I imagine the conversation went a little something like this:
“But it’s just so damned long. So dense. It’s split up into a trilogy already, but each section is incredibly detailed. We’ll have to cut only the most insignificant parts out, utilize succinct dialogue, and take everything nuanced about it and distill that into visuals for the screen. It’ll be back-breaking, intricate work that will require fortitude and kid gloves in equal measure. There are so many moving parts here, and keeping them coherent and meaningful will be the cyclopean task that either ensures our success or cements our failure. What do you think?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening. Can we hurry this up?”
And with that, the task of adapting Ayn Rand‘s novel began.
As a piece of classic literature that has already proven itself to stand time’s cruel test, “Atlas Shrugged” deserved a far better movie than it got. The reasons are simple, and I doubt anyone would grandly fault the filmmakers in any real way. It would be like hating Babe Ruth for not being able to hit a bullet with his baseball bat. You hate that he missed, but you tilt your head and accept that everyone else would have missed too. Or, at least, almost everyone else would have.
However, since the biggest problem with the adaptation was buried in the structure of the movie, there’s one thing that would have made Atlas Shrugged: Part I a far, far better film.
Ready for it? Here it is:
Going By the Book
It seems achingly simple, but for some reason the writers, producers, director and editors of Atlas Shrugged took the elements of the book, jumbled them up slightly and turned John Galt into a shadowy, living non sequitur.
There is a lot to the book, no doubt, but going purely by plot – purely by story beats – the order of events in the book is crystal clear. It’s a mystery why it would be changed at all. Boiling it all down to the basic beats, here is what the book looks like:
- Eddie Willers is asked, “Who is John Galt?” by a homeless man while on his way to tell James Taggart that another order of steel is late and there’s been a derailment.
- Dagny Taggart hears a brakeman whistling a mysterious set of notes he claims (and then disavows) is from her favorite composer, she instructs the crew how to proceed when she finds the train she’s riding has stopped, and she decides (because of the problem) to promote skilled employee Owen Kellogg.
- Dagny informs James of her deal with Rearden Steel, calls Mr. Ayers to inquire about the mysterious musical piece which apparently doesn’t exist, and her meeting with Kellogg ends with him quitting despite loving the job.
- Hank Rearden watches his steel rolling off for the first time with pride, walks home to give his wife a thoughtful gift, is treated with contempt, and speaks with friend Paul Larkin about trouble brewing in Washington and how ridiculous his family treats him.
- James Taggart, Boyle, Larkin and Mouch meet to discuss ways of destroying Rearden Steel. They each promise to fulfill a task. Taggart learns the San Sebastian line in Mexico has been gutted.
- He confronts Dagny about it who explains that Mexico might soon nationalize and claim the line (thus killing the investment), they discuss Francisco d’Anconia (giving a bit of background). Dagny leaves and has a crucially symbolic chat with a newsvendor about cigarettes and the idea of a man holding fire in his hands.
- Willers eats in the cafeteria and meets the Mystery Worker. He reveals Dick McNamara as the contractor for the Rearden metal-using refurbish of the Rio Norte Line and that Dagny sits at home every night listening to her favorite composer, Halley.
- Willers and Dagny learn that McNamara has quit, Dagny observes pop culture trash on her way home, soothes herself with Halley and learns that d’Anconia has returned to New York.
- James Taggart wakes up late in his girlfriend’s bed, cursing Dagny for the Mexico situation until he sees that she was right – Mexico has nationalized and taken control of the line. He takes credit for Dagny’s work in front of the board.
- The Boyle Cabal succeeds in creating the Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog rule which will crush Taggart competition Phoenix-Durango. James gloats to Dagny about ruining their competitor, Dan Conway, and Dagny throws him out.
- Dagny visits Conway to convince him to battle the new rule, but he’s accepted his fate as a sacrifice on the temple of the greater good.
- Ellis Wyatt, the oil tycoon, shows up in Dagny’s office berating her for her company not fulfilling his shipping needs. Instead of stammering or excuse-making, she simply says that what he needs will be done – a fantastic contrast with the previous scene.
- Dagny meets with Hank to say that the new rule has created a shorter timeline in which she needs her steel. He says it’ll be done, they make a connection, and a lot of the symbolic work of the book is achieved.
- Dagny sets a meeting with d’Anconia and he tells her he deliberately screwed the pooch on the Mexico deal, that he’s aiming for Wyatt next, and that Taggart will collapse because of his doing. He is cemented as the main villain (even though that will change).
- Hank attends a party being thrown by his wife, acts awkwardly toward Dagny, and has an interesting, long discussion with d’Anconia. Dagny hears one old woman’s myth about John Galt while at the party.
- Dagny meets with Wyatt and then with Hank at the construction site of a new bridge on the line.
- Dagny bails on a debate her brother has tricked her into, and she ends up eating in a diner where she learns more myths about John Galt. His mystery grows.
- Dr. Potter tries to get Hank to take his metal off the market, then bribes him, but Hank refuses in a glorious moment that champions pride in ownership and hard work.
- Dagny visits the State Science Institute to find out why they’ve published a fake study condemning Rearden metal.
- Conway refuses to sell his rails to Taggart, which places the company in an impossible position, so Dagny decides to start a shadow company and finish what she’ll call The John Galt Line herself.
- Dagny begs d’Anconia for the money, and he dances around the subject, but finally agrees when he learns the name of the line. This allows her to order the Rearden metal needed to finish the project.
- Rearden’s mother asks him to put his brother to work, but he defies her in a moment showing the growth of the character. It’s a triumph followed by a scene where:
- The government passes a law making it illegal for anyone to own more than one business. Thus, Hank begins signing away his other companies while keeping Rearden Metal for himself.
