Atlas Shrugged and the Silver Screen — Is a movie adaptation of Ayn Rand’s masterpiece possible? And what we need to make it happen.

When Americans were asked what book influenced their lives the most, predictably, most responded with the Bible. But the book that came in second was Atlas Shrugged.

The first time I read this book, I misunderstood a lot of it. My friend and mentor, Cody Libolt took a lot of time helping me to understand themes that were hard for me to wrap my mind around. And like millions of others, this book has come to greatly influence my life. It’s easy to relate to each of the heroes in the book. Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, and even John Galt resonate with an individual who wants to live a life that is full and that is moral here on this Earth.

While Rand herself was an Atheist, her characters at times reminded me of Adam, and of Christ, and whether intentionally or not, gave me a lot to think about in terms of my Faith.

The Adaptations And Why They Failed

So this suggests a number of questions. Why has this masterpiece never been properly adapted to the big screen? As the Wikipedia article states, “A film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged was in ‘development hell’ for nearly 40 years.”

In 2010, the first film in an Atlas Shrugged trilogy was released. I remember seeing part of it in passing long before I knew anything about Ayn Rand, and seeing something about political games and a train, and not really understanding what was going on or having any idea that there was even anything worth understanding.

But after reading the book, I went back and watched all the film adaptations and was greatly disappointed. And this disappointment ran much deeper than the typical “the book was better.” I could see why Jacob Brunton described the films as being a “Tea Party propaganda film.” While I definitely have respect for the Tea Party, the film woefully missed most of what Ayn Rand was saying with her book.

The films were maybe okay on their own, perhaps 3 stars out of 5. But they were not Atlas Shrugged.

The book weaved themes of individualism, rational thought, individual rights, and the moral value that a man ought to seek to live and not merely to exist. No other piece of writing in the history of the world as far as I have ever read has explored the themes in this way. And explaining all of the messages is more than what I can do here.

But all of that was stripped from the films.

Instead, they merely focused on not having the government micromanage private businesses. While this was part of the book, the films entirely missed the deeper and more important messages.

Other films have been made based on books with themes and meanings, some following a story more closely than others, but still retaining the core message and themes. Jurassic Park dealt with hubris in new scientific advancements, and the need to exercise caution and humility with biotechnology (my field). The Lord of the Rings showed how, even when darkness is prevailing and seems to be conquering the whole world, good can still triumph and there can still be good and beautiful things after the darkness has passed. This was exemplified in Samwise Gamgee’s speech to Frodo as the ring bearer was tempted to give in to nihilism.

But imagine if a film adaptation stripped down The Lord of the Rings and somehow someone had a ring somewhere, but the whole thing became about saving the rainforest. I am all for saving the rainforest, and Tolkien had some nature themes, but saving the rainforest is not the core of what The Lord of the Rings is about. Perhaps we could imagine a film adaptation that even followed many of the lines very literally, but completely missed the whole point of the book and what the author was saying.

One might still have dinosaurs or elves and verbatim scenes, but it would no longer be Jurassic Park, or The Lord of the Rings, or Atlas Shrugged. If we have dinosaurs without the hubris, or an evil gold ring but no hope, then what do we have?

Obviously The Lord of the Rings films are masterpieces in their own right, even though I am told it was said that these books could not be made into films. And Jurassic Park is a classic, even though it is very different from the book in many of the details.

These films that bear the name of Atlas Shrugged had a lot of the same “props” but they missed the whole point of the book. It is just a movie with a train but without the message of morality towards one’s own self.

But the point of this article is not to show how the previous adaptation got it wrong, it is to show how to do it right.

My Approach

Instead of trying to adapt Atlas Shrugged into a movie or a movie series, the approach ought to be to adapt it into a streaming series, like what we typically see on Netflix or Amazon. This would allow the writers to explore themes in more depth without having to abridge the subtlety of Ayn Rand’s work. And this could be done over multiple seasons.

Also, instead of using live-action actors, this adaptation ought to be animated. Specifically, I would focus on making this a dieselpunk anime, something like the Animatrix, but with more fedoras.

By taking this approach, creators would have a wide range of flexibility. The subtleties of facial movements and expressions could be modeled and framed in a way that might not be possible with real actors.

This would also allow for a great deal of artistic license in terms of depiction, without harming the messages of the book. For example, I am picturing a bullet train with a mild cyberpunk feel, but also with fedoras and flip phones. A bit of futuristic Scifi, but also with a range of retro-elements.

An image from the Animatrix Film. Note: I definitely think an Atlas Shrugged adaptation should be in color. Image Credit here

By using this type of animation, creators could easily mix together these different styles, and they would blend together well as tools to tell this story. Ultimately, that’s what matters. Telling a story that is so rich with subtlety yet so profound in its message is no easy task, but it is doable.

It is one thing to have two actors play out a scene from a book, line by line, and to do so very literally, while still losing the soul of the story’s message. Even very good actors might have difficulty with this. But with animation, there is a level of control in telling a story that is hard to replicate with live-action. This is partly due to the fact that animation allows for exaggerated expressions with larger eyes and a focus on subtle features like a bulging vein.

Animation also has the added benefit of allowing an easier switch between actors if needed. The Atlas Shrugged films were notorious for switching actors between the films. I was particularly disturbed by the use of a Francisco d’Anconia in the third film who looked old enough to be Dagny’s father rather than her former lover.

Animation can allow a flexibility of expression and subtlety that can be hard to create with live-action.

I have a lot of ideas for how a story like this could be told using animation. But I am sure that every creative reader will have ideas as well. (Please post them in the replies and perhaps they will be seen and used by those who create such an adaptation.) For example, I picture Dagny Taggart with a hairdo like the main character in the Aeon Flux series, though in a milder form.

Aeon Flux, Image credit here

By using a style of animation similar to The Animatrix, creators could exercise as much literal line-by-line adaptation to the original book as they like, or they could significantly go in a different direction with the execution. Hence my suggestion of using flip phones, along with cyberpunk technology, but with an overall dieselpunk theme.

There’s a lot that could be done and done well if executed in this way. And I think by showing Ayn Rand’s story in this way, a lot more people will have the opportunity to learn about her ideas, and their lives can be enriched as the result.

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G.S. Muse

G.S. Muse

G.S. Muse, also known as GreenSlugg on YouTube or simply as “Greg” is a lab technician, youtuber, author, and blogger. His work can be found at GreenSlugg.com