Atlas Shrugged: The Box Office Flop

I’ve just finished watching the third installment of the Atlas Shrugged film trilogy. All three received abysmal reviews. While I’m not convinced that the magnitude of the negativity is entirely deserved, the critics are not so far off the mark.

First, I should start with some comments on the source novel. Adapting the boat anchor novel to the screen is not an easy task. On the one hand, there is the obvious excessive verbiage of the novel with its repetetive restatements of its underlying themes culminating in the 98 page (in the copy I read) speech by John Galt. That, however, is fairly easy to handle in a screenplay. That sort of thing can be wordsmithed around and much of what is written in the novel can be shown just as effectively as montages or other devices.

On the other hand, the novel has a substantial plot with substantial complexity. There is a lot going on which is quite subtly told. Once you pare out the excessive wordiness, there is a great deal of action and character development. Sure, much of what is described in the novel is somewhat redundant but there is a great deal of depth to the description of the slow collapse of America. Indeed, much of the novel rests on the short statements scattered throughout, the brief mentions of Ragnar’s activities or throwaway references to foreign people’s states.

Now on to the films. The films themselves have some obvious problems. First, the fact that each of the three films has a completely different cast is somewhat distracting. However, that’s not an indication of failure on its own. It might indicate a lack of faith in the project by the actors, though.

The obviously cheap production quality which declines from film to film is also an indicator. The use of the Gateway Arch to represent the bridge on the John Galt Line is a clear example of cheap production values. However, with a well told and directed story, that can be overlooked.

The real problem is the scripts. Oddly enough, the third film, which has the lowest budget, is probably the best of the three. The storytelling is fairly tight and the acting is reasonably good. The condensation of Galt’s epic speech to a few minutes works very well. It has a bit of a shaky start due to some disjointed editing related to the aside bits I mentioned in the novel discussion above but for the most part, the action flows nicely and the pacing isfairly good. It dispenses with quite a lot of the intrigue related to breaking Galt out of the SSI and a few other details which greatly improves the pacing.

The first two installments are a bit tedious and yet somehow manage to leave out some important aspects of the story in favour of stock footage of trains running on rail lines and other such things. Indeed, there are points where someone not familiar with the source material will be somewhat confused about what is actually going on, or at least will not understand the full significance of it. Some of the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of the source novel, but the novel does provide sufficient alternatives that a sufficiently skilled screenwriter and director could have come up with a solid, engaging result.

Still, all that said, if you can look past the uneven editing, pacing, and, in some cases, acting, these films are not a bad attempt at adapting Atlas Shrugged for the screen, especially given the shoestring budget (a combined $35M for all three!). It would be interesting to see what a budget ten times the size could accomplish, perhaps as a “miniseries” on television, though given the reception of this outing, that will probably be a long time coming. But then, the first attempts to adapt The Lord of the Rings were even worse so there is hope. Here’s hoping that whoever next attempts to adapt Atlas Shrugged learns from the mistakes of this adaptation.

All told, if you’re a fan of the novel, these movies are a reasonably decent adaptation, and, if you can look past the obviously cheap production, there is a good chance you will enjoy them. But don’t expect a cinematic tour de force.

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