- Public opinion is against Rearden and Taggart, a union boss threatens Dagny who refuses to back down, and when she requests volunteers to make the first run of the John Galt Line – every single person (who can be reached) volunteers for the job, and she announces that she’ll be on board.
- A press conference is held at the maiden voyage, the train performs beyond expectations, and Dagny, Hank and Wyatt all eat together. Dagny and Hank finally consummate their relationship.
- They agree to go away together, Hank questions whether wandering needs to be pointless, and they decide to go to the 20th Century Motor Company. There, they find a prototype, miracle engine, and they hunt down the owner of the factory. Meanwhile more companies are headed to Colorado because of its wealth. Willers tells Dagny that Washington is trying to destroy the state.
- Dagny returns to New York City, places the engine in a safe place, and fights with James over his intention to support killing Colorado, finally realizing that he’s not on the side of the company.
- The great choice is laid out in front of Dagny and Hank both – either become the friend of Washington/Mouch or risk losing everything by betting on the missing inventor of a motor and trying to run a business in less-than-ideal circumstances.
- Dagny chooses to hunt for the inventor, is rebuked by the cook of the best burger of all time, and as she speeds by on her train home, she sees Wyatt’s oil fields on fire.
Even allowing an average of five minutes for each story point, the movie would be able to include everything on this list (and most everything on it is of great importance) and still be less than two and a half hours. That seems incredibly reasonable.
Unfortunately, the production hobbled itself by creating a foolishly short hour and forty-two minute runtime. They’re adapting a beast of a book, and didn’t even shoot for a full two hours. It’s baffling. A healthy portion of these plot moments exist in the movie, but the connective tissue isn’t there. Just one example is shoving a never-before-seen-character into Dagny’s office, calling him Owen Kellogg, and having a confusingly vague conversation about him quitting near the midway point of the film. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything in the movie, but it’s an important early moment in the book that partially acts as foundation for the Galt mystery.
The production stripped the novel so far down that great character moments like the cigarette discussion, Halley’s music (as the first sign of the Galt mystery), the juxtaposition of the talks with Conway and Wyatt, Hank rebuking his mother (finally), and the announcement of everyone volunteering for the first run were left out while incredibly long shots of Colorado countryside and a nearly pointless dinner party languished on screen.
There are signs that the production simply didn’t understand what made certain scenes important. The best example of this is the inclusion of a scene in the limo where Dagny realizes that her brother has tricked her into a public event that will be a debate on the problems of Rearden steel. The point of the scene in the book (besides showing her brother to be even more of an ass) was to get her to leave the limo and go eat at a local diner in a bad neighborhood. It brings the reality of the world to light and it gives her (and the audience) a chance to hear more of the John Galt mythos. In the movie, this scene is another random fight between the siblings that ends with Dagny walking off until the scene fades out without really achieving anything.
What’s worse is that, in the movie, Galt isn’t a mystery. He’s a man in a trench coat talking to random (to us) characters who then disappear in a flurry of typed exposition. It would have been so much more effective (which is maybe why Rand wrote it more like this) to have Galt be a complete unknown, a man only talked about but never seen, a myth that grows larger and larger as the movie goes on until – bam! – he shows up on Wyatt’s doorstep and introduces himself. He would have been a figure like Arthur Jensen in Network who is mentioned and exalted several times, but never seen until he delivers the most powerful monologue of the film. It could have been an explosive reveal, but instead, the movie begins with a limp moment between a character who is never seen again and a figure who is shoved into scenes that are then replayed in exposition. We see McNamara disappear, and then we hear about him disappearing. The audience only needs one, and being repetitive wasted precious time. It meant cutting out something like, say, the subplot of Willers and The Mystery Worker.
Even as a mess, the movie was quickly paced, and it would have moved even faster if other key scenes had been included. Ironically, adding to the runtime would have made it all feel faster, smoother, and far less convoluted. It would have wrapped up many of the dramatic situations, and left a few mysteries in the end (just like any good Part I in a trilogy). At the very least, if the film was going to preach to its built-in audience, wouldn’t that audience have been fine with (or even salivated for) another half hour of movie? Another forty-five minutes?
I have to assume that the real limitation was the budget calling for a truncated film. If that’s the case, it’s understandable, but still irritating. An old phrase about doing it right or not doing it at all certainly applies here.
Barring the budget being the main obstacle, all the production needed to do was follow the series of events from the book in order to create a coherent story that flowed naturally from one scene to the next. Instead, they made cuts to some crucial scenes, took out the poetry, and left moments (like the limo ride to the debate) on screen without following through to the points they made in the book.
I realize fully that all of this sounds like the “Where’s Tom Bombadil!?” outrage that the release of Fellowship of the Ring caused, but even though Rand’s work is voluminous (like Tolkien’s), there is not an overwhelming amount of active plot points. Taking out the flashbacks does a bulk of the trimming (which is worth it even if it means doing real work to describe elements like Dagny’s prior relationship with d’Anconia). Condensing the hunt for the motor’s inventor helps, too, but the point is that I’ve created a list of 29 plot points (a perfectly manageable number) that includes every major moment in the first book while leaving in a half dozen poignant moments of non-action. It can be done. It should have been done.
I wouldn’t normally Monday Morning Quarterback a film like this, but “Atlas Shrugged” deserved better than it got. Fortunately, as we all know, reboots and remakes are a foregone conclusion, so maybe 1) the second installment will be a bit braver when it comes to including plot elements and 2) maybe someone in the future will take a better whack at making this thing the piece of transcendent art that it deserves to be instead of the lukewarm, made-for-TV production it turned out to be.