Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Could Atlas Shrugged be the defining turkey of 2011?

First off, before anybody else chimes in, let me confirm that, at this point, I cannot offer a fair answer to that question. The film will not emerge until April. Who knows? It could be a roaring masterpiece. But the …

Tue, Feb 15, 2011, 16:22

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First off, before anybody else chimes in, let me confirm that, at this point, I cannot offer a fair answer to that question. The film will not emerge until April. Who knows? It could be a roaring masterpiece. But the omens are far from good.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a novel that makes paving stones feel inadequate, is a uniquely strange cultural phenomenon. Admired by legions of half-bright American students and the odd (very odd) US boffin, the book has virtually no currency on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, until a few years ago, when Penguin Modern Classics eliminated a few forests to produce an edition, the book wasn’t even in print in the United Kingdom. Written in prose so sluggish it often threatens to snooze its way off the page, the novel details the efforts of a libertarian Messiah to freshen up a (no really) socialistic United States. The trains soon run on time. The old are left to die on ice floes. You know the sort of thing. Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, knew Rand when he was young and has long been a champion of the book. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that a Maoist now sits in the White House, Atlas Shrugged has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years. Rand’s atheism proves something of a problem for the new American right, but her anti-statist leanings sit very nicely with that movement’s paranoia about Big Government.

A glance at certain shadier corners of the internet will confirm that hundreds of thousands of readers — shunning the derision of serious literary academics — still regard the ghastly thing as some sort of neglected masterpiece. In 1998, for instance, the Modern Library, after publishing a chart of best modern novels headed by Ulysses, asked the cyber-masses to compile their own list. Gathering their forces in the electronic ether, the Randinistas managed to install Atlas Shrugged at the top of the poll. This, despite the fact that the book has lower literary standing than the works of Harold Robbins.

Unsurprisingly, there has long been talk of a film version. Equally unsurprisingly, few major investors have shown interest in financing such an unappealing production. That said, back in 1972, Albert S Ruddy, producer of The Godfather, did approach Rand with a notion of acquiring the rights. When she demanded script approval (can you imagine?) he wisely backed away. The film version has remained in development hell ever since. In the interim, there have been suggestions of a movie starring Angelina Jolie and a mini-series featuring Charlize Theron.

What we seem to have ended up with is a cut-price, thrown-together shocker starring nobody you’ve ever heard of. Reports suggest that, as the rights were due to expire in June this year, the current holders were forced into knocking the film together in double-quick time. Stephen Polk (huh?) was initially scheduled to direct, but, shortly before the project creaked into action, he was replaced by┬áPaul Johansson (double huh?). The multi-gifted Mr Johansson also stars.

Just look at this thing! It’s got more racing trains than a Tony Scott film. The art-direction is done by somebody drunk on cheap perfume commercials. The level of building melodrama is quite draining. The most fearsome element of the enterprise is, however, the inclusion of the words “Part 1″ in the title. Yeah. Good luck with that, chaps. This looks too nasty to appeal even to Ms Rand’s peculiar acolytes.

In such posts I would normally end with a phrase such as “we’ll find out for ourselves when the film opens in April”. But, to be honest, I would be astonished if the thing ever makes it to these shores. We’re all state-coddled Bolsheviks here, you see.

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