This year marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of the publishing of Atlas Shrugged, the foundation of libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand‘s Objectivism ideals. In the years since her passing she has largely slipped from the public conscience and with the fall of communism her ideals have largely been taken for granted or simply left to decay like so many Soviet tanks in a field. There have been efforts to reopen her philosophy for debate. Bioshock was a thinly veiled critic of John Galt and Ayn Rand. And now someone has seen fit to make her Magnum Opus into a movie.
Rand’s novel centered on a near future in which a railroad tycoon struggles to keep her business afloat amidst the rising tide of fools whom increasingly choose equality over prosperity. Atlas Shrugged’s premise was teetering on irrelevance when it was published at the dawn of the interstate highway system in 1957 so why on Earth would you bring a movie about a railroad tycoon to the big screen today? Only an idiot would think Atlas Shrugged holds up in its original form. It would have been a simple matter to shift the focus from the steel industry, which was rusting away when Rand died in 1982, to the tech business.
Instead of transporting people over rails, something American trains haven’t done with any relevance as long as I’ve been alive, our main character Dagny Taggart could have been tasked with transporting information over fiber optic wire. It would have been oh, so relevant in light of the recent SOPA/PIPA outcries and the government’s demolition of megaupload.com. Granted an ever-increasing portion of our nation’s goods are shipped by rail, but don’t you think there would be a greater public outcry if the tubes dried up than if the rails rusted away?
The movie follows the book very carefully and their premise is simple enough. The world economy is collapsing under its own weight while the few remaining entrepreneurs struggle to bring to market the products that will save humanity. Sound familiar? Arguably Ayn Rand’s message is more relevant in today’s world than it has been since the Bolshevik revolution. But even the synopsis as presented is unapproachable to the masses and that brings us to my foremost critic of the film. It utterly fails to appeal to those I perceive to be its target audience. If I were to adapt to film Rand’s Atlas Shrugged my goal would be simple. Provide John Q. Public with an eye-opening look into the realm of economic possibility. What can you accomplish when you let Darwinian principles rule a capitalist market?
While flaws clearly exist within Objectivist theory, the basic premise is sound. A person is compensated based on the amount and quality of their work. If a man works eight hours in a factory and produces 100 Callahan brake pads he should clearly be paid less than the man who works eight hours and produces 1,000 Callahan brake pads of the same quality. Both workers should in turn have every right to go to the store and purchase groceries at a price that is equal to the effort put forth by the farmer. So in a world in which people believe all doctors of varying caliber should offer their services at an equal price that fails to compensate them for the costs they incurred gaining the knowledge needed to do their job, it seems only fair to offer Rand’s counterpoint to all Americans. The goal is to present Objectivism in such a way that it is applicable to the working stiff.
Atlas Shrugged was released on April 15, 2011 as thumb in the nose of tax day. But of course 2011 was the year of Occupy Wall Street so it would seem to me that a film focusing on a cast of “Wall Street fatcats” complaining about the government getting in the way of them making money could not have come at a worse time. The movie correctly describes Objectivism’s end but it utterly fails to emphasize the point. Like George Orwell before her Rand was vehemently opposed to socialism and the idea that society should equalize at some arbitrary level by holding back our greatest achievers in an effort to hold up our greatest failures.
In a society founded on freedom people must be free above all to make mistakes. Without losing a game of Teeball, or misplacing your trust in a used car salesman you gain no real knowledge. Without defeat success cannot be sweet. You cannot achieve greatness without first taking great risk. I can offer whatever cliché you like but the fact remains. The message the world needs to hear is stop trying to perfect society by leveling the playing field and instead pursue greatness in spite of it. And America is not ready to hear that message from a woman in a top hat and monocle smoking a cigar and droning on about train schedules between sips of Sherry.