What Conservatives Can Learn from the Atlas Shrugged Film Fiasco

As of this writing, the popular Internet site RottenTomatoes.com is showing a pathetic 8% “fresh tomatoes” (positive reviews) for the long-awaited screen adaptation of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged.

Even though Rand, an Objectivist, was an ultra-pro business libertarian and the vast majority of film critics are left-liberals, in this case the critics are right.

In fact, it’s worse. Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 (save us from 2 and 3) is an amateurish enterprise of embarrassing proportions that I strongly suspect would have had Rand herself running for cover. (I also predict its decent limited release box office opening will fade quickly.)

Some writers have defended the film as being under-budgeted. This is the least of its problems. The same script shot for $300 million would have been just as bad -- or nearly -- as the one shot for $30 million. It would still have had wooden characters delivering wooden lines (that were largely exposition anyway) with an entirely predictable, poorly paced plot set in an oddly anachronistic near future.

Others say, well, Rand’s novel is more or less like that. Possibly. But film is a different, obviously more photographic medium with its own demands and, in the end, it is Rand’s ideas that are particularly poorly served here. The Atlas Shrugged filmmakers forgot the old Hollywood saw: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” It’s a truism for a reason.

But enough of beating up on Atlas Shrugged, the movie. What can conservatives or libertarians learn from this fiasco?

The right has long complained about being discriminated against in Hollywood. And no doubt they are to greater or lesser degrees. (Clint Eastwood doesn’t seem so discriminated against.) But whining about this bias (being "Victocrats," in Larry Elder’s pungent term) is only part of the solution -- and a very small part. The real solution -- in fact the only ultimate solution -- is to produce work of your own.

But therein lies the rub. The work has to be good. Having the correct political views (left or right) is again only a part of the solution -- and an even smaller part.

First comes art, then (distantly) comes politics. If you’re not up to the job artistically, you might as well stay home. And filmmaking is not a simple art. As a screenwriter of intermittent success with a movie of my own coming out in late June, I have viewed this up close. Who knows how many of the scripts that everyone seems to be writing actually get filmed, but it is substantially less than one percent. And how many of those (ask yourself) actually become good movies?

The number is minuscule. Maybe a half dozen a year. Just wanting to do it is not enough. It’s not even close. You can’t ask the will to do the work of the imagination, as Diaghilev pointed out. First you have to have that imagination (that is, real creative talent) and exercise it, work hard at it. Think about the story, not about the politics. Make the characters vivid, the plot compelling. Then the politics will follow.

To go the other way around is a certain prescription for defeat. In great story telling, the politics is most often subliminal. Even when it is not (Orwell), the situation of the people dominates; their plight is what holds our interest.

And above all, remember this: In movies, the script isn’t everything. It’s more than everything!

UPDATE: Some folks seem upset about why I didn't give more of a "review" of the movie - why I didn't like it, etc. That wasn't my intention, which was to focus more on the what we can learn aspect. Nevertheless, I thought I was relatively clear that I thought the film was weak in the two key areas of character and plot. Regarding character, the two leads are less than paper thin. We know little of them other than their willfulness and their pro-business ideology. No much for the actors to play. This is fine for subsidiary characters but fatal in protagonists. Still, this might be okay if this were in the service of a compelling plot. But the plot of the film is worse than silly. It is politically wrong-headed. A movie about super trains in the American West in 2016? Unlike when the book was written, these days that is the very thing that Barack Obama is proposing - with government subsidies - and conservatives are currently opposing for good reason. Super trains don't work in the Western states economically. We need better roads. But not in this movie, which seems stuck in those fifties while pretending to be 2016 (a weirdly non-technological 2016 I might add). As a business movie, it fails. The whole concept needed rethinking. (Nothing wrong with a good business movie, btw. Just one that makes sense.)

One other thing, regarding the film's popularity with fans. As I noted, I think this will fade quickly. I could be wrong. Have been many times. We will know in two or three weeks.