Who Botched John Galt?

"This movie was made with the permission but not the participation of the estate of Ayn Rand."  -- Disclaimer at the end of the movie Atlas Shrugged, Part I
Why not?

The estate of Ayn Rand purports to safeguard her intellectual legacy.  After viewing the disastrously disappointing movie version of Atlas Shrugged, her magnum opus, Rand's fans, friends, and even casual acquaintances have a right to know how the guardian of this legacy could have allowed this to happen. The question raises interesting legal issues about the perils of intellectual property licenses, and the duties of rights holders to police the uses made of works entrusted to their care.

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Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged is a 1084-page paean to reason, individualism, and capitalism.  According to its original jacket cover, it is "the story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world -- and did."  That man, John Galt, accomplishes this goal by persuading the men of genius (yes, persons of both sexes were "men" to Miss Rand) to go on strike.  One by one, they disappear, unwilling to work in a world that deems self-sacrifice the highest virtue and living for one's own happiness sinful.

The novel is a marvelous amalgam of esoteric and populist ingredients.  The characters deliver lengthy expositions on ethics, economics, art, and sex.  The culmination of this instruction is a speech by John Galt, delivered on radio to a spellbound nation, which presents an integrated statement of the author's philosophy.  It runs 56 pages, and is studied today in colleges.  Meanwhile, the novel's action features catastrophic train wrecks, mysterious disappearances, and garment-rending sex.  The characters are easily recognized as heroes or villains by their names.  The heroes have hard-consonant names like Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, Ken Dannager, and John Galt; while the villains' gelatinous names fairly slither off the tongue: Wesley Mouch, Orren Boyle, Bertram Scudder, Claude Slagenhop. 

The novel has proved one of the most durable bestsellers in history.  It made the New York Times bestseller list the week after publication, remained there for 21 weeks, and then settled into a state of permanent popularity, selling about 100,000 copies a year, year after year after year.  Along the way, it influenced people as diverse as Alan Greenspan, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, and Clarence Thomas.  A 1991 survey of 5,000 Book-of-the-Month Club members by the Library of Congress found the book ranked as No. 2, behind the Bible, as the book that most influenced the members.  With the 2008 recession and the expansion of government spending under President Obama, interest in the book intensified.  During April of 2009, it reached No. 1 in Amazon's Fiction and Literature category.  Sales exceeded 500,000 copies that year.  The book has now sold over 7 million copies, and sales show no sign of slowing.

For decades, fans waited for a movie version to appear.  In the 1970s, the "Godfather" producer Al Ruddy came close to reaching a deal with Rand to produce a movie version with a cast rumored to include Faye Dunaway as Dagny Taggart, Clint Eastwood as Hank Rearden, and Robert Redford as John Galt.  The project dissolved over disagreements about editorial control.  Rand herself worked on screenplay but it was unfinished when she died in 1982.  In the 1990s, rumors arose of interest on the part of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

In the novel, the heroes inhabit Galt's Gulch, a free market utopia where all transactions are paid for in gold.  But the currency of the cinematic clunker is not gold but chintz.  Shot on a shoestring budget reportedly between $8 to 10 million, and rushed through production in about four weeks, the movie has the look and feel of a grade B television show.  But only in its good scenes. 

Most of the action takes place in the offices of Taggart Transcontinental and Rearden Metal.  These are the industrial giants of the time.  But, apparently because of budget constraints, there are no extras on the sets.  Taggart Transcontinental appears to have a total of three employees: Dagny Taggart, her oily brother James, and her assistant Eddie Willers.  Rearden Metal is even more sparsely populated.  There is Hank Rearden and his secretary Gwen, but no one else seems to work there.  Since Rearden is frequently away from the plant, that leaves only Gwen to roll out all that Rearden Metal for the rails used on the John Galt Line, a chore she apparently handles between filing and answering the phones.

The offices themselves are strangely configured.  Hank Rearden's desk seems to be located in a hallway.  Dagny's office is reminiscent of Courtyard by Marriot, and has opaque windows, probably to save the cost of filming an outside view.  Speaking of outside views, the movie makes extensive use of beautiful footage of the Rocky Mountains, which is fine for the scenes that take place in Colorado.  But when Dagny and Hank drive to Wisconsin to search for Galt's motor, the same footage appears.  Someone forgot that Wisconsin doesn't have mountains.  When Hank and Dagny cross the Wisconsin Mountains and find Galt's motor, the contraptions appears to be an upside down garbage disposal, with red wires hanging out from its sides.

One exception to the overall sense of tackiness is the depiction of the inaugural John Galt Line train racing over a modernistic bridge of gleaming Rearden Metal.  But the effect is marred by the conductor gravely announcing, as the train traverses a sinuous riverway course through the mountains, that it has reached a speed of 250 miles an hour.  Really?   Perhaps on a flat straightaway, but a train traveling at that speed along sharp mountainous curves would go off the rails, no matter what their alloy.

