I finally got the chance to see Atlas Shrugged Part I. And I must say I was inspired, inspired to reread the book…and try my hand at writing a better screenplay. The one they used was amateurish, reminiscent of some recent mega church propaganda films.
OK, it wasn’t as bad as Avatar. And it didn’t offend me as much as the movie butcherings of Dune, Starship Troopers, or Lord of the Rings. But it was objectively bad. Surf Nazis Must Die had better dialog. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes did a better job of building up a mystery. Who is John Galt? Just show it within five minutes of the credits and kill all the suspense. This is as bad as Peter Jackson’s revealing the history of the One Ring in the opening scene of Lord of the Rings. The only reason the movie version of Atlas bothered me less than LOTR or Dune is that I have less love for the Rand’s book than for the other works. (Her words sparkled at times, but her philosophy was dangerously defective.)
Here’s a tip for rich fanboys who want to make a movie of their favorite book: hire a good screenwriter! You can skimp on sets, makeup and special effects; see Dr. Who from the Tom Baker years. You can save some money on actors as well. Big name stars are valued for their trademarks as much as their actual acting abilities. But if you have a crappy script, you have a crappy movie. Think of The Love Guru, Independence Day, or Star Wars—The Phantom Menace.
Atlas Shrugged does present some unique challenges. The book is huge, with way more dialog than can fit even in a miniseries. And the scenario is hopelessly obsolete: the passenger railroad lines have been nationalized for decades. The first problem we could mitigate by following the example of Hollywood films from Ayn Rand’s day, before the spaghetti western popularized sparse dialog and posedowns. Watch an old romantic comedy or detective flick. Back in the old days, the actors motor-mouthed. So should most of the characters in Atlas Shugged. The heroes are nerds, and Ayn Rand was fond of stimulants. (Speaking of which: there should have been more smoking and less drinking in the movie.)
The obsolete scenario presents a bigger problem. Today’s long haul passenger trains are museum relics run by the government: NPR on wheels, if you will. Having the grandchildren of robber barons struggle to save the line in 2016 just doesn’t work. Once possibility would be to switch from trains to airlines, but this interferes with the Rearden Steel plotlines. Another would be to go further into the future, long after air travel has been deprecated because of Peak Oil or anti global warming regulations. Yet another option would be to go retro, as in Brazil or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Set the story in an alternate past, where the New Deal never ended. Maybe even shoot it in black and white.
The last option is the safest. Tinker with the technology and you tinker with the story so much that devotees will wince at the changes. Moreover, the technology in Atlas Shrugged is not the only thing which is now obsolete. So are the villains. The overt Kantian philosophy Rand loathed went out of style during the Me Decade. That which survived mutated into deep environmentalism. An updated Atlas Shrugged based on today’s Man-hating villains, might make an interesting movie, but it would offend the fans of the original. Better to make a story inspired by Atlas than to mutate it.
So, will I be writing that retro screenplay? No. I have a hundred higher priority items on my queue, ranging from writing a replacement operating system for Windows, starting a new political party, to becoming the All Being, Master of Time Space and Dimension. Also, my grass needs mowing.