Atlas Shrugged Movie Producer Harmon Kaslow Responds to Criticisms
Because of its continuing relevance, Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged has sold over 1.5 million copies— just since President Obama’s election.
The movie Atlas Shrugged Part 3: Who is John Galt? opens in theaters on September 12, 2014 despite its cinematic prequels’ poor reviews and absence of profits. One might blame the preponderance of film critics’ pans on the fact that most are politically liberal and predisposed to experiencing discomfort with Ayn Rand’s passionately pro-capitalism stance. After all, both Atlas Shrugged Part 1, featuring current Orange is the New Black star Taylor Schilling, and Part 2: The Strike are far better received by their audiences, who give Part 1 a 70% positive rating and Part 2 a 62% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Both earlier films are available on Netflix, as well as at Walmart, Target, Best Buy and www.atlasshruggedmovie.com.)
Still, even many non-liberal reviewers, and especially devoted fans of the perennially best-selling novel about the productive vs. the destructive, have expressed disappointment in the filmmakers’ decisions. In particular, many viewers expressed dismay at the cutting of major plotlines and classic lines of dialogue. For example, the tour-de-force Jeff Allen speech conveying life in the Twentieth Century Motor Company as a microcosm of Marxism is reduced to near-nothing and the past relationship of Francisco and Dagny is muddled. At the end of Part 2, Dagny’s unforgettable comment “We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?” is omitted.
Moreover, many Ayn Rand enthusiasts are unhappy with new material that the screenwriters have added, such as jarringly contemporary television sequences featuring conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity, and in Part 3, Glenn Beck.
Even more troubling for those who are passionate about Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy celebrating the ethics of rational self-interest, are recent comments by executive producer John Aglialoro stating that Miss Rand’s use of the word “selfishness” to describe a moral virtue was a mistake. He also said Part 3 may include a new scene featuring a positive portrayal of a priest, potentially contradicting the author’s anti-faith, pro-reason philosophy.
Although I enjoyed both Atlas Shrugged films (largely because my memory of the book filled in the omissions), they are merely shadows of the novel, and are not comparable to the best film adaptations of other novels, such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Gone With The Wind or the TV miniseries Brideshead Revisited. Also, a newcomer’s only chance of following the filmmakers’ version of the plot requires viewing the three parts in order, as Part 2 does not stand on its own and this is likely to be equally true of Part 3.
Each film in the trilogy has a completely different cast playing the same characters. The cast of Atlas Shrugged Part 3: Who is John Galt? features Rob Morrow (of the 1990s series Northern Exposure) as steel manufacturer Hank Rearden. The film picks up the story as the economy is in free-fall and the U.S. Government is imposing more and more stringent regulations and “emergency” decrees violating the rights of the most productive citizens. These producers begin to disappear and the central character, railroad owner Dagny Taggart, is pursuing answers, including the identity of the creator of an immensely powerful new type of motor she discovered.
I spoke with Harmon Kaslow on the telephone about some of the criticisms.
Q: You have said that Atlas Shrugged relates to the U.S. Government’s current economic policies, and the growth of federal regulations. How?
A: When the Congressional Budget Office warned us that the deficit is unsustainable, was anybody really surprised? Ayn Rand warned us in Atlas Shrugged over 50 years ago that an out-of-control, overreaching government is not the solution, it’s the problem. It’s really scary sometimes just how prescient Atlas Shrugged is. Ayn Rand said it best; she wrote: “We are not a capitalist system any longer: we are a mixed economy, i.e., a mixture of capitalism and statism, of freedom and controls. A mixed economy is a country in the process of disintegration, a civil war of pressure-groups looting and devouring one another.”
Q: Do you think deliberately tying the movie to current political and economic events expands or narrows the potential audience? Might the movie-going audience be more interested in other elements that perhaps could be emphasized?
