By Velvet Belle Tree
The movie version of Atlas Shrugged (directed by Paul Johansson, 2011) is set in 2016. The stock market has plunged, there’ve been more off-shore oil rig explosions, industrial accidents and gas is selling at $37.50 a gallon (rapid inflation?). Commercial air travel has collapsed and the railroads have to take up the slack.
This, of course, is not the scenario in Ayn Rand’s novel (1957). The book was written in the 40s and 50s before planes were the dominant form of passenger travel. Several authors, including Mimi Gladstein and Lisa Binkley, had suggested that the movie be set in an alternative reality in which commercial air travel never developed. This approach would have been much more believable than the one presented in the movie.
The other thing making the movie hard to believe is the casting. Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) is one of the strongest female characters in literature. In the movie she is very soft spoken, almost never raises her voice and definitely doesn’t project strength, intelligence and confidence. James Taggart (Matthew Marsden) is too youthful looking, too good looking, too perfectly groomed, when he should look dissolute. Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) looks the part. His best scenes are with his wife Lillian (Rebecca Wisocky). Eddie Willers (Edi Gatheqi) is fine as a young African-American man. Francisco D’Anconia (Jsu Garcia) looks more like a rock star than a brilliant man pretending to be a playboy. And James is better looking than Francisco! Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel) seems best suited to the role and comes across as a rugged westerner. He seems to be the only one with real conviction and passion. One of the worst bits of casting is Prof. Hugh Akston (Michael O’Keefe). Akston was John Galt’s (and Francisco’s and Ragnar Danneskjöld’s) philosophy professor who has gone on strike and is working at a diner making hamburgers. The problem is that he looks like someone who could only aspire to flipping hamburgers, instead of possessing the quiet dignity of a brilliant philosophy professor.
The other problem with setting the story in 2016 is the relationship between Hank and his wife, Lillian. It is difficult to understand why he married her. Her family might have been socially prominent but Hank isn’t interested in society, and social prominence no longer has the cachet it did when the novel was written. But worse, Lillian is completely sexually frigid, disdaining sex. In the 1940s and 50s a man probably wouldn’t know his wife’s sexual feelings before they were married, but in the 21st century, it would be highly unusual for such a couple to postpone sex until after marriage.
There also seems to be a lack of attention to details. In one scene a van is painted with “Ministry of Welfare.” Ministry is not a term used in American government: it should be department or division or bureau. When Dagny buys a newspaper in Philadelphia, she seems to be doing it with change; even now, the New York Times is two dollars. When Hank Rearden tells Dagny that Rearden Metal can be used for many things, including lightweight planes, Dagny responds, “Commercial airlines?” as if that’s a new idea (which it was in the novel). This doesn’t fit in with the scenario presented at the beginning of the movie that the commercial airline industry has collapsed because of the huge increase in the price of oil.
And then there’s the costumes. It’s mostly ordinary business outfits; men wear suits and Dagny wears suits with a skirt or pants. But when Dagny and Hank are visiting the rebuilding of the Rio Norte railroad line, they’re still in business suits, Dagny is even wearing a skirt. Hank says she looks like she belongs there, but she doesn’t, she looks like she belongs in an office. In the book, Dagny is shown to be a hands-on executive, one who would know to wear jeans or at least pants on a work site. Dagny and Hank don’t wear casual clothes until after the rebuilt railroad, renamed the John Galt line.
Another problem is the scene where Dagny and Hank find the 20th Century Motor Company. They enter an abandoned building with nothing but rusted junk and a blackboard and Hank, overawed, comments on how advanced the laboratory is. (Interestingly, the quick shot of the blackboard seemed to show a Feynmann diagram.) Then, for some undisclosed reason, they move some furniture and find a small prototype of a revolutionary engine using hitherto unknown principles. Just by looking at it and one schematic they spout all kinds of ideas about how it works. They say that it works by “atmospheric vacuum,” a nonsense term. In the book, the engine uses “atmospheric electricity,” an idea that had been in many science fiction stories. Dagny even invokes the Casimir effect, which is a quantum mechanical phenomenon having nothing to do with the atmosphere.
Of course, there’s a lot in the book that had to be left out. But there are small, but important things that could easily have been included. In the book, the first time we meet James Taggart, he sees Eddie coming into his office and says: “Don’t bother me, don’t bother me, don’t bother me,” before he even knows what Eddie wants. Small, but from that we can instantly judge his character. In the book, the scene with Hugh Akston takes place inside the diner (in the movie, they’re talking in front of the diner) and Dagny remarks how good the hamburger is. The point here is not that a professor is also a good cook, but that he believes that if you do anything, you should do it right. Then Dagny asks Hugh what he’s doing there and he answers: “I’m earning my living.” In the movie, strangely, she never seems to wonder why a philosophy professor is working at a diner.
The only really exciting part of the movie is the first running of the John Galt Line. The special effects are very good and at one point we can actually feel the train’s speed. And the very best thing is the futuristic bridge across a canyon — absolutely beautiful. After the train has successfully crossed the bridge, Dagny relaxes, smiles and hugs Hank. But she could have shown more emotion, more like Rosie coming alive as the African Queen runs the rapids.
The movie tries to be faithful to the book, only making changes that were necessary to bridge the more than fifty years since its publication. Unfortunately, it was unable to be faithful to the spirit and passion of the novel.