Atlas’s Ayn Rand Resists Hollywood’s Call: Caroline Baum

How is it a novel so many readers describe as “life-changing” took 54 years and a gaggle of producers, writers and directors to bring to the screen?

One answer is Ayn Rand herself, author of “Atlas Shrugged,” which was published in 1957. Earlier attempts to make a movie based on the book were foiled by Rand’s insistence on creative control.

The second reason is the nature of the 1,168-page book. It’s about ideas. Rand’s characters are caricatures that reflect her ideas and ideals. Businessmen are good, government bureaucrats are bad. There is no middle ground.

A third reason, one implied by those involved, is the nature of the material.

“She’s a very controversial author,” said John Aglialoro, one of the film’s producers, who acquired the rights to “Atlas” in August 1992 from Rand’s estate. “She threw selfishness as a virtue in the face of society.”

That virtue is better described as rational self-interest. For Rand, capitalism was the only moral system, with each individual acting in his own self-interest. Productive achievement was the noblest activity and happiness, the ultimate goal.

You can see how Rand’s philosophy, so outlined, might ruffle the feathers of Hollywood’s do-gooders. Add that to the movie’s history of false starts, including six screenplays commissioned by Aglialoro alone, and it’s not hard to understand the industry’s resistance.

Rush to Production

“It was clear we were not going to get support from the Hollywood machinery, including talent agencies,” said producer Harmon Kaslow, who hooked up with Aglialoro in April 2010, three months before the rights were set to lapse.

Starting with a clean slate, the duo managed to assemble a team, come up with a fresh screenplay, cast the 41 speaking roles and begin “full principal photography” by June 15, 2010, according to Aglialoro.

“Atlas Shrugged, Part 1” opens tomorrow in 298 theaters across the U.S. A press release classifies the movie as “drama/mystery.” Veteran Hollywood producer Al Ruddy, who was the first to acquire the rights to “Atlas Shrugged” in 1974, was taken by the love story before he parted ways with Rand because of her insistence on final script approval.

Without a Trace

“Atlas” doesn’t fit into either genre. For those unfamiliar with Rand’s novel, “Atlas Shrugged” tells the story of the gradual disappearance of the nation’s entrepreneurs as government bureaucrats impose increasingly burdensome rules and regulations to stifle their success and confiscate their wealth.

One by one, these captains of copper, steel, and oil industries quit, abandoning the businesses they built, refusing to work for the benefit of anyone except themselves.

“Atlas Shrugged, Part I,” takes place in 2016 and ends before we even meet Rand’s hero, John Galt, who is the first to quit and inspires others to join him in his effort to stop the world. (Readers should look for the mysterious man in the raincoat.)

“Atlas” is unlikely to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival this year. I say this as both an admirer of Rand’s ideas and a devotee of the book.

Casting Errors

No one can accuse the producers of type-casting. The actors, pretty much a cast of unknowns, are too young. James Taggart, president of Taggart Transcontinental, looks 22, unlike the middle-aged, pathetic character, reliant on government favors, that Rand paints for us in the book.

“Everything was built around Dagny,” Kaslow told me.

Dagny Taggart, James’ sister, is the story’s protagonist, struggling to save her family’s railroad from government bureaucrats out to destroy it. She is young, played by a 26-year-old Taylor Schilling. Therefore everyone else is young.

It was hard to look at the actor playing Francisco d’Anconia, heir to the d’Anconia Copper empire. Couldn’t the producers have found someone more dapper who could speak with a Spanish accent?

The pressure to start shooting before the rights lapsed forced the producers to focus on the ideology at the expense of potential cinematic qualities.

“We put words from the book into the characters’ mouths,” Kaslow said.

I suppose if it had been possible to do otherwise, someone would have done it by now.

A is A

Fans of the book, 7 million and counting, may not notice or care. They’ll get chills, as I did, when Dagny’s new railroad line, the John Galt Line, makes its first run on tracks made of Rearden metal, a new alloy created by fellow industrialist Hank Rearden that threatens to put steel producers out of business.

The government tries to scare the public by fabricating stories about the dangers of the new metal. Defiant, Dagny and Hank man the train’s locomotive as it speeds across the Colorado landscape, over the new Rearden bridge made from, of course, Rearden metal.

Above all, the movie is faithful to Rand’s philosophy, which is known as objectivism: the idea that reality is objective. Or, as encapsulated by Galt in a 60-page monologue near the end of the book, “A is A.”

No wonder the faithful are heaping lavish praise on the movie. For them, adherence to Rand’s ideas is enough. A is A. “Atlas Shrugged” is “Atlas Shrugged.”

(Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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