I approached the release of the first theatrical stab at tackling the behemoth Atlas Shrugged with a mix of trepidation and elation. The elation was less muted than it should have been. I knew there was no way the movie could ever do justice to the book and that I would be disappointed on a scale ranging from "how dare they, what an abomination" to "that didn't suck quite as much as I expected." Yet there was something magical about the promise of seeing the characters who had been part of my life for decades brought to life. The notion of see them and hearing the words I've memorized up on the screen filled me with excitement well beyond a child on Christmas morning.
Even now, some three days after seeing the movie, I cannot accurately assessed it. Was it great film making? The short answer is "No." I'm not sure it would have earned a "C" in a high school movie making class. The dialogue was stilted, the acting inconsistent, the narrative impossible for the uninitiated to follow. It was a lot of people talking interspersed with beautiful, scenic shots of Colorado, and what appeared to be an extended commercial for Lionel trains. And yet...it literally brought me to tears. There was the sweet and loyal Eddie Willers, the insidious Jim Taggart, the heroic Dagny right there in front of me. It felt like I was home.
I think the analogy must be going to a concert forty years after a band's prime. They don't look or sound like you had wanted, probably any unsigned band playing in a garage that night would have had a better set, but it is still magical just being there and sharing the experience with them. Maybe it's a nod to nostalgia or maybe it remind you of yourself at a younger age maybe it's some other association. But experiencing it, whatever the actual quality of the experience, was enough.
Watching Atlas Shrugged, especially in a theatre surrounded (mostly) by other true believers, made me feel a sense of community and kinship that I usually don't feel. Living in Los Angeles, it's not likely that I'll bump into another Objectivist in my day-to-day life. But as soon as the movie started, I was there, with my people, speaking the same language, understanding the same inside jokes. We knew what "looters" mean, we knew why they were showing us news clips of "pirate" Ragnar Danneskjold, we remembered what they'd find in Francisco D'Anconia's mine, we understood the significance of the Reardon Metal bracelet, we knew the answer to "Who is John Galt?"
This movie was made for the fans of the book to enjoy seeing and hearing what they've had in their minds and hearts for years. It was a chance to have a shared experience, like a giant, silent book club just for those of us in the know. The fillmmakers did nothing to make the characters or story accessible or understandable to the newbies; those who wandered in having never read the book might have as well have been watching a foreign film without subtitles.
Atlas Shrugged the film is a subpar movie made from the greatest book ever written. It was a job of herculean proportion to bring the depth, breadth and scope of the book to the screen. It is a love story, a cautionary tale, a philosophical treatise, a blueprint for salvation, and a how-to book on living a full, valuable life. It deals with beliefs and thoughts and values and words, it answers what it means to be human, it addresses the very basic issues of good and evil, right and wrong. It needed 1,000 plus pages to accomplish its goal of changing the world. How do you compress that into a movie?
Yet, I'm glad someone tried and I encourage others to take a go at it as well. Because it is heavier than a toddler, the book may not be read by as many people as it should be. Having its story packaged in a way to reach more people is a good idea and perhaps some day we'll have a cinematic vision of Ayn Rand's theory that does it and her justice. But this version of Atlas Shrugged wasn't it.