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Jul. 1 2010 - 6:46 pm | 1,026 views | 0 recommendations | 15 comments

I love Ayn Rand, so why am I dreading ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ the movie?

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the Cannes fil...

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After years, decades, of stops and starts, a movie version of Atlas Shrugged finally is being made — without Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who, at one point, had been rumored for the lead roles of Dagny Taggart and John Galt (heaven, help me!). So why am I not more excited? Maybe because Paul Johansson, best known by me for portraying frat boy John Sears on Beverly Hills, 90210 in the ’90s, is directing and starring as Galt.

Over the years, I’ve taken heat for Atlas Shrugged. It’s my favorite book, and its author, Ayn Rand, is my favorite writer, after Oscar Wilde. Unfortunately for the late Rand, her reputation precedes her and her work, and many who have never read a word she wrote label her a fascist pig, a shameless capitalist, a slut.

I’ve never been particularly political (I have some strong convictions, but gay and race issues aside, I generally keep them to myself), so Rand’s politics are not what attracted me to her work. Though her storytelling can be shaky and encumbered by too much philosophy, I’ve usually been able to apply some aspect of her stories to my own life. One of my favorite Rand works, an early novella called The Husband I Bought (which I think needs to be made into a film ASAP), sealed my Rand appreciation. It focuses neither on politics nor philosophy, but on romance. The message is simple: Don’t settle. Hold out for butterflies. It’s about romantic idealism, demanding perfect love, which is probably not something most would expect from Rand. I love it when people confound expectations.

As for Atlas Shrugged, its politics didn’t move me. The intricacies of Rand’s philosophizing were interesting, but I didn’t — and don’t — subscribe to them hook, line and sinker. The book has stuck with me for nearly 20 years because I was able to take one specific element of her objectivism philosophy — basically, to thine own self be true — and make it personal. At the time, I was unhappy in my relationship but felt stuck in it because of guilt. I didn’t want to break another person’s heart. Reading Atlas Shrugged convinced me to put myself first first and deal with the collateral damage later. To this day, putting myself first remains a tricky undertaking — the people pleaser in me has seen to that.

But my love and admiration of Atlas Shrugged isn’t all about me and my psyche. A staunch individualist, I admire ability, efficiency and independence, and Dagny Taggart was a heroine to look up to. She did her job — running a private railroad company — expertly, and she did it without expecting handouts and without feeling obligated to hand out. I’ve always felt that humans need incentive to be productive, to aspire to greatness — whether it be financial reward, fame and acclaim, or simply personal fulfillment. I’m not indicting the tax system (although there is a lot of room for improvement) or social works. I’m just saying that we are not all created equally; we don’t all create equally; and we shouldn’t all be compensated equally. Philanthropy, like love, is beautiful and noble, more so if it comes from a pure, geniune place and not from any perceived or compulsory obligation to society or to another person.

Value for value should be the cornerstone of any solid relationship — romantic and otherwise — which is why unrequited love is a foreign concept to me. I love freely and passionately, but not when it’s one sided. The moment I begin to feel like a slave to love, as if the object of my affection is expecting it, demanding it, without offering anything valuable in return (whether it be love, devotion or just mind-blowing sex), I look for the nearest exit. My love is for real, but it’s not for free. In my mind, there’s no such thing as unconditional love — even between a mother and child. No relationship, no love, is infallible.

I  know it’s not the most romantic approach to love, but like Dagny Taggart, I make no apologies. While I was I reading the book for the first time in the early ’90s, I cast the main roles in my head. Ashley Judd, with whom I was obsessed after seeing her breakout 1993 Ruby in Paradise performance, would be Dagny. Barry Bostwick, or Perry King, would be Hank Rearden. (I know they’re totally TV, but what can I tell you?) Antonio Banderas, or Vincent Perez, would be Francisco d’Anconia. Dennis Quaid was Ellis Wyatt. John Galt would be someone far less famous than Brad Pitt (though certainly not Paul Johansson), an unknown actor who would get one of those “And introducing…” credits.

A guy can dream, but mine won’t be coming true. With Paul Johansson, whom people younger than me might better know as Dan Scott on One Tree Hill, starring and directing a cast of relative unknowns, my expectations are low. The casting isn’t the main problem (my early ’90s dream ensemble wouldn’t be my fifth or sixth choices today): As Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker proved two years straight, you can produce a good, Oscar-winning movie with a cast of non-stars. Atlas Shrugged, however, is a tricky novel to adapt — like Beloved, another of my great literary loves, it’s more words, thoughts, than action — and it needs both an excellent screenplay and an experienced director with a sure hand.

