Atlas Shrugged Movie, Part I (With some plot spoilers)

I think that I read that Ayn Rand simply wanted to use an “Atlas Shrugged” movie as a vehicle to advertise the novel. In other words, I think that her standard for a successful Atlas Shrugged movie was whether it would encourage people to read the novel –people who otherwise might not be aware of Atlas. I am probably not the best person to ask about whether the movie version has achieved that purpose, as I am so blatantly “partisan” when it comes to Ayn Rand and her philosophy. I am so devotedly in the “Ayn Rand camp”, that I cannot easily tell whether someone who is not already a fan will see the movie and get anything out of it -other than some of the more superficial political themes of “capitalism good, government regulations bad”- much less, go out and read the novel. I hope that someone is tracking sales of Ayn Rand’s novel, and that they will publish some sort of report or paper showing whether sales of the novel increased after the movie came out today. This would seem to be the best indicator of whether the movie is successful, by the definition described above.

With that said, I have to say, as a fan, I enjoyed the movie. I deliberately kept my expectations low. I knew it had a low budget, and that the actors and directors were relatively new to movies. I am no expert when it comes to directing or acting, I mostly look for good plot, theme and characters in a movie, but I thought that the actors and director were quite successful in making me forget that I was watching a movie, and at mentally “putting me in the moment”. I actually think that using unknown actors was better than using “big name” actors could have eclipsed the movie itself in viewer’s minds.

As a fan, I enjoyed seeing how the creators of the film chose to portray the movie, how close its plotline was to the novel, and what the actors looked like for each of the characters. As far as the look of the actors went, I thought they did a pretty good job. (Keep in mind as I write all of this, that I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged in a number of years, so I may be remembering things in the novel wrong.) I liked how the actress, Taylor Schilling, played Dagny Taggart. I think that she seemed to “get” Dagny’s character pretty well. (Or, at least, the way she saw Dagny was close to how I saw Dagny.) She mostly portrayed Dagny as a woman successfully working in a “man’s world”, but the movie character doesn’t try to pretend like she is a man, and maintains a lady-like poise. I think this is close to the novel version. I also liked how actor Graham Beckel, who played Ellis Wyatt, portrayed that character. As I recall Ellis did not “suffer fools gladly”, and the actor definitely gave you the feeling he wasn’t to be trifled with. But, that said, I always thought Ellis Wyatt was younger, thinner, and better looking –I know that’s somewhat superficial of me, and that’s why I can’t complain too much on that count. (I also would think that Ellis Wyatt would have more of a sort of quiet, “simmering rage” towards the collectivists, and wouldn’t resort to actually yelling, which occurred in the movie at one point.) Just so that it’s clear that I’m not totally superficial, I was glad that they didn’t portray all of the “bad guys” in the movie as physically unattractive. James Taggart was played by an actor who is physically good looking. The actress who played Lillian Reardon is also an attractive person. I think that it is a common mistake, even amongst fans of Ayn Rand, to think that good people are all physically beautiful, and bad people are all physically ugly. Since genetics, not choice, plays a large roll in your body type, especially when you are under about age 40, I regard this as a mistake.

There were a couple of scenes in the movie that I was disappointed with, however. Both of these scenes had to do with Reardon’s relationship with Dagny. Once again, keep in mind that I haven’t read the book in some time, and this is just how I recall the novel. As I recall it, Reardon’s feelings towards Dagny were somewhat in conflict initially –or, at least, he didn’t want to acknowledge how he felt about her. He admits at some point in the novel that he fell in love with her from the moment he saw her, and learned that she was the head of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad. (As I recall it, before he knew who she was, he liked how she looked, but then when he learned she was the business woman he had heard about, he wanted to have sex with her on the rails.) However, since Reardon was married, he couldn’t act on his feelings for Dagny. He regarded his marriage as a contract, and Reardon regarded a contract as a promise that he would never willingly break. This leads to the first scene from the movie that was written weakly, and, I think, quite differently from the novel. In the novel, at a party being thrown by Reardon’s wife Lillian, Dagny loudly confronts Lillian after she publicly makes a joke of the bracelet of Reardon metal that Hank gave her as a gift. As I recall it, Dagny loudly calls Lillian a coward, and all eyes at the party turn to watch the two of them. At that point Dagny trades her diamond necklace for the Reardon metal bracelet. Hank then approaches the two of them, criticizes Dagny for her behavior, kisses his wife’s hand, and proceeds to act as a doting husband for the rest of the night. In other words, Reardon takes his wife’s side in the conflict, even though he is secretly in love with Dagny. He does this because he thinks that he has a moral obligation to his wife as her husband, despite the fact that she does nothing but bring misery and unhappiness to his life. In the movie, when this confrontation occurs, everybody keeps dancing, hardly paying the scene any mind, Dagny doesn’t call Lillian a coward, and Hank doesn’t offer any criticism of Dagny. I think part of the reason for this is that they had written the script in such a way that Dagny and Hank were already developing a clear friendship, with some sexual chemistry. So, it wouldn’t make sense, given how they had written the script, to suddenly have Reardon act that cold towards Dagny. In the novel, I think that up to the point of this party scene, Reardon maintained an outward appearance of cool, formal indifference towards Dagny in order to hide his feelings from her. Taking his wife’s side at the party in the novel therefore makes more sense, because he is still trying to maintain the masquerade that he doesn’t love Dagny.

The second scene that I found to be pretty weak was the sex scene between Dagny and Hank. It was way too gentle. As I recall that scene, Hank is pretty rough with Dagny –after securing her verbal permission for sex. I seem to recall that either that scene or a subsequent post-coitus scene in the novel involved Dagny having bruises or blood on her body after a night of manhandling by Reardon. I viewed the nature of their sexual relationship in the novel in this way: Given the fact that Reardon has given in to his desire for Dagny, he feels a certain amount of resentment towards her and himself because he has broken his marriage contract. He therefore feels a certain desire to treat her like she is “cheap” or “sluttish”, and the rough sex is how he attempts to accomplish this. As I recall, after the first time they have sex, he declares that they are both depraved. (Also as I recall, she retorts that she is even more depraved than him because she doesn’t think she’s depraved.) Regardless of whether my interpretation of his motives are correct, Reardon is pretty rough with Dagny, and the movie didn’t follow the novel at all on that point.

With that said, there was another semi-sexual scene in the movie that I liked very much, and I cannot, for the life of me, remember if that was how it happened in the novel. At one point, Dagny goes to her ex-lover, Francisco d’Anconia, who she now despises, and asks him to loan her money to start the John Galt train line. After she sees he isn’t going to loan her the money for “conventional business reasons”, nor out of charity, she tries to use “feminine wiles”, and implies that she will let him sleep with her if he will give her the money. I don’t remember this scene from the novel, but it seemed very “Ayn Rand-esque” to me. (See Rand’s novel “We The Living” for an example of women sleeping with men they consider to be their enemies to save someone they love.) Obviously, I don’t endorse prostitution as a normal career choice for a woman, but its one-time use by a businesswoman in a movie as a way to save her life’s work from destruction by the government is very compelling fiction to me.