A: Number one, our audience is much more than simply people who embraced Atlas Shrugged for its message about Washington and its policies. There’s a huge audience that loves Atlas Shrugged and has been inspired by its message of individualism, respecting the rights of the individual, of people who believe the role of government should be a limited one in our lives.
But what we find in our adaptation of the book is that many of the events depicted in the book are events that are occurring in the news.
So you have to ask yourself, why are these events occurring? They all seem to tie back to a political occurrence. We just experienced in the 2012 elections, the President using exactly the same words [as in the book], vilifying the people in this country who have been successful, saying that those people are not paying their fair share. It’s not enough that they’ve created jobs, it’s not enough that they pay their own taxes, it’s not enough that they were able to achieve what many thought was the American Dream, which is to be an entrepreneur, build a business and generate prosperity, not only for yourself but also for your community and others.
So, it’s just a matter for us of trying to connect the dots, of Atlas Shrugged, this warning written more than 50 years ago and what we’re seeing today, and how the problems we’re facing are being addressed. A lot of what you experience when you read Atlas Shrugged is that the way we’re addressing these problems is not going to lead us to the solutions that we expect.
Q: Because you’re focusing on the politics a lot, which is certainly a major part of the book, do you feel that the movies reflect the book’s primary, central theme, or are the films tailored to particularly emphasize the political themes you mentioned? In other words, did Ayn Rand have a broader theme than the movies are going to address?
A: Well, first off, the movies are really not intended to be depictions of the movie that played in your head when you closed the back cover of Atlas Shrugged. The movies are designed to be more of a celebration of some of Ayn Rand’s ideas that are embodied in the book. Our intention is to bring Ayn Rand’s ideas to the forefront of public discussion. What most people think they know about Ayn Rand is simply false. She was an advocate for the rights of the individual–all individuals. Our problem is that we can’t squeeze all of Atlas Shrugged into an hour and forty-five minutes. Our approach is to celebrate some of Ayn Rand’s core ideas that are embodied in the book.
Q: Would you be able to say what you would think the single most important or main theme of Atlas Shrugged is?
A: Yes. I think the core message of Atlas revolves around respecting the rights of the individual. And I think that Atlas Shrugged is illustrative of what happens when the government interferes with business, when corruption drives policy, and when sound economic principles are superseded by crony capitalism. Really at its core, bad government policy is responsible for ousting innovators, driving away free thinkers and ultimately killing the heart of entrepreneurs who are the backbone of any society’s growth and prosperity.
Q: If that was all that Atlas Shrugged was primarily about, I don’t think it would be the best seller that it is. I think people find personal meaning in it, even if they’re not entrepreneurs. Don’t you think it is also about portraying heroism, about how to live your life, how to be selfish rather than unselfish and what she meant about that, and also about using reason, about “the role of the mind in man’s existence,” which Ayn Rand said is the novel’s main theme? Is that something that any of you are trying to include?
A: Absolutely. It is about speaking to the individual in all of us. Your comments are illustrative that the millions of people who have read the book, who love the book, who have been inspired and influenced by the message of the book take out of it many, many different and varied things. That’s why I think it continues to sell extremely well even though there is no marketing of the book. The marketing of the book occurs by the people who have read it.
It’s changed their life or their view or given them an understanding about the way that they live. They want to share that experience with other people. Ultimately, today, the best way to share that experience is through the book. The movies simply cannot achieve the same depth and the same quality of communication of that message that she was able to accomplish in the book.
Q: I just want to address a few criticisms. Executive producer John Aglialoro has been quoted recently saying a couple of things that Ayn Rand fans are concerned about. For one, he said that he thought Ayn Rand would have put it another way rather than use the word “selfishness” if she had a chance to do it over. In fact, she has written very clearly why she used the word “selfishness,” and that the way it’s used by most people is a package-deal improperly associating the rational, moral pursuit of happiness, with hurting or stepping on other people to get what you want. She’s saying that the package-deal is wrong and we need to take selfishness as a proper value, and call the violation of others’ rights another word, such as “injustice,” rather than part of the definition of selfishness. She clarified that very well. Do you think that Mr. Aglialoro understands her ethics?
