Atlas Shrugged Movie: A Roman Copy of a Greek Original

March 4, 2011 (added an update on March 5 below)

I just saw the New York showing of the Atlas Shrugged Part I movie. This is a brief review of it. If you would rather watch the movie first before reading a review–which is what I would do and recommend–please do not read any further.

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1. Firstly, making a movie is a large-scale endeavor, and working over a decade to actually bring the movie to fruition required considerable tenacity, resourcefulness and purposefulness–I must thank especially John Aglialoro, the producer who spearheaded the project, for making that happen.

2. I found that this is a sincere attempt to portray Atlas Shrugged–the production team genuinely liked and respected Atlas Shrugged and it appears they tried their best to portray it to the best of their ability within the constraints they had.

3. My overall impression of the movie can best be described by an analogy. Few years ago, I attempted to study the Ancient Greek culture. I did so by immersion into Greek literature, visual arts, history, philosophy, science, descriptions of daily life and customs, learning rudiments of Ancient Greek language and visiting Greece. I found that the Ancient Greek culture to be so dramatically and radically different from the culture around us–that most modern attempts to portray the culture captured only the outward trappings while missing the core view of man that animates the culture.

4. This movie does a good job of capturing the political, economics and social aspects of Atlas Shrugged while missing the deeper moral, psychological, epistemological and metaphysical aspects of the novel. As someone who deeply loves Atlas Shrugged, and knows that the heart of Ayn Ran’s achievement is metaphysical, epistemological, psychological and moral, I was left with a sense of emptiness–of seeing something that on the surface looks like Atlas Shrugged, but with something critical missing.

5. Please interpret this criticism in the light of the fact that making an Atlas Shrugged movie that matches the novel would require an artistic achievement of the order of Ayn Rand’s own. Capturing the political, economic and social aspects of the novel is an achievement–and I certainly enjoyed seeing that brought to life on the screen.

6. The movie version of Ayn Rand’s characters were oddly similar to people that I see in New York everyday–they talked, looked, moved, and related to each other somewhat like most people do today–not in the highly stylized manner of the novel’s characters. I had the odd sensation that I was watching a world half-way between Ayn Rand’s world and my New York today–a hybrid of naturalism and romanticism. The clearest and most damaging way in which this was executed was by unnecessary replacement of Ayn Rand’s dialog by screen writers own. My guess is that having the characters talk more like most people today was an attempt to make the characters more “believable”.

7. The good portrayal of Hank Rearden, and a dramatic and innovative use of “Who is John Galt?” lines were the highlight of the movie for me. The production quality was high and the movie is well executed visually.

8. I again thank the production team for making this movie and encourage my friends to see it–it is not an experience you want to miss.

9. Though I know next to nothing about movie making I have one sure-fire advice that can make Atlas Shrugged Part II significantly better while reducing production costs–please, please use more of Ayn Rand’s lines.

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UPDATE On March 5, 2011

10. I now expand on the analogy to modern portrayals of Ancient Greek culture I used to anchor my review of Atlas Shrugged Part I Movie.

11. The central difficulty in modern portrayals of Ancient Greece lies in what I will call the “cultural distance” between the modern view of man and the Ancient Greek view of man. The cultural distance between Ayn Rand’s view of man and the modern view of man is equally large. Some of us who have spent years internalizing and making operational in ourselves Ayn Rand’s metaphysical, epistemological, psychological and moral principles, are aware of this distance through the sheer effort it has cost us to traverse it.

12. However, traversing that cultural distance in one’s own person is easier than making a piece of art that objectively enables others see the new vision of man in a concretized form across that massive cultural chasm. That is precisely the achievement of Ayn Rand in creating Atlas Shrugged. Even at her phenomenal artistic skill it took her over 1000 pages and over a decade of unremitting labor to make her vision real. Because a movie is a distinct art medium with it’s own unique constraints, strengths and weaknesses, making a great movie based on a great book, is not a mere translation but creation of an entirely new artistic integration that matches the original in meaning. It would take an artistic achievement of the order of Ayn Rand’s to make a movie that fully lives up to the novel. All this needs to be kept in mind while judging the movie.