But I’ve been disappointed before. Anthony Minghella, the late English Patient director, mangled my second favorite book, The Talented Mr. Ripley, by miscasting Matt Damon as the killer you’re supposed to root for. My biggest gripe with that film was that I couldn’t wait for the cops to close in on Ripley and for the movie to be over. The beauty of the novel is that Ripley fascinates, and you want him to get away with murder, which appalls and engrosses you at the same time.

Still, here’s the thing about movie adaptations of great novels. If they disappoint, you’ve always go those beautiful words to fall back on.


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  1. collapse expand

    I’m personally not a fan of Ayn Rand or “Atlas Shrugged” but I do recognize that it’s one of the most important books for understanding the last 30 years of American thought. I don’t think anyone can even begin to understand libertarianism and the thought process that drives it without understanding “Atlas”.

    Such an important book certainly deserves better than Paul Johansson.

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    I have not read “Mein Kampf,” because I know enough about the author not to go down the path of his psychoses.

    Likewise, I have not read “Atlas Shrugged,” because I know the author was a sociopath trying to dress up her mental illness by making it a philosophy.

    All you need to know about Ayn Rand: http://michaelprescott.net/hickman.htm

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    Mr. Helligar,

    I long ago discovered that it is always a mistake to read a book before watching the movie. Few movies can even begin to approach the book. Books can go into so much more detail and be so much complex than a movie can. You can take your time and read as fast or slowly as you like. You can read a book several times, go back and re-read parts. Books can be as long or short as the story requires. A movie is not going to be more than 120 minutes very often and even more rarely if it is going to be a “blockbuster”. Often stories have to be simplified and removed from the broader context to make onto film.

    Sometimes, like say “East of Eden”, the movie is only a small part of the book. Sometimes, like “Benjamin Button” it is only “inspired by” or “suggested by” the original story. Often, we develop our own vision of how the story should be adapted and anyone else’s will unsatisfying.

    The last time I committed this error was when I read “The Autobiography of Malcom X” prior to seeing Spike Lee’s “Malcom X”. The book is so well written, detailed, and interesting that it would be impossible for any movie to due justice to it in 202 minutes. Of course sometimes history does not work in a way that we can always read the book after seeing the movie. So if by chance I have read the book (or seen the play or whatever) I just have to go into the theater assuming that the movie will be a disappointment and hope it is will not be too extreme. (Of course every once in a while you may not be disappointed. “Devil in the Blue Dress” was actually just a little better than the book and Don Cheadle’s take on “Mouse” was just terrific, it could not have been done better).

    • collapse expand

      You’re right, David, movies based on books are usually disappointing. I should probably do a post on movies that were better than the books. The Bridges of Madison County comes to mind, but that didn’t have much to live up to.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        Mr. Helligar,

        Boy you got that one right. The book was just a really good Harlequin novel, i.e. the best of a really bad lot. The story I heard was that the author, Robert Waller, was famous for saying how Harlequin novels and other similar romance novels are really easy to write, how they totally formulaic and you can just change the names, time periods, locations, and few other details, and voilà – you have a new book. It would seem that someone challenged him on this assertion to the effect of “If it is so easy why don’t you do it”. The result – “The Bridges of Madison County”.

        The movie was actually not bad at all. It is really a lot more than the novel ever attempted.

        My choice may surprise you, “The Wizard of Oz”. While the movie is priceless, I found the book dull and dreary and way too long. How it every became a best seller is way beyond my ability to comprehend.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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        I’ve been called a fascist pig and shameless capitalist (never a slut, sadly) and even I think Rand is a little nuts. I think it’s great that she made you feel empowered and helped you balance your self-interest against giving, but the problem is that she helps all her readers this way – even her readers who are already very good at pursuing their self-interest and neglecting the interests of others. If she only helped nice guys be more assertive then she’d be awesome, but I’ve met too many borderline sociopaths who’ve also credited their assertiveness to her.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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      Godfather. Watch I & II, THEN read the book. It worked out much better for me to read the “extras” than to be angry at what was left out.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    This post made me smile, as I’m currently re-reading Atlas. As usual, I pull it off the shelf when I end a relationship after realizing I’ve given up far too much of myself to somebody and got very little in return. I appreciate the reassurance I get from Rand that it is okay to love yourself first. Like you, I am not entirely in favour of her economic or political ideas, but when it comes to love, I believe that what she has to say is worth reading. (And the Hitler comparison above is just disgusting. By all means, judge her without reading her writing, you tool).

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