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