13. Romans revered Greek sculpture and made a massive number of copies of it, but they never could capture the deeper meaning–the dynamic, living soul of the Greek sculpture. In focusing on the political, economic and social aspects of the novel as opposed to it’s deeper spiritual aspects; in using a more colloquial dialog and characterizations to replace Ayn Rand’s highly stylized one; and by using an extremely efficient transmission mechanism of the movie medium, the Atlas Shrugged movie does to the novel what Romans did to Greek art. The movie is a Roman copy of a Greek original. While the Greek sculpture is far superior in esthetic value, Roman sculpture through its sheer quantity and superlative transmission ability has served a critical cultural value as the transmission mechanism for the Greek ideal. Just as the renaissance sculptors discovered Greek art largely through their Roman copies, this movie trilogy has the potential of spurring a discovery of Atlas Shrugged by a wider audience.

14. Both Greece and Rome are the foundations of our civilization. We need both the Greek ideal and the Roman transmission network. While it would be wrong to blame the Roman transmission network for not having the Greek delicacy; it would also be wrong to let ourselves forget the full grandeur of the Greek ideal due to ubiquity of Roman copies. I raise a toast to both–Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Atlas Shrugged the movie–each for what they are.

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UPDATE: March 8, 2011

On Portrayal of the Ideal

15. Let me tell you about a 2010 performance of Ayn Rand’s play Ideal that ran exclusively in New York City. This is not merely for a gratuitous plug for the advantages of living at the center of the universe–that performance provided the most dramatic illustration for me of the strengths and weaknesses of sincere modern portrayals of Ayn Rand’s works.

16. The director of the play and the actors were talented and they tried their best to perform the play exactly as Ayn Rand had written it. The portrayal of evil characters in the play, who are out to stomp out the ideal, was simply superb. The portrayal of the yearners for the ideal, who lack the courage to actually pursue it, ranged from excellent to good. But they got the central character of the play, Kay Gonda, the woman who is supposed to embody the ideal, COMPLETELY wrong!! She was portrayed just as one of the hapless yearners with no trace of the supremely heroic soul of Kay Gonda–even as she spoke the right lines. It was the play Ideal with everything except the ideal.

17. I left the play puzzled: How could they get everything else so right and get the central character so horribly wrong? A friend of mine, who sometimes has better psychological insights than me, was puzzled at my puzzlement. He said that most people in today’s culture have an internal reference for what it is like to want to stomp out the ideal, and to a lesser extent, they also have a vague internal reference for what it is like to yearn for an ideal without having the courage to pursue it. But they do not have ANY internal reference at all for what it means to be the ideal, a radiant being like Kay Gonda, and without that, no amount of verbiage can help them grasp it, much less portray it.

18. To wrap up the story, I wrote about the play Ideal then: “Oddly enough, the performance did a good job on everything other than the character of Kay Gonda. The actress who plays Kay Gonda is not Kay Gonda type at all, and I was disappointed with her appearance, manner of relating to other characters, and delivery of lines. However the yearning for the ideal comes through strong and clear through the chorus of characters, and it was stunning to hear Ayn Rand’s lines live in the intimate theater. In spite of what should have been a fatal flaw, I still enjoyed the experience.”

19. Portrayal of Ayn Rand’s ideal is hard in today’s culture, and the Atlas Shrugged movie is no exception to this. John Galt is not only the most stylized of Ayn Rand’s characters–he IS the ideal, the culminating achievement of Ayn Rand’s life. Given the background of current political and economic situation, I expect that the Atlas Shrugged movie will raise the question “Who is John Galt?” in the minds of many people, and hopefully a yearning for some answers–and that is a significant value. But Ayn Rand is the only Atlas who can fully concretize her moral ideal and thereby answer the question, “Who is John Galt?”.

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UPDATE: March 15, 2011

Three Ayn Rand Movies: Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead & We the Living

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UPDATE: March 30, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Movie: Ten Million Dollar Questions

More updates coming soon, check back here.

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9 Responses to Atlas Shrugged Movie: A Roman Copy of a Greek Original

  1. Michela says:

    I like children lirateture, and I am 5 years old. Joke.But I really love the books of Walter Moers. The Count of Monte Cristo is fine. If you want something much more simple but serious, just go to George Orwell. Also, one of his book can leads you to 1Q84, that is a good book too. If you love to know something about that really matters, the website of the UN or any other government will satisfy you.

