Atlas Shrugged: The Book and Movie

“I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that Atlas Shrugged has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas.”— John A. Allison, former CEO of BB&T

The book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand was released in 1957. It is part a political polemic, part a mystery novel, and part science fiction. The thesis behind the book is that there are a few, of what Rand would refer to as “prime movers,’’ upon whose backs we have built the world. These are scientists, inventors, and businessmen who produce the the goods and services upon which the world rests. These “Atlases’’ are popularly denigrated and their property confiscated by government action. Rand asks: What would happen if “Atlas shrugged,’’ if these people went on strike and withheld themselves and their work from the world.

Critics did not favorably receive Rand’s book on its release. It was panned as “nearly perfect in its immorality’’ and “shot through with hatred.’’. It was even criticized for its rigid approach by Whittaker Chambers for the Conservative National Review. However, the book reached the New York Times Best Seller List on its introduction, has sold over 7 million copies up to 2010, and has enjoyed enormous popular influence.

When the Modern Library of Random House asked “prominent thinkers’’ to name the best books of the 20th century, Ulysses by James Joyce and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald topped the list. Atlas Shrugged did not make the top 100. However, when readers where asked, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand ranked first and second.

The truth is that solely as a novel Atlas Shrugged is mediocre. It is too long, its polemicism too conspicuous and heavy-handed, and its heroes too noble and its villains either too pathetic or too evil. The ongoing success of the book is not a consequence of literary excellence, but of fact that it taps into the natural appeal to unembarrassed and unapologetic accomplishment.

Economist and columnist Paul Krugman once made fun of the uncanny appeal the book has to 14-year old boys, ignoring the obvious observation that 14-year old boys who read 1200 page novels about political philosophy are more than likely to grow into influential adults. There are other books of Libertarian bent. Frederick Hayak’s Road to Serfdom is more serious Free to Choose by Milton Friedman is more carefully explained. However, Atlas Shrugged captures the heroic romance in capitalism and that explains the book’s appeal.

The movie Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 seems destined to same fate at novel: critical rejection and fervent popularity among those who see it. The day after the opening, at the Rotten Tomatoes site only 5% of professional reviewers liked the movie while 86% percent of actual audiences did. Granted those who saw the movie were a self-selected lot, but so are those who are willing to read a 1200-page novel.

Unfortunately, those unfamiliar with the book are not likely to follow the movie. There are too many characters whose purpose we will not appreciate until the sequels and too many fleeting allusions that may be overlooked by the casual observer. Even though Atlas Shrugged was also written in three parts, there is no natural closure at each part. For those who have read the book, there will be a anxiousness to see part 2, for others there may be only confusion.

Because the movie lifts much of its dialogue from the book it suffers from the same problems. The heroes are too rigid and upright, while the villains not sufficiently sympathetic. It too hard to empathize with heroes that are too perfect and too easy to dismiss villains in whom we cannot even see a little bit of our own failings.

The heroes struggle to keep the world afloat. Yet the heroes — prominent producers — keep disappearing. Although, we will presumably find out why in later novels, we need to see the internal struggle between continuing in the world or leaving it.

Perhaps the best scenes in the movie are when the Dagney Taggart the railroad owner and Henry Reardon, the inventor of Reardon Metal, enjoy the culmination of their work in the completion of the rail line to Colorado despite government opposition. No longer the stoic heroes, we see the joy of accomplishment.

It is hard to to believe that this movie was produced for only $15 million. There is richness and depth in the photography and music scoring difficult to find in movies that cost much more. The aerial shots over Colorado alone are worth the price of admission.

Given the natural constituency of Atlas Shrugged readers and the low cost of production the movie will probably be sufficiently popular to justify the production of Parts 2 and 3. These movies will not be blockbusters but after their theater runs they will ontinue to be played and replayed on NetFlix generating a small but influential group of followers.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.