Ever try to read The Lord of The Rings trilogy out loud? If you have, you probably noticed that you sound like a big damn dork. When Ian McKellan renders a line like “A wizard arrives precisely when he means to”, you believe he’s a wizard; you on the other hand sound like thirteen-year-old at a wicked awesome D&D game. Imagine filming, editing, and adding special effects to your wimpy voice and turning it into box office magic. Sound daunting? For you perhaps, but sometimes the planets of talent, technical virtuosity and, ahem, money align and an epic book survives the translation from tome to theater.
It is unfortunate that these conditions were not present on the set of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. The film makes the mistake of flashing a calendar day across the screen in its opening moments, instantly voiding any sense of the timelessness Rand’s novel suggests and giving the viewer an excuse to discard the film as soured milk in a scant five years. What follows is a montage as trite as tearing off calendar sheets to show the passage of time. Fake newsreel, snapshots of headlines, talking heads, and political commentators create the atmosphere of a failing nation. Despite the overused mechanism to convey the exposition, one does get a sense that this is happening now. This is at least as Rand had intended, but the use of a fixed date and the “modernization” of the story is not only unnecessary, it detracts from the work as a piece of political-philosophical symbolism.
The rest of the film reads like a 12-part made for TV mini-series squeezed in a vice to fit the film format without any of the polish necessary to justify the $11 dollar ticket expense. Hints of amateurism, like the black-and-white “missing” freeze frames, would be easier to stomach if they were sandwiched between commercial breaks. When more than a ten spot is on the line I expect better than the stiff delivery of even the most throwaway lines, and I certainly expect to experience the message of the original work without the heavy-handed exposition getting in the way.
Okay, I’ll be fair, even the book is heavy-handed. A book can get away with a lot more than a film, but if the producers were trying to avoid the beat-you-over-the-head-with-it approach entirely why rely on the least important pieces of dialogue, adding over the top verbal exposition when Rand supplied the hammer right in the book? Missing are monologues like the “Money Speech” that D’Anconia delivers at Reardon’s anniversary, perhaps one of the most important in the book. The characters in the book are archetypes; strip away their names and you’re still left with symbols, different aspects of political and economic philosophy embodied in a voice. The various monologues can read like essays at times, but their absence makes the actors in the film feel less like archetypes and more like shallow characters. These monologues carry the message of the novel in a unique way, and even though the actors selected to play the parts may lack the talent to give them real weight it’s unfair to the original work to leave them out entirely.
There were a few redeeming characters. Patrick Fischler’s portrayal of snake-in-the-grass Paul Larkin is believable, and Ellis Wyatt played by Graham Beckel was a likeable by-his-bootstraps CEO. Unfortunately the leads couldn’t make up the same ground with their characterizations. Reardon feels weak. James Taggart feels less like the big fake softy he is in the book and more like a a child with a toy. D’Anconia has yet to blossom into the character he is supposed to be, but even his false act as a playboy reads like Benicio Del Toro on a bender with Johnny Depp. Even in playboy mode D’Anconia still had class in the novel; that dapper demeanor is gone in the film.
All in all I’m left severely disappointed with the film rendition of Atlas Shrugged, even if there are still two parts left. Paul Johansson might have been able to make this work as a mini-series, and indeed the budget may have leant itself better to that medium. As a film it feels rushed. The attempt to use stiff exposition in place of the essay-like monologues feels limp. The cinematography is unmemorable save for the various poor decisions made by the men behind the camera (like the “micro-zoom” moment at Reardon’s Anniversary party). There are casting errors; I hear that Charlize Theron or Angelina Jolie were considered for the roles of Dagny Taggart. Brad Pitt could easily have swaggered his way into the character of Reardon had the budget allowed for it. But the budget didn’t allow for it.
In the face of low funding my suggestion to Johansson would have been to cut his losses and give a TV audience a well-paced rendition of Rand’s treatise, rather than make a film that does neither book nor audience justice.