  2. Atlas Shrugged is too vast a treatise to be captured by a single movie unless you want a movie that is 10 hours long (that’s hardly marketable). A TV series would have been more appropriate.

  3. Thank you. Brilliant.

    Culture runs deep, deeper than the language that survives it, and the translations into new language, new forms. The depth of Atlas Shrugged cannot survive the translation into film, yet the film has its own value. Nietzsche spent years to try to open a window into the Greek sense of life, with mixed results. I am pleased at every honest attempt to bridge people into the Ayn Rand sense of life, like the movie. As a copy, its fidelity can be questioned. As a invitation, it is promising in the best sense – it promises much more than it can deliver. It is sexy like that – promising more if you will take the time to win it through the act/active seduction – effort on the part of the audience. Roman to Greek…

  4. froivinber says:

    Thanks for this great review.

  5. Cloud says:

    My reason for wanting the movie produced with high fidelity is purely for my own enjoyment. Secondary effects have little significance for me. If one result of the movie is increased sales of the book that’s a good thing but I won’t recommend people see the movie in the hope that they will read the book. I want to be spellbound.

    Thanks for the review Shrikant.

  6. An illuminating analogy, with a thoughtful analysis.

    It would require superlative movie-making skills to thoroughly place Atlas Shrugged on the screen, and “modernizing” Rand’s dialogue surely is going in the wrong direction.

  7. John Galbraith says:

    Someone who I have greatly admired for 30 years likes the movie. I’ve only seen the trailers and so I don’t think I could stomach seeing the whole thing but I might have to to see what my friend sees positive in it. I am now thinking it’s a matter of aesthetic taste. All the characters, without exception, are not even in the same ‘sunlit universe’ as the ones we know and love / hate in Ayn Rand’s unparalleled descriptions. ‘Modern’, yes, but not even semi-good modern. The Dagney being the hardest to tolerate. For what it’s worth, I might give my take on it elsewhere if I can sit through the trilogy.

  8. That was an exceptionally insightful review. Thank you.

    I’ve not yet seen the film, but from all the advance publicity, trailers, and reviews, I had already reached preliminary conclusions about the film similar to yours. However, your analogy to the Roman copying of Greek culture is brilliant, and it sounds to me as if you’ve nailed the essential difference between the source and the adaptation.

    I’m also impressed by your sense of proportion about what may be called the spiritual deficiencies of the film. You properly consider the context in which this production was made, and what was reasonable possible under the circumstances. And you also do not simply dismiss the adaptation as being without value, let alone as vandalism. I see no evidence from the cast and crew to produce anything less than the best film adaptation of which they were capable. Just because they didn’t communicate all of the Randian worldview does not mean they should be damned for communicating some of it, and communicating it well.

    On that score, it has always been far easier to communicate Rand’s social philosophy, including her political and economic views, than it has been to present her radically challenging sense of “man-worship,” let alone to objectify and embody it. It’s one of the reasons that I’ve long felt that the focused psychological-spiritual theme of The Fountainhead represents, in some respects, a more radical and pointed challenge to contemporary culture than the more sweeping and all-encompassing themes of Atlas Shrugged. It is all too easy for many, through selective skimming, to read the latter work as primarily a social novel. That kind of reading is precisely what contributed to the rise of the libertarian movement: a movement that sought to detach Rand’s political-economic ideas from its deeper philosophical context, and to jettison the latter.

    You’re quite right that the chief value of this film will be to draw uninitiated viewers to the novel. To that single end, ironically, the film’s “spiritual deficiencies” may actually prove to be a mixed blessing. I wonder just how much a modern movie audience would accept the kind of completely stylized and romanticized characters of the novel? In rendering Rand’s characters as somewhat more conventional (and yes, I hate the word), they may have also caused them to be more credible and accessible to audiences yet unprepared to believe in anything greater.

    To cite another analogy, even in the novel, certain characters had to be gradually exposed to the hero’s message before they were psychologically prepared to go the entire route. My hope is that in giving audiences an attractive glimpse of Atlantis, the film may entice more than a few people to take the plunge.

  9. Pingback: Atlas Shrugged Part I Movie Review | Shrikant Rangnekar

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