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'Atlas Shrugged' finally comes to the screen, albeit in chunks

A capitalist taken with Ayn Rand's 1957 novel spends almost 20 years and $20 million of his own money to get the first third of it filmed.

April 10, 2011|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Taylor Schilling plays "Atlas Shrugged" heroine Dagny Taggart, bent on saving her railroad company from collapse amid increasing government control and a mysterious phenomenon causing the nation's leading industrialists to disappear.
Taylor Schilling plays "Atlas Shrugged" heroine Dagny Taggart,… (Rocky Mountain Pictures )

It has taken businessman John Aglialoro nearly 20 years to realize his ambition of making a movie out of "Atlas Shrugged," the 1957 novel by Ayn Rand that has sold more than 7 million copies and has as passionate a following among many political conservatives and libertarians as "Twilight" has among teen girls.

But the version of the book coming to theaters Friday is decidedly independent, low-cost and even makeshift. Shot for a modest $10 million by a first-time director with a cast of little-known actors, "Atlas Shrugged: Part I," the first in an expected trilogy, will play on about 300 screens in 80 markets. It's being marketed with the help of conservative media and "tea party" organizing groups and put into theaters by a small, Salt Lake City-based booking service.

The fact that one of the 20th century's most influential books is coming to movie screens in such a fashion is — depending on whom you ask — a reflection of liberal Hollywood's aversion to Rand's ideas, a symptom of Aglialoro's rigid adherence to them, or a testament to the challenges inherent in adapting the complex tome.

Aglialoro ultimately made a movie that hews more to Rand's ideology than the conventions of cinematic storytelling, at the risk that far fewer people will see it. Taking a page from the independent blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ," however, he is paying for his own theater bookings and marketing his film to an audience Hollywood often overlooks.

The novel takes place in an unspecified future in which the U.S. is mired in a deep depression. Heroine Dagny Taggart is trying to save her railroad company from collapse amid increasing government control and a mysterious phenomenon causing the nation's leading industrialists to disappear. "Atlas Shrugged" lays out Rand's passionate defenses of capitalism and individualism, and has been a source of inspiration to figures as varied as Alan Greenspan and Angelina Jolie.

The 97-minute film is a faithful adaptation of the first third of the book, with some adjustments made for modern audiences: It takes place in the year 2016, when gasoline costs $37.50 a gallon, train travel predominates and clothes, cellphones and offices look pretty much as they do on a "Law & Order" rerun. Dagny, played by Taylor Schilling of the now-canceled television show "Mercy," is still trying to hold Taggart Transcontinental together. She's building a train line with a new metal alloy made by the man who is also her love interest, steel magnate Hank Rearden (former "True Blood" werewolf Grant Bowler). Much of the film's dialogue comes straight from Rand's often didactic prose and, perhaps as a result of the quick and thrifty adaptation, some dramatic action scenes are left out and key props, like a supposedly groundbreaking motor, look more jury-rigged than cutting-edge.

The graphic sex scenes of the novel are considerably toned down, earning the film a PG-13 rating and making Rand's story somewhat more palatable to the Christian family audiences who are among those the filmmakers hope to court. "Atlas Shrugged" has long been a sacred text among many conservatives and libertarians, but as an atheist who had an open marriage and wrote unapologetically sexual characters, Rand doesn't fit neatly into any Christian values-based marketing plan.

In February, the producers began to share the film with people likely to be in accord with the author's views. They showed footage at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, unveiling a trailer that has since been downloaded more than a million times on YouTube, and screened the final cut for influential conservatives like House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and commentator Andrew Breitbart. They enlisted Freedomworks, the political organizing group behind many tea party events, to help promote it, and started advertising with posters that said "Who Is John Galt?," the first line of the book and a meaningful catchphrase for Rand's acolytes.

Part of the marketing for "Atlas Shrugged: Part I" relies on the movie's status as a product, as Fox News host Sean Hannity has described it, that "liberal Hollywood doesn't want you to see."

The real story of what kept "Atlas" out of movie theaters for so long is a bit more complicated.

During Rand's lifetime, the author stymied "The Godfather" producer Al Ruddy's attempts to make a movie of "Atlas Shrugged" by demanding veto power over every frame. Rand, who was also a screenwriter, had adapted her 1947 novel "The Fountainhead" herself for a 1949 movie starring Gary Cooper, and was irked by a single line cut from the final film. A book like "Atlas Shrugged," at more than 1,000 pages, dense with philosophical ideas and containing a character's speech that covers 57 pages, would require major changes in its adaptation for screen.

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