her message to a broader audience and I would say they failed.
Accurate review. Overall disappointed in the movie. If you didn't already know the storyline you would have been very confused by much of what happened. The background story of Francisco's relationship to the Taggert family was sorely missed.

One of the biggest scenes left out was that of Dagny's returning to her office to find it filled with volunteers to help run the John Galt Line on it's first run.

Taylor Shilling, although physically very much how I imagined Dagny to appear, was very one-dimensional. Grant Bowler as Hank Reardon was a decent pick, I thought he did a fine job.
On the subject of introducing the characters, the lack of Dagny and Francisco's childhood background, and her view of him then as opposed to her view of him at the anniversary party, denied the movie-only people from a foundation of their characters. This is not as important with the first part, but will have to be addressed in the part two. My wife has not yet read the book, which has given me a unique perspective.
I left the theater stunned and nearly speechless thinking, "They did it!" My problem is I have no idea how the film would look to someone seeing it cold. "Atlas Shrugged" has been part of my life since 1968. I spotted the dollar sign cigarette and understood its significance. How would anyone who has not read the book catch that?

I hope it gets Ayn Rand's idea to a new audience. I can't want for part 2 and part 3.

The hardest hurdle for the filmmakers is yet to come. How do you condense Galt's Speech down to five minutes?
Hemangini N
0 points
Quite a decent review!!

I have only watched the trailers of the film and they make me sick to the stomach.

Those praising the film have forgotten the simple fact that any feature film must be judged only as a work of art and not for any other reason.

Surprisingly enough this review by Katheryn Schwalb points out the short-comings of the film very well even if it leaves out a few important ones.

Worth reading which is very rare.
Timothy P
0 points
I enjoyed your assessment of the film and agree. I saw this film just after reading the novel for the first time. A remember a third of the way into the novel feeling the same way as seeing the film. I think only the Francisco actor could have been better cast.

I think that the best way to do justice to this novel is to really study every word that Ayn Rand wrote or recorded, and her philosophy because it is all condensed into this novel. I would suggest that the film maker study the film We the Living as a template on how to transfer Ayn Randâ??s writing to film. Furthermore having as consultants those who re-released We the Living having firsthand knowledge of Ayn Randâ??s vision of filmmaking would have improved the â??qualityâ?? of this film.
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