The timing is perfect for a movie based on Atlas Shrugged. The political debates waged in the last five years offer a nice backdrop to the hypotheticals Rand came up with more than a half century ago. So the opening of the movie this weekend should be a cause for celebration. I haven’t seen it yet (I plan on it), but color me cautious. Here’s the trailer:
The fact that the film being released this weekend is part of a trilogy is concerning; it implies that the filmmakers are sticking as closely as possible to the original text. That’s probably a bad idea. Aside from the oft-repeated concern that stuffing an 1100-page book into a 120-minute motion picture is difficult, the caricatures of lobbyists, crony capitalists, and government officials translate better in print than they are likely to on screen (based on the trailer above).
And, despite the fact that the film is reportedly set in 2016 (the not-too-distant future), the plot revolves around the railroad business. When Rand wrote the book, railroad barons were not long removed from being cast as the villains of American industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s; today’s audiences can’t relate to that. More troubling is the promotional strategy. The Tax Day release, combined with the heavy influence of FreedomWorks, suggests that traditional movie promotions will not work. If that’s the case, then Atlas Shrugged will be viewed primarily by conservative audiences who already agree with its messages. It won’t get widespread exposure to audiences that just want to go see a compelling movie and don’t care about politics.
All of this adds up to a misguided effort to make a movie which drives home a point rather than tells a good story. Media which forgets entertainment at the expense of politics gets lumped into the latter category and loses its widespread appeal.
There are plenty of reasons why books rarely make it to the screen without major overhauls. Mario Puzo’s The Godfathertold of the childhood of Vito Corleone and the back stories of several other characters; then the book was translated to film much of those details were skimmed out. The problem with Atlas Shrugged as a movie is not simply length, but the fact that the book uses that length to unravel a mystery around the core concept of a production strike.
In that central theme is a very compelling movie idea based loosely on (but still true to) Rand’s work. What if the people who held up the world simply shrugged their responsibility? Instead of being national in scope, the idea might have been better set in a small town, perhaps with small business owners rather than moguls of industry as the protagonists. That would help audiences relate to the characters – and ultimately the messages. After all, who wants to root for a billionaire? (That’s why the Richie Rich movie lost money at the box office. Don’t you dare blame John Larroquette. Don’t you dare.)
With a relatively low $10 million production cost, the movie will be true to one core Rand value: it is almost guaranteed to make its money back even if it bombs miserably. Assuming an average ticket price of $7.89, Atlas Shrugged need only sell 1.3 million tickets to cover expenses. Putting a price tag on the missed opportunity to tell a compelling story for our times is much more difficult.