- - Thursday, April 14, 2011

Rumors of a screen adaptation of Ayn Rand’s blockbuster 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged” have been tantalizing the author’s legion of followers and fans since the late 1970s. As recently as 2006, talk of a lavish big-screen, big-budget “Atlas” starring the likes of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had fans of the enormously philosophical mystery thriller quivering with excitement. But when big plan after big plan fell through, a radically scaled-back project was rushed into production, lest producer John Aglialoro lose the film rights to the book.

“Atlas Shrugged, Part One,” which opens Friday in a smattering of theaters, including D.C.’s Landmark E Street Cinema, is far from a full-bore Hollywood extravaganza. The first installment of the planned trilogy was shot in just five weeks on a shoestring budget and features a cast of journeyman evening-soap thespians you’ve probably never heard of.

You might think Ayn Rand enthusiasts with big-screen dreams would be sorely disappointed. But you’d be wrong.

According to my informal survey of Rand fans, “apprehensive” and “cautiously optimistic” are the watchwords. Many fans drew parallels to the hopeful trepidation preceding the screen debuts of the “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” books. “It would be so great if they can pull this off,” Aeon Skoble, a professor of philosophy at Bridgewater State College, told me, “and it’d be really awful if they can’t.” But he’s hopeful.

“A novel that’s been a best-seller for more than 50 years should have generated a Hollywood blockbuster starring George Clooney and Gwyneth Paltrow,” said David Boaz, the executive vice-president of the libertarian Cato Institute. “It’s too bad that instead it’s an indie film with little-known actors and a limited opening.”

Yet Mr. Boaz, who caught a preview screening, seemed pleasantly surprised. “The actors looked right,” he said. “And the cinematography is very good.”

“It’s better than I feared, and I was moved by it when I had a chance to watch it without worrying about how true to [Rand‘s] ‘Atlas’ it was or how exactly right it was,” reported Will Thomas, the director of programs at the Atlas Society, a think tank devoted to spreading the word about Ayn Rand’s philosophy. “Great production values, too,” he added.

The prevailing concern among many Rand admirers is more evangelical than cinematic. Keen to bring the laissez-faire lessons of “Atlas Shrugged” to “the People’s Republic of Portland,” Steve Buckstein, founder of the Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think tank in Oregon, said he helped persuade the film’s initially reluctant producers to bring the movie to his city. “No part of the country needs to see this film more,” Mr. Buckstein told me.

Far from lamenting the release of a hastily-made, star-powerless, low-budget “Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand’s ardent fans seem gratified by the mere existence of a decent-looking film faithful to the book’s influential philosophy. Certain that the original is a timeless masterpiece of literature, many of Rand’s devotees are heartened by the prospect that the film, masterpiece or not, will lead new readers to the novel and its big ideas.

“[I]f the ‘Atlas’ movie inspires audience members to read the book for themselves, then that will be a big win as far as I’m concerned,” said Dr. Paul Hsieh, a radiologist from Sedalia, Colo.

In some ways, the B-movie, “Falcon Crest” fate of “Atlas Shrugged” may be a blessing in low-budget disguise. It certainly doesn’t worry Ayn Rand’s fans too much. After all, her unclassifiable fiction has always been the zany yet riveting love child of Cecil B. DeMille, Mickey Spillane, and Ludwig von Mises. “Atlas Shrugged” is a Russian novel of ideas wrapped in a delightfully tacky, Hollywood package. So why not no-name, scenery-chewing actors in a slick, cheap production?

A tastefully middlebrow screen adaptation of “Atlas Shrugged” might have hit a falsely respectable note. Whole forests have been razed to keep Ayn Rand’s massive, best-selling page-turner continually in print since 1957. It only seems right that the long-awaited film adaptation turned out to be a bunch of glittering pulp.

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