A: Number one, those are questions you would have to ask John to interpret. I think it’s interesting to appreciate that the way that we communicate today is very different than the way people communicated fifty years ago. In the Declaration of Independence there is the well-known phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I’ve heard a number of people talk about, if people founded the United States today, would they have put in the words “pursuit of happiness”? What does it mean, and what did it mean back then?
What John perhaps is recognizing is that we in this country have taken the political-correctness approach to such a far extreme that it has clouded, in a sense, the meaning of many words, and that cloud has cast a cloud over what Ayn Rand was really referencing. I don’t think that John in any way doesn’t understand completely what Ayn Rand was talking about. I just think that in today’s world, how political-correctness has affected our vocabulary on so many fronts, including the words that would be used in the Declaration of Independence, that it’s a shame that the distraction of that word [selfishness] has taken away from the importance of the meaning, and the philosophy that Ayn Rand was talking about, that there is so much focus on the word that it doesn’t allow people to understand clearly the overall 40,000-foot view of this whole concept. I know that John very much loves what she wrote, and understands it very deeply, but he’s also on a mission in the hopes of bringing that philosophy to a wider audience, and there’s a certain fear that given the way political-correctness has really limited our freedom of speech that perhaps there would be a different way of describing it, so that we would achieve the same understanding that she intended when she originally wrote about these concepts.
Q: Considering the films so far, as far as I know, are not that profitable at the moment–
Q: — at this point isn’t it more likely that a larger audience will respond to a film that challenges them, rather than one that tries to be less challenging, more ordinary and bland than the book? I can’t believe that even “pursuit of happiness” is controversial at this point, because that’s a much lighter, less loaded way of saying it than “selfishness.”
A: Some people define it as the right to commit actions that allow someone to pursue happiness, whatever that is [for that person]. We don’t really live in a state right now where we are allowed to do that. The government’s role in our life now is far greater than what the Founding Fathers ever envisioned when they were declaring their independence. My observation is, you wonder if people framing it now would use that phrase. The debate that people would have would be far different than the one that was used at the time of the Founding Fathers declaring their independence.
Q: Right, because things have gone that badly in the culture, that’s the reason. My question is, in writing or promoting the films, do you want to be concerned with political-correctness at all? Rush Limbaugh, for example, is not, and he’s got a huge audience.
A: No doubt. For us, our challenge and our goal has always been to try to get the message of Atlas Shrugged correct, and the process that we are going through with Part 1 and Part 2 and now moving on to Part 3 is just learning from that experience, hearing from the audience the things that they like and the things that they don’t like. It’s an incredible challenge. People have to remember that during her lifetime she tried, with the assistance of a double Academy-award-winning producer, to not only write a screenplay but also to get Atlas Shrugged produced as a movie. It’s a huge challenge. We have thought about it in various ways, when we embarked upon it. Our goal is to try to get the message right.
At the end of the day, in answer to the question, how do you make these films successful financially, it’s the same way that the books have become successful financially. We need the people who have read the book, who have been inspired and influenced and love the book, to have the same feelings toward the movie, and once we’re able to achieve that, then the movies will begin to have the same sort of life that the book has had, which is to continue onward without the need of any additional marketing, because the people who have experienced it are going to go drag their neighbors and families and friends to also experience it.
Q: Right, but the reason the book sells is partially because she doesn’t care about political-correctness or whatever it would have been called then, the liberal view.
A: The reason it sells is because people who have read it go buy copies and give them to other people–
Q: Yes, but it’s because the message isn’t diluted or compromised–
A: –for whatever reason they do that, that may be one of them, but there’s probably 10,000 different reasons that it happens. The bottom line is that it’s such an incredible work that–
Q: Well, what’s incredible about it?
A: –people who have read it want to share it with other people.
