Friday, February 18, 2011

Why the Atlas Shrugged Movie Will Almost Certainly Suck

Ahoy there, readers. Apologies (though no excuses) for my semi-prolonged absence; truth be told, I'm still acclimating to my new postgrad lifestyle—and by "postgrad lifestyle" I mean "working, writing stories, making music, and playing videogames." Just kidding: I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons too. No, wait. Come back. I swear I'm cool.

Anyway, for those of you who follow these sorts of things, there's been word of an Atlas Shrugged movie in development for the past few months. There've been multiple attempts to make a film out of Ayn Rand's Objectivist magnum opus for quite a few years, but the project has been in and out of development hell. Now, though, it looks like it's really happening, complete with action-packed trailer:

I'm actually in the midst of reading AS right now (about 400 pages in, which is to say, not very far at all), but I've been familiar with Rand long enough to know pretty much how the story goes. And as a guy with pretty strong libertarian leanings, one might expect me to be cheering and fist-pumping and starting up outlandish-business-ventures-that-everyone-thinks-are-going-to-fail-but-I'll-show-them-haha-objectivism in excitement, but I'm not. In fact, I'm pretty sure the movie's going to suck, for reasons other than the simple shittiness of the trailer (WE GOT A NOTE. IT SAID WHO IS JOHN GALT. Ugh).

I should preface this by saying that I like Ayn Rand—I think her ideas are interesting and at times compelling, though I don't whole-heartedly agree with her philosophy (especially on a personal level—follow Objectivism to a T and you'll find your life pretty solitary, but who cares, all your friends and family and loved ones were idiots anyway). Further, part of me understands why many people reject her and her books as evil (any philosophy which has as a basic tenet "I rule, and everyone else who doesn't rule like me can suck it" is a tough pill to swallow), but I think there's plenty to be taken away in terms of being true to your own values, seeking purpose in your life, aiming high, etc. That's a post for another day, however; the movie itself still looks pretty bad. Here's why.

•It's set in the modern day.

One of the things I dig about AS is its decidedly retro feel—there's a late-1950's aesthetic to the whole thing, in the way the characters carry themselves, the clothes they wear, how they speak, the way everyone is constantly smoking and doesn't give a damn about doing it indoors (hell yes). Updating it to the present makes it...well, less cool, somehow. I suppose one could argue that a present setting makes the story's themes more politically relevant, more obviously pertinent to the USA's contemporary problems, but that's just it: it's too obvious, too heavy-handed. I would've stuck with the 1950's setting; in fact, there's an obvious opportunity to pull in elements of film noir and have a political-dystopia-noir hybrid. All you need is superheroes and an underwater city and it's Bioshock.

•The storytelling in AS isn't so great.

As a statement of political philosophy and ideology, Atlas Shrugged works fairly well, albeit a little repetitive at times. As an actual narrative, though, it's not much to write home about; Rand seems to have been less interested in formulating a palatable plot for her readers than in expressing her ideas in a novelized form. Which is fine, really. One reads Atlas Shrugged for the ideas, not for the totally-utilitarian prose or the not-very-exciting action scenes or the tedious (and frequently sort of weird) sex scenes. About the only thing Rand does well as a storyteller is build tension—and a good thing, too, because without that tension I don't think I could keep slogging through all 17 million pages.
(Note: this isn't to say that film is inferior to literature in terms of expressing themes/ideas. But I feel there's a more consistent expectation for a film to entertain, and Atlas Shrugged, while entertaining in its own way, isn't exactly the most riveting read.)

Closely related to this last point:

•The characters are kind of preposterous.

If poor characterization were a boot, Atlas Shrugged would fit it. The characters all very obviously represent something, but that's about all they do—they're one-dimensional, cardboard caricatures: Dagny is an author surrogate, John Galt is a very obvious Mary Sue, James Taggart is the devil, and so on. Which, again, is fine: these are idealized (or demonized) characters, and Rand was above all else an idealist; if that's how she sought to convey her message, then so be it. (And before you claim that shoddy characterization is proof of the weakness of Rand's ideals, I would direct you to the work of Irish socialist playwright G.B. Shaw, whose works were often almost as bad in terms of characters-as-transparent-political-analogs—although I suppose Shaw at least aimed to make his works funny as well.) But, as with the storytelling aspect, I don't think such poor characterization will translate well onto the big screen.

Speaking of the characters:

•Dagny's too hot.

I know, I know. But hear me out. This was one my sister brought up (SUP RACHEL), and at first I was all "lol w/e", but I actually sort of see her point.

In the adaptation for which I've posted the trailer above, Dagny's being played by a young lady named Taylor Schilling. In case you didn't get a good look at her, she looks like this:

Meanwhile, if you Google image search "Dagny Taggart," the first image result is this:

(She was attached the project a while back, with Brad as John Galt. Yikes.)

If, however, you understand Dagny to be something of an author surrogate, then she looks something like this:

Okay, so maybe that's a bit extreme. In fact, Rand devotes relatively little space to physical description of Dagny; she's described as having "a slender, nervous body" with "a sweep of brown hair" and a face "made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision," but that's about it. Much more is made of the way Dagny carries herself, the fact that she's got an air of supreme confidence around her and acts like it. (This is typically Randian—good characters are taut and severe and at times imposing in stature, bad characters tend to be sloppy louts with poor posture and soft faces.) I can't say I'm really that upset about Taylor Schilling as Dagny (it's not exactly like she's hard on the eyes), but all the same, I can sort of see where it isn't quite right; a hot Dagny might even undermine the notion that her success is predicated on ability rather than looks, but that's debatable, and really it's probably just an excuse for the filmmakers to make her even less of a character than she already is.

I'll watch the Atlas Shrugged movie, to be sure, but my expectations are, in sum, pretty low. If I'm going to see libertarian philosophy translated to the screen, give me Robert Heinlein. At least that way there'll be some fun.

Oh, wait:

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