Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 619, May 15, 2011

"They all went to the theater expecting
to see a film, and saw a movie, instead"

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Atlas Shrugged: Part One
Reviewed by L. Neil Smith

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Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

In 1962, like the lives of countless others, my life was changed, profoundly and forever, when a friend of mine gave me a paperback copy—which I still have, held together, much like its owner, with rubber bands—of Ayn Rand's then-five-year-old epic philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged. (It was changed all over again in 1979, when the author's ideas, expressed in the book, brought me and my wife Cathy together,)

Now, just short of half a century later, we have been presented with the motion picture that all of us "Ayn Rand freaks" always wanted to see produced, and which we have been casting, in our imaginations and at innumerable gatherings, over and over through five decades. (I always saw Hank Rearden being portrayed by real political conservative Spencer Tracy, which ought to give you several different ideas about me.)

I finally saw Atlas Shrugged a few days ago, amidst a storm of wildly varying opinions. Unanimously, as near as I can tell, it is the worst movie in history, according to bedwetting liberal critics. The same scum to whom, you may recall, Red Dawn, which made their sweet commie darlings look bad, was "the most violent movie ever made". The collectivist parasites are as terrified by Rand's ideas as they would be if she were still alive, proclaiming them in her thick Russian accent.

Everything they live for, all they hope for and desire, depends on an ability to convince a majority of the individuals around them that, for their small, shabby lives to have any meaning, they must be lived for the sake of others—invariably, the very parasites doing the preaching or the left wing institutions that feed, house, and clothe them.

In 1957, Rand threw the bullshit flag on that dirty little game—loudly proclaiming that each individual's life is an end in itself, to be lived simply for its own sake—and they have never gotten over it. They would do anything—absolutely anything—to eradicate the woman from this civilization's memory. They hate, loathe, and despise her for having snatched away so many of their potential victims, even more than they hate, loathe, and despise lesser lights they've worked their dirty tricks on, like Barry Goldwater, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh.

And, most notably, Ron Paul.

So the question naturally arises, is the cinematic version worthy of the book it's based on and its author? As I have noted, opinions vary.

One complaint I've heard is that the picture dives right into the ideas it means to convey, without introductions or preliminaries. It's been a long time since I read the book, but I seem to recall it doing exactly the same thing, often leaving the fifteen-year-old that I was behind in the dust, struggling to catch up. It wasn't as bad as The Fountainhead in that respect, but it was certainly an intellectual exercise.

Is it the unspoken assumption that today's moviegoers are stupider than yesterday's paperback novel readers? If is isn't, then what's wrong with the screen version being an intellectual exercise, too? Almost all good science fiction begins with a confused audience or reader. Most of the fun lies in figuring out what's really going on here.

The most consistent carping I've heard and read involves what some regard as "wooden" acting, especially on the part of Taylor Shilling, who plays Dagny Taggart. What I recall about the book is how tightly Dagny was wound, how passionate she was on the inside, how stoic on the outside. In my opinion, Shilling was little short of perfect as Dagny.

I was doubtful about Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden, but he sold me. It was also wonderful to see Armin Shimerman being even slimier than he was as Principal Snyder on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The much maligned Quark, of course, was pretty close to being a real Randian hero. I was quite thoroughly satisfied with all of the rest of the casting. Especially Edi Gathegi (Eddie Willers), who was a delightful surprise.

Extra points must surely go to Rebecca Wisocky as the infinitely detestable Lillian Rearden. What the hell did Hank ever see in that bitch?

Other writers have griped about the visual effects. Me, I've never seen a silver railroad train going around a mountain curve at 250 miles an hour, so I don't know what it looks like. But the sight of it happening on the screen, and the vision of the gleaming metal snake gliding over a marvellous ultramodern bridge very nearly brought me to tears.

As did a number of other scenes.

I think the major problem with libertarian critics is three-fold. First, thinking about a thing—ideating over it—for fifty years can generate a lot of expectations, a good many of them unreasonable. Nobody, with any amount of money, could have made the picture they expected.

It's easy to forget that, for reasons of finance and the complex structure of the novel, this was only a third of the story. I ran into similar problems with my orphan-child The WarDove when I couldn't write the other two books that fill out the trilogy it was meant to be.

The worst problem is that they all went to the theater expecting to see a film, and saw a movie, instead. There's a big difference, according to my friend and fellow movie fan, Lenda Jackson. A film is a horrible, boring, wrist-slittingly depressing exercise—anything by Ingmar Bergman comes to mind—to which you take your college girlfriend to convince her that you're an intellectual. I tried that once, and walked out, annoying my enamorata, the associate editor of the campus newspaper. The Fountainhead was a film, too, and it sucked.

John Wayne made movies. Tom Selleck, Clint Eastwood, and Kurt Russell, for the most part, reliably make movies. Star Wars, Star Trek, and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter adventures have generated dozens of wonderful movies, conveying their outlook and philosophy (even when we don't agree with them) in a manner that's exciting and fun.

Atlas Shrugged will be a movie, once it's finished, and a great one. But it won't happen if we let the enemies of liberty have their way.

For my part, I'm gonna go see it again, as soon as possible.

Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world's foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of more than 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at

Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil's 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas is currently running as a free weekly serial at

Neil is presently at work on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Where We Stand: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis with his daughter, Rylla.

See stunning full-color graphic-novelizations of The Probability Broach and Roswell, Texas which feature the art of Scott Bieser at Dead-tree versions may be had through the publisher, or at where you will also find Phoenix Pick editions of some of Neil's earlier novels. Links to Neil's books at are on his website


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