Q: Is it the story that’s incredible, or the ideas, or–
A: I think that it varies, and it goes back to your earlier question concerning the politics of it. We’ve been really fortunate that in pursuing the production of the films, we’ve been able to create an online community that meets at www.galtsgulchonline.com. We have now several hundred thousand people.
When we were having an event, we asked them the question, how many of you find the message political, and how many of you get an alternative message that isn’t political out of the book, and in our own community, it was 60% plus that was not on the political side.
Q: What about the movies? Do people get the non-political message from the movies as well? For example, the passionate and dramatic love story is cut back a lot.
A: The challenge that we had was, how do you make a movie out of Atlas Shrugged? We answered that challenge by saying, rather than trying to fit the 1200 pages into a two-hour movie, we would follow the structure of the book, which is doing it in three parts. The curse that we experienced in making that decision is that there are many storylines that occur in each of those parts that are not resolved [until Part 3]. So you simply cannot make a movie, or it makes no sense to make a movie where you only tell a third of a story, or a half of a story or two-thirds of a story. Otherwise, all that ends up happening is, you’re just filming the events out of the book and they don’t have any meaning or substance to people.
So that by definition has forced us to make decisions about what we are able to film. So, you’re correct, there are great messages in there about personal relationships, and there are great stories, themes and depictions of the vilification that entrepreneurs feel, such as the story of Henry Rearden, the guilt and the victimization. We just had to choose whether we could include that entire story in one of the particular parts. We have the same challenge going into Part 3, where a number of these storylines finally get resolved, and a number of them were not even filmed or depicted in the earlier parts of the movie. It’s just the nature of making that decision. Hopefully at some point in time—and John has these rights—we’ll be able to do a 30-hour miniseries and do the entire book with every event and scene and character really just lifted right out of the pages, but that simply wasn’t feasible or possible when we decided to make the motion pictures.
Q: I wanted to comment on the timing of the release of Part 2. It came out in October of 2012 just before the November Presidential election. In retrospect, my experience was that everyone I knew who wanted to see it who were not fanatical Ayn Rand fans but who were Tea Party people, or conservatives, they all wanted to see it but they were busy getting out the vote and making calls.
A: The most important decision a film distributor can make is the date that they put a movie into the theater. Movies in theaters are perishable goods and they perish quite rapidly if audiences don’t support them immediately. We were challenged by the people working with us to try to get the film into theaters prior to the election. I think your assessment is correct, I think there was a lot of, for lack of a better term, noise that we were competing against, as well as other pictures, like Argo, that were getting a lot of attention. Dinesh D’Souza’s film “2016” did phenomenally well, and I think in large part their timing was simply better than ours. As we were so close to the election, I think that you are correct: A lot of people had aspirations that the election would be an opportunity to right America’s ship and get us back on course and they were committed to doing that. Unfortunately, the cost we had to suffer for their efforts is that we couldn’t get their attention, to get them into the theaters on opening weekend. We certainly learned something from that. We didn’t anticipate it. If we did, we wouldn’t have released the movie then.
Q: In Part 2 in particular, my sense was that the suffering of the masses and of Dagny and all the key characters was not pronounced enough, and I think it’s very important to show that they are not still living the high life, drinking wine.
A: What’s important is to really depict the world for the audience so they understand what’s going on and at the same time maintain a certain level of production value. This is only accomplished through the production designer and the director and the director of photography really being in synch and understanding what that world is. We recognize that there are a lot of things that we’ve done that we could have done better, and certainly we have no intention of making the same mistake twice.
Q: So you know what I’m saying, the background could have been more dystopian and all that.
A: Yeah. Exactly.
Q: For those who wish to see the first two films in the trilogy prior to the release of the third one, where can they find Parts 1 and 2?
A: The DVDs are available at Target, Walmart and Best Buy, and can be ordered through our web site, www.atlasshruggedmovie.com. In addition, we have partnered with a number of groups who are predisposed to the philosophy and message of Ayn Rand, and they have created their own special edition co-branded DVDs of Part 2 that are also available at our web site.