By Martin Fridson (for Barron's)
Atlas Shrugged, Part I is that rarest of rare commodities, a movie in which capitalists are the good guys. After almost 40 years of attempts to bring Ayn Rand's epic novel, or at least part of it, to the screen, this film will have its world premiere—in a delicious irony—on traditional Tax Day, April 15.
The 102-minute film offers suspense, pathos and even a little sex. Although it covers just the first third of the novel–Parts II and III are being planned–it provides a tantalizing taste of the story's seductive power, while leaving viewers hungry for more.
It should also satisfy followers of Rand's objectivist philosophy, which celebrates the virtues of laissez-faire economics. Among market luminaries, proponents of objectivism include Cliff Asness, Victor Niederhoffer, and Monroe Trout. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was a member of Rand's inner circle in the 1950s, and speaks admiringly of her in his memoir, The Age of Turbulence.
Partisans will argue that the sweep and scale of the novel (it comes in at nearly 1200 pages) deserve a Hollywood mega-budget. They can also point to its extraordinary influence. In a 1991 survey conducted for the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress, Atlas Shrugged ranked second only to the Bible among books that made a difference in people's lives. A best seller on publication in 1957, it has remained perennially hot–and set sales records since the 2008 financial crisis.
THE NOVEL FEATURES a mysterious strike, in which government's increasingly crushing directives—designed to solve government-created problems—are resisted by society's most productive members. Thus, Atlas "shrugs"—refusing, as the novel explains, to continue to hold the world on his shoulders. (The Atlas of Greek mythology actually held up the heavens, but no matter.)
Admirers of this vision might expect the movie adaptation to feature A-list actors on the level of Gary Cooper, who starred in the 1949 film of Rand's The Fountainhead, for which she herself wrote the script. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were, in fact, among the names mentioned during Atlas Shrugged's long journey to the screen. But the major studios saw too little commercial potential in producing a movie faithful to the colossal original. One proposed screenplay even left out the strike, an omission likened by objectivist philosopher David Kelley to filming Gone with the Wind without the Civil War.
Entrepreneur John Aglialoro, who had acquired the film rights in 1992, was determined to hold out for a version true to the novel. But after repeated deal-making snags, he faced expiration of the film rights on June 15, 2010.
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(Note: Be sure to read the reviewer's bio at the end of the review. His wife has read Atlas Shrugged 13 times.)