For decades, there has been talk of turning Ayn Rand’s libertarian novel about the collapse of an over-regulated U.S. into a movie, and it sounds like this time it’s actually going to happen, with a perfect combination of participants (given how difficult it is to get any big project off the ground in Hollywood, with all the participants’ schedules aligning).
Angelina Jolie is still attached to star as Dagny Taggart, the plucky railroad company CEO — and that’s enough to guarantee attention to the film, which is why I think the revolution is nigh (but more about that later) — and better still, from an artistic perspective, Vadim Perelman is both writing the script and directing, claiming he expects to start shooting in December (for release in late 2009 or in 2010).
Perelman, best known for the acclaimed property-rights-dispute drama House of Sand and Fog, was born under communism in the Ukraine in 1963 but came to Canada and the U.S. to find freedom, fame, and fortune (initially by doing ads for various major corporations). I think that means he has a personal stake in depicting accurately (and metaphorically) the socialist disaster that America seems determined to inflict upon itself, aided and abetted by capitalism-hating intellectuals and money-wasting politicians.
The previous iteration of an almost-filmed Atlas, just a couple years ago, had a script by the writer of Braveheart — who, interestingly, first read Atlas in a deal with his son whereby each read the other’s favorite book, his own (oddly enough) being Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I’m guessing this means his script would have downplayed Atlas’s atheism, but that’d be fine with me (even though I’m an atheist whose neighborhood, the Upper East Side, is currently crawling with extra cops and pedestrians due to the Pope’s visit). If glossing over Rand’s atheism helped make the movie’s core message of free markets and individual freedom more palatable to Americans, so be it. We can debate the existence of God after Big Government is dismantled. That argument’s been going on for thousands of years anyway.
In our (in many ways beneficially) fragmented and increasingly niche-audience-oriented culture, a major Hollywood movie is about the only thing short of a major address by the president that has the power to start a simultaneous nationwide conversation that could change people’s thinking on some topic — such as government being an obstacle, parasite, predator, and form of organized crime that we would be better off without. Gradualism and ameliorative measures haven’t gotten us very far, merely assuring that our crawl toward the abyss is a mercifully slow, stagnant one. With the entitlements-craving first wave of official Baby Boomers turning sixty-five in two years, it is time to change the whole tone of the national conversation, and it would be foolish not to seize a big-budget Hollywood opportunity to do so.
And I should note that I say all this without being an Objectivist (as adherents of Rand’s philosophy are called) — although, whether she liked it or not, her political and economic beliefs qualified her as a libertarian, which I am (a proponent of strict property rights who wants government minimized). Objectivism is libertarianism but other things as well, more unique to Rand, including atheism (good but not essential to being a libertarian or being anti-government), egoism (annoying and a big part of why Rand alienates so many people — but again, not essential to being a laissez-faire capitalist, regardless of what Rand thought about that), and opposition to altruism (in the special way she used the term, which implied guilt-fueled self-sacrifice, as opposed to a right to live your own life and put your happiness before others’ as long as you don’t violate their property rights).
By contrast, I’m a rule-utilitarian who thinks it’s all right in principle to place the good of humanity as a whole before any given individual’s (and certainly admires charity, which is voluntary) but thinks that, as a practical matter, the rules most conducive to general human happiness are the ones that leave individuals maximally free to do as they choose with their own individual bodies and possessions, since they know their own preferences — more often than not — better than other people do. If we lived in a world where every tenth person were a magnanimous telepathic genius who could be trusted to run others’ lives better than they can run them themselves, maybe there’d be an argument for letting some people (a sort of aristocracy) govern others, but we don’t live in that world, and — for purely pragmatic reasons — I think it’d be best if we regarded one person “governing” another as a situation every bit as morally offensive as one person kidnapping, raping, or enslaving another. Civilized people should not govern.
Let our relationships be voluntary ones in the marketplace, policed and adjudicated privately in accordance with a minimal law code (a purely defensive one, if you will) enforcing people’s property rights and thus freedom from theft, fraud, and bodily assault, but enforcing nothing more (except in some sort of rare emergency circumstance, since, again, I’m a moderate, reasonable, utilitarian, pragmatic kind of guy, obviously — but government never gets the benefit of the doubt, as it does in thousands of ways now, with the resulting infinitude of agencies, laws, regulations, subsidies, and intrusions we shuffle around under).
Rand practically invited people to reject and even hate her by insisting that you must agree with her in every detail or reject her whole philosophy. But with time and patience, we manage to find the worthwhile bits of Socrates, Nietzsche, Jesus, or plenty of other thinkers we might not want to take whole-cloth. Likewise, one can reasonably hope that the valuable parts of the Atlas Shrugged message will come through loud and clear in a movie, without audiences being repelled by the more dubious parts. Hey, I disagree with Thomas Jefferson about numerous things but still value the many benefits that arose from the revolution of which he was a part. I will not turn my nose up at a new, presumably far less violent, revolution made possible by Hollywood, if all goes as hoped. We shall see.
(And this will leave incredulous readers with a thousand little questions that deserve — and in some cases already have — book-length answers, but at the risk of looking coy, I will strive to follow this week of anti-government posts with much shorter and therefore inevitably more cryptic and brusque posts for the foreseeable future, freeing up some time to work on a book, which will itself be much shorter than 1,100 pages, I promise.)
P.S. Jolie is no libertarian — she and Brad Pitt having gotten the Namibian government to ban foreign journalists from that country during the birth of their child — but she is a punk fan with the Clash slogan “Know Your Rights” tattooed across her neck, which helps bridge some other cultural divides of interest to me. Do not underestimate the potential cultural impact of a Jolie project.
UPDATE 4/20/08: I neglected to mention that Perelman’s film The Life Before Her Eyes (with Uma Thurman) is in theatres right now, and I’m seeing it today — and, inevitably, judging him.