The storyline jerks spasmodically from scene to scene, leaving even devotees of the novel confused as to what is happening and why.  Dagny meets Francisco D'Anconia at a restaurant and throws a glass of water at him.  Hank Rearden sees D'Anconia at a party and scolds his wife for inviting him.  What does everyone have against Francisco?  The are novel explains, but the movie presents these scenes without context or explanation, as if the viewer will just guess their meaning.  This kind of incoherence occurs so frequently that an apt subtitle for the film would be "Scenes From a Novel."   

The cast consists of television actors of varying abilities.  Not one has starred in a well known movie.  Taylor Schilling, who played Nurse Veronica on the canceled television series Mercy, makes an earnest attempt at playing Dagny Taggart, but nature works against her.  She looks and speaks more like a sorority president than a business tycoon.  When she and Rearden view the ruins of a factory, and she asks "Why all these stupid altruistic urges?"  the viewer almost expects her to add: "Omigod, I mean, really."  Grant Bowler, a werewolf in True Blood, is miscast as Hank Rearden.  In the novel, Rearden is a man who went to work in the mines at the age of fourteen, and is 45 years old when he meets Dagny.  In the novel, Rand mentions that he is often called "ugly."  But in the movie, Bowler looks like he just graduated from business school, after attending prep school and an Ivy League college, while modeling for GQ on the side.

As often happens in bad productions, the best roles belong to the villains.  Michael Lerner (Solomon Schultz in A Serious Man) gives a convincing performance as the lobbyist turned regulator Wesley Mouch, playing the part like Barney Frank without the lisp.  Patrick Fischler (the memorable Jimmy Barrett in Mad Men) is suitably creepy as Rearden's false friend Paul Larkin.

But the best efforts of the villains cannot rescue this mediocre mess.  To paraphrase the novel's signature line: Who botched John Galt?

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Certainly, the cast cannot be blamed.  They played their roles to the best of their (sometimes limited) abilities.  According to press reports, many cast members were so eager to work on the project, they worked for fractions of their usual pay.

It is tempting to blame John Aglialoro, the Cybex fitness equipment CEO who paid $1 million for an option to produce the movie in 1992.  Over the next 18 years, Agilaloro spent additional millions of his own money developing scripts and pursuing a number of television miniseries and film projects, all of which fell through.  Finally, in March 2010, with three months left on his option, and with the estate unwilling to renew, Agilaloro decided to make the movie himself. 

One might say that Agilaloro, a film novice, had no business cutting his teeth on a project like Atlas Shrugged.  But with the estate refusing to extend the option , his only alternatives were to walk away from the project and his investment, or to double-down by spending still more money to make the movie himself.  In addition to being a successful businessman, owning and operating more than 30 companies, Agilaloro has won a U.S. Poker Championship.  So his decision was pre-ordained: he double-downed. 

He hired a producer experienced in making low-budget horror and action films.  He brought in a script writer with horror story credits, and worked with him on the screenplay.  Just 11 days before production began, he hired a director who had never directed a released film.  They started shooting days before the option would have expired, and finished a few weeks later.  If the movie has a slapdash look, it is an aura honestly earned.

If blame belongs anywhere it belongs to Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand's legal heir and the manager of her estate.  On his website, Dr. Peikoff proclaims himself Rand's "legal and intellectual heir -- and the world's foremost authority on Objectivism."  As such, he had a responsibility to safeguard Rand's legacy.  Yet he transferred the movie rights to her magnum opus without exercising any kind of quality control.

At some point he lost faith in Agilaloro, but he made no effort to retrieve those rights.  Instead, he tried to wash his hands of the whole matter.  According to the Objectivism.Online website, when asked about the movie then in production, Dr. Peikoff's assistant responded:

"The Estate of Ayn Rand sold the movie rights to Atlas Shrugged many years ago, to an individual whom Dr. Peikoff thought at the time to be an Objectivist. Dr. Peikoff, however, has discarded this opinion, and no longer has any connection to, interest in, or knowledge of the project.  In the light of recent articles in the Hollywood press, he has only the most dismal prediction in regard to the future product."
Dismal prediction or not, as Rand's legal heir, Peikoff had responsibilities akin to those of a licensor of a famous and valued brand.  Such licensors routinely impose wide-ranging duties on their licensees to maintain high quality standards.  Often these obligations include minimum financial investments by the licensees to promote the brand.  Neglecting these quality and financial duties are usually deemed materials breaches, leading to cancellation of the license.

In this case, Peikoff, in return for $1 million, relinquished control over one of the most valuable brands in our culture, and he did so to man with no track record in the movie industry.  Even if business realities required him to cede control, Peikoff could still have protected Rand's legacy by insisting on assurances concerning the qualifications of the directors and cast, and by requiring that Agilaloro commit to a minimum production budget.  Instead, Peikoff imposed no conditions, and when he decided he didn't like the direction the project was taking, he sulked, disclaiming any further interest in the man, the brand, or the project.

Ayn Rand's fans deserved a better movie.  Ayn Rand deserves a better heir.