An adaptation true to the book
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, April 15, 2011
Few novels get the cinematic adaptation they deserve, but director Paul Johansson has been fair to Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” — or rather, the opening third of it. The first in a proposed trilogy, “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1” is nearly as stilted, didactic and simplistic as Rand’s free-market fable.
The filmmaker occasionally betrays his muse. Simply by casting flesh-and-blood actors to portray Rand’s stick-figure characters, Johansson softens the story (including one of the author’s notoriously severe sex scenes). Consider, for example, Taylor Schilling as the heroine, railroad executive Dagny Taggart. The blond, blue-eyed Schilling has a strong chin that gives her a Randian aspect, but when she smiles she looks too human for the role.
The script also improves on Rand by compressing the narrative. The movie features more than a few inert scenes of industrialists’ chatter, but it moves at a reasonable clip — although nothing like the 250 mph of Dagny’s proposed high-speed train.
The bullet-train theme is somewhat ironic. A roaring locomotive is a dynamic image of American industrial power, but even in 1957 — when the book was published — the future of railroading was in Europe and Asia. And the right-of-center types who revere Rand tend to dismiss public funding for high-speed rail.
The filmmakers try to zip past this incongruity by setting “Atlas Shrugged” slightly in the future: 2016. The price of gasoline is so high that railroads are back in vogue, although Dagny’s wimpy brother (Matthew Marsden) can’t seize the opportunity. He’s the president of Taggart Transcontinental, but Dagny outmaneuvers him — if doing whatever she wants qualifies as “maneuvering.”
Allying with metals magnate Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler) — soon to become her lover — and oil baron Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel), Dagny rebuilds a decrepit rail line. (“Atlas Shrugged” contains enough loving glances at track-laying machinery for a CSX promo film.) This is a triumph over the anti-capitalist mischief of the “Washington men,” personified by Wesley Mouch (Michael Lerner), a lobbyist who becomes the head of a Stalinist-style economic-planning agency.
The malignant government isn’t Dagny and Henry’s only problem, though. They also face the disappearance of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs, lured away by the mysterious John Galt. More about him in parts two and three (if they ever get made).
Rushed into production as the book rights were about to lapse, the modestly budgeted film offers competent special effects and performances worthy of a decent TV miniseries. The movie may sometimes confuse viewers unfamiliar with the novel, but it’s not really for them. “Atlas Shrugged” is meant for people who have already bought both the book and its message.
Contains sexuality and profanity.