Monday, December 3, 2012

Elephant in the Living Room: The Atlas Shrugged Movies

I’d briefly like to address the giant elephant in the living room that no one dares talk about: the Atlas Shrugged movies.  Frankly, I will admit that I did enjoy both movies.  However, this enjoyment came mainly because of three primary reasons:

·         I love the novel and also understood that both movies were low-budget indie flicks, so I had both context and an open mind
·         I helped promote both films, especially the second one, even at my own financial cost, therefore I was emotionally invested in psychologically convincing myself that I enjoyed them both
·         I honestly wouldn’t mind playing Seven Minutes in Heaven with either Taylor Schilling or Samantha Mathis.  [Ah, the things I missed out on in high school…]

He wishes!
While I enjoyed both films, I really have to admit that they were both mediocre.  Yes, I said it, get over it already.  You have greater things to worry about than my opinions, such as your significant other cheating on you, or your total lack of a significant other…  [No, I will not give you ice for that burn; quit being a socialist and buy it yourself with one of your John Galt gold dollars.]

Anyway, I stand by my statement on the films, so before any crackhead libertarian or angry objectivist gets mad at me, I fully believe we as liberty activists owe it to the great Ayn Rand to see that only the best adaptations of her prolific works are made.  Do you dare defend crappy mediums for communicating some of the most important ideas in modern history???  Didn’t think so.

Even if I forget about the soul-crushing cameo of Sean Hannity—a double standard-bearing neoconservative ideologue—in the adaptation of one of the greatest libertarian works ever written, there are two glaring problems with both movies.

First, changing the cast was lame and a half. Even though I probably would be inclined to run off to Vegas with Samantha Mathis and be married by an Elvis impersonator minister at a drive-thru wedding chapel, I still have to stick to my standards, even if it means no Vegas wedding.  Sorry Sam!  The producers should have just stuck with the same cast from Part I and simply put a gun to their heads to command better performances.  Switching faces only confused and alienated potential libertarians.  I get the argument about making Part II able to stand alone as a film, but the very fact that its part number is anything other than “1” fully undermines that cute notion.

Second, and most importantly, the length of time is a problem.  I understand the constraints of a low budget and blah-blah-blah, but some of the greatest movie classics have been made on shoestring budgets (Clerks, American Graffiti, Rocky, etc.).  Besides, the entire saga takes place in a business office, on a railroad track, and on a mountain in Colorado.  Not the costliest of venues!

The budget issue is no longer an excuse, especially with Part II having a larger budget.  Because of the length of the novel (over 1,000 pages of minimal action and maximum philosophy), the movies need to be at least 2 hours and 40 minutes each.

The short length of both films meant that they had to cut short all the prolific speeches that define the characters and their objectivist philosophy.  The most important speeches cut brutally short were Francisco D’anconia’s “if you saw Atlas” soliloquy and Hank Rearden’s “I own it” testimony at his trial.  While I do feel that D’anconia’s speech in the movie at least captured the spirit of the book’s intent, the trial scene certainly did not.

The speeches themselves are well-written and propose excellent arguments, and it misses the point to edit them down to short sound bites.  Remember, these speeches by D’anconia, Galt, et all are what psychologically breaks the characters down and makes them check out of the society to which they desperately clung for so long.  The speeches need to be long, emotionally intense, and actually convincing to the audience!  And all the best quotes that could have been used in the movies are in the book already.  Imagine that!

Furthermore, Rearden’s on-screen speech was basically limited to “I built that, screw you.”  Uhh, negative, ceasefire!  What it needed to be was a lengthier and wordier version of the following points:

·         I scraped together the investment capital to start my business.  “The people” neither helped me muster it nor pay it back to the investors.
·         I directed the entire growth and expansion of the business.  It was my vision and leadership alone.
·         I did not force any one of my employees to work for me, nor did I force them to take their beginning salaries.  They freely and voluntarily agreed.
·         I paid for every piece of equipment and every hour of labor, not the government nor “the people.”
·         I and I alone dreamed of my metal and poured the capital and brain power into developing it.
·         When the economy began to tank, I never took a dime of bailout money from the government or “the people.”  I made it the entire way on my own money and my own ideas.  I did not have “help.”  I had employees who did exactly what I said and were well paid for it.  Only the moochers who received government money should be required to give anything to the government.
·         Furthermore, the government condemned my metal, my business, and I at every step of the way.
·         I’ve been right the whole time and you’ve all been wrong.  I will not turn over my property and ten years of time, money, and labor to those who did absolutely nothing.

Hell, even if he had just listed those bullet points in the movie and said nothing else, the scene would have been saved.  I myself would have applauded it!  Instead, it was simply Rearden arguing “It’s mine, mine, mine, I don’t have to give it up.”

Remember folks, just saying something that people—the left and most moderates/centrists—already disagree with will not make them suddenly agree with it.  It will only reinforce their notion that libertarians and conservatives are all heartless bastards.  However, explaining a libertarian idea with the above points might actually sway a few newcomers to our side.  Keep in mind, oh smug liberty intelligentsia, that the goal of our movement isn’t to be right about economics and generally be smarter than everyone; our goal is to get a majority of society to at least nominally agree with our ideas and to demonstrate such at the voting booths.

Atlas Shrugged Parts I and II could have been a medium for swaying the masses to our side, but unfortunately they were not.  However, there still is a chance for the producers to come up with a gem in Part III.  It needs to be long, it needs to be philosophical, and the speeches need to be emotionally intense and jarring.  No more short scenes, no more speeding through the plot, no more cutting corners, no more excuses.  And if Part III has another new cast, I will commence punching innocent bystanders on Santa Monica Boulevard in my frustration.

The innovation in Galt’s Gulch needs to be both impressive and understood, not just eye capitalist eye candy.  After being broken down into donating Rearden Metal to the government, Rearden’s encounter with Ragnar the pirate needs to be a tense scene that convinces the audience that the pirate is the one who’s morally correct, and that Rearden did the right thing in crossing the line by helping a fugitive escape from the police.  Furthermore, John Galt’s radio address could be one of the greatest movie speeches of all time.

Make the effort, Mr. Putch, Misters Sandefur, O’Toole, and Scott.  I have full faith in your ability to win an academy award for Ayn Rand’s epic masterpiece.  If you’re willing to take my criticism seriously, I’d even be more than happy to personally join you in this endeavor, working late into the night with you all in a writing office in order to make a cinematic masterpiece.

* * *

"I am John Galt" protestor photo by "HKDP" and used via CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
Atlas statue photo is in the public domain.
German monorail photo by "Stahlkocher" and used via CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
All three images were obtained via Wikimedia commons.

Some of you may ask, if I call myself a libertarian, how is it that I can justify punching random people on Santa Monica Boulevard (or anywhere in the world)?  Elementary, my dear Watson!  Simply so: if the filmmakers want to slay Part III in the womb by giving the trilogy yet another fresh cast, then obviously the pillars of libertarian philosophy no longer matter since their desecration would become the norm.  The same would apply to the non-aggression principle.

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