'Atlas Shrugged,' the Movie: The Story Behind the Camera

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Atlas globeAtlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's most famous -- and some say most ponderous -- novel may soon become a movie. However, objectivists, libertarians and assorted Rand fans might want to hold off on taking their victory lap: Boasting an unknown cast, led by an inexperienced director and financed with an anemic $5 million budget, chances are good that this Atlas will leave audiences shrugging.


Over the years, some of the biggest names in Hollywood have expressed interest in adapting Atlas Shrugged: at different times, Angelina Jolie, Charlize Theron, Anne Hathaway, Julia Roberts, Barbara Stanwyck, Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welch, Farrah Fawcett and Sharon Stone all vied for the choice role of Dagny Taggart, the book's protagonist. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford all expressed interest in playing John Galt, the book's male lead. Some of Hollywood's most famous scriptwriters, including Russell Wallace, James V. Hart and Sterling Silliphant took their shot at the script, and Albert S. Ruddy, the legendary producer of The Godfather tried -- twice! -- to put together a version.

The Book About No Compromises Is Compromised

The forthcoming version is staffed with far lesser lights. Paul Johansson, who is directing the film and playing John Galt, is best known for his work on One Tree Hill, and most of his previous directing experience has been on the set of the teen-oriented soap opera. Taylor Schilling (Dagny Taggart) and Grant Bowler (Henry Rearden) also boast TV-heavy resumes, as do most of the supporting actors. As for the script, Brian Patrick O'Toole has been tasked with transforming Rand's 1,074-page brick into a two-hour movie. His previous scripts, Basement Jack, Evilution, and Cemetery Gates were all shlocky, low-budget horror films. As if that wasn't bad enough, Johansson has only five weeks for principal photography.

So how did one of Hollywood's most famous, eagerly anticipated properties end up getting transformed into a super-cheap quickie filled with Love Boat-level actors? The ultimate villain may be Rand herself. When The Fountainhead was adapted in 1949, director King Vidor trimmed Howard Roark's rambling courtroom speech, infuriating Rand. The author refused to work on Atlas Shrugged until the studio restored the speech in its entirety. Given that the edited version was still the longest cinematic speech in history, the film's producers refused and Rand, who wrote the script, proceeded to publicly savage the film, attacking its casting, editing and direction.

In 1972, Albert Ruddy got very close to producing a version of Atlas Shrugged, but Rand refused to grant him creative control, inspiring him to reply that he would wait for her to "drop dead," and would then make the film on his own terms. By the time she obliged, 10 years later, an attempted TV version had failed, followed shortly thereafter by another failed attempt that was bankrolled by Ed Snider, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers and a Rand supporter.

In 1992, Rand's estate sold the film rights to the book -- including full creative control -- to John Agliolaro, CEO of Cybex International, a treadmill manufacturer. Over the following 18 years, Agliolaro has launched multiple attempts to bring the book to the screen, including a 1999 collaboration with Ruddy that would have produced a four-hour miniseries on TNT. That project was scuttled by the merger of Time Warner and AOL. (AOL is the owner of DailyFinance.)

Putting Together a Quickie

Agliolaro's rights to the book were set to expire if principal photography didn't begin by June 12, 2010. Up until the last minute, relatively unknown actor/director/scriptwriter/producer Stephen Polk was set to direct the film, but he and Agliolaro clashed over cast and budget. Long story short, Polk wanted to mount a real production, while Agliolaro was more interested in putting together a quickie version. Two weeks before principal filming was scheduled to begin, Johansson was given the director's chair.

To understand why Agliolaro has been trying to put together a cheap version of Atlas, one need look no further than Fantastic Four. Big budget cinematic versions of the famous comic book were released in 2005 and 2007, but the first film adaptation came out in 1994. An embarrassingly bad quickie produced by shlockmeister Roger Corman, the movie was never intended for release; its purpose was to enable producer Berndt Eisinger to hold onto his film rights to the work. Oddly enough, it allegedly turned a profit when Marvel Comics paid to have it permanently shelved. This quickie version of Atlas Shrugged will likely do the same thing, either extending Agliolaro's control over the property or at least getting him a quick payoff from the estate of Ayn Rand..

A Book Made for Movie Fans

It's easy to understand why Atlas Shrugged is attractive to Hollywood. There are over 6 million copies of the book in print and, like all of Rand's tomes, it has a ready-made audience that regards her writing as a step below holy writ. Books by her, books about her, and previous cinematic adaptations of her works have done exceedingly well, propelled by a viral network of rabid Randians.

Then again, the loyalty of the Rand fan base can cut both ways: Adaptations that don't meet the Objectivist standard of fidelity -- like The Fountainhead -- are left out in the cold. Luckily, Rand's incredibly detailed writing erases any confusion about her vision. Atlas Shrugged, for instance, features hundreds of pages of snappy, 1940's-era dialog that would be especially appropriate if the filmmakers decided to go with a 1940s noir theme, as in The Maltese Falcon or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Unfortunately, Agliolaro has stated that the forthcoming adaptation will be set in the present day.

In several key scenes, Rand even augmented her exhaustive scriptwriting with shot-by-shot, angle-by-angle notes that precisely lay out what viewers would see on the screen. Witness, for example, this vignette, in which the reader first meets industrialist Hank Rearden:
Swinging through the darkness of the shed, the red glare kept slashing the face of a man who stood in a distant corner ... the glare cut a moment's wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice -- then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair -- then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hand.

Rand goes on to describe Rearden's posture, expression and exact movements as he watches molten metal being poured into molds. In fact, given the level of description, she almost renders any potential director irrelevant. This, incidentally, might explain why no major directors have ever been attached to the project. For actors and producers, Atlas Shrugged is a rich, attractive property with plenty of room for visual flair. For any director or cinematographer with a distinctive vision, it offers the opportunity to do battle with the corpse of a particularly strong-willed iconoclast and her legions of rabid fans.
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