The rumored movie version of Atlas Shrugged is driving the Objectivist cineasts out of the woodwork: first Arthur Silber, then Diana Hsieh, and even Ian Hamet was inspired to awaken from a two-week hibernation. Will it be good? This is a matter of applying Haspel’s Three Laws of Film Adaptation.
1. The better the book, the worse the movie. The novel is the best vehicle ever devised for conveying people’s inner life. The movies and the theater are the best vehicles ever devised for conveying people’s outer life. That the latter map poorly to the former should be no great surprise. Inner life is conveyed in the theater by the soliloquy, which is horribly clunky, and in the movies by the voiceover, which isn’t much better. Good acting can only help so much, and is scarce. How many times have you read a critic praising an actor for “hinting at the hidden depths” of a character? That the depths are hidden is precisely the problem.
Especially “interior” novels, like those of Henry James, tend to be turned into especially bad movies. The one James novel that become a successful movie is Washington Square, which he first conceived as a play. (But see Law #3.)
Great novels also live by their language, most of which is lost on film. There’s plenty of action in Moby-Dick, but you don’t read it for action, you read it for the whiteness of the whale. Naturally the (1956) film version of Moby-Dick, despite being directed by John Huston and adapted by Ray Bradbury, was a profound disappointment, even if we set aside the problematic casting, to put it kindly, of Gregory Peck as Ahab. It’s a creditable sea yarn, just not Melville. The operation was a success, but the patient died.
2. The longer the book, the worse the movie. The longer the book, the more you have to cut. The more you cut, the more mistakes you make. In many ways Bonfire of the Vanities was an excellent candidate for the screen. It’s a very behaviorist novel, not at all “interior” as good novels go: its theme is that what we are pleased to call personality is in fact a howling void. But it is nearly 700 pages long, at least 500 of which had to disappear. Michael Cristofer, the screenwriter, couldn’t decide what to part with, choosing instead to reduce every major subplot to a quarter of its former size, mystifying anyone who had not read the book and infuriating anyone who had. The resulting hopeless hash cannot be entirely attributed to Brian De Palma’s inability to understand anything but gore. Or take the King Vidor version of War and Peace. Please.
My two favorite movies of great books are Robert Z. Leonard’s 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, largely because I’m in love with Greer Garson, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 Lolita. Both books are short.
3. The more faithful the adaptation, the worse the movie. Piety afflicts modern directors especially. They all grew up on movies and TV, and tend to genuflect toward literature when they stumble on it later in life. Martin Scorsese turned The Age of Innocence, a beautifully subtle novel, into a static bore by trying to convey every last nuance. You got the impression that it was the first book Scorsese had ever managed to read all through. The authors of his other screenplays must envy his overscrupulous attitude toward Mrs. Wharton.
To return to Washington Square, Agnieszka Holland’s 1997 version suffers by comparison with William Wyler’s much looser 1949 adaptation, The Heiress. The novel, and Holland’s film, end with a highly civilized meeting between Catherine and Morris, her penniless former suitor who deserted her for fear that she would be disinherited. Now that Catherine’s father is dead and her fortune is secure, Morris clearly wishes to marry, Catherine equally clearly wishes not to, and that is that, although not a word is said directly on the subject. It works brilliantly in the novel and is DOA on film. In Wyler’s version Morris proposes to Catherine again, she pretends to accept him, and locks the door on him when he comes back around to collect her. The movie ends with Morris pounding on the door as it dawns on him what she has done. Riveting on film, ridiculous on the page.
Atlas Shrugged, then. I view Atlas more as a gussied-up work of philosophy than a novel, exactly. Its characters haven’t much in the way of an interior life, and in any case it is Ayn Rand’s way for everyone to say exactly what’s he’s thinking, over and over again. (No one ever lies in her novels, not even the villains.) On the one hand, works of philosophy haven’t much cinematic future. On the other hand it has an awful lot of action for a work of philosophy, and God knows there’s plenty to cut. If we had only Law #1 to go on, the jury would still be out.
Law #2 we can pass over quickly. The book is 1200 pages of eyestrain print, and the whole in this case will assuredly be less than the sum of its parts. The story of the 20th Century Motor Company would make a better movie than the novel itself.
As for Law #3, James Hart, who is signed to write the screenplay, is a keen Atlas fan, which means he’ll want to get as much of the philosophy into the movie as he can, so we’re bound to have Francisco on the meaning of money and plenty of John Galt speaking. Fidelity will sink Atlas just as it sank the movie version of The Fountainhead. Conventional wisdom blames the failure of the movie on Gary Cooper as Roark, and admittedly he is terrible, so terrible that he said so himself later. (Patricia Neal is almost as bad.) Yet the penultimate scene in The Fountainhead, Roark’s lengthy courtroom speech, is cinematically hopeless, no matter who’s playing him. Imagining Galt’s speech on film I leave as an exercise for the reader.
(Update: As for “No one ever lies in Ayn Rand’s novels,” One of my commenters points out that the characters lie all over the place in Atlas Shrugged. Having just reread the first 100 pages and caught three whoppers, I take it back.)