Motive Force or The Information Superhighway?


Tax Day has never been this anticipated.  Go file your return, and then catch a matinee of Atlas Shrugged.  Tom’s already posted the trailer.

Most of the concerns in his post center around fidelity to the book.  The compromise between strict fidelity and actual movie-making is always an issue when dealing with a beloved book with rabid fans.  It led the first two Harry Potter movies to be little more than scene-by-scene recreations of the books, and pretty much drained the life out of Prince Caspian.

Now, despite Rand’a paean to motive force, Atlas Shrugged isn’t really about railroads.  It was written in 1957, and the gradual decline of American railways, along with the special place they hold in our imagination, made them the natural industry for the book to focus on.  But today, most Americans don’t ride on long-haul trains, and unless you live near a hub, you look for them on long-distance road trips the same way you’d try to spot buffalo or pronghorn or elk.  They’re just not central to most people’s lives the way they were 54 years ago.  As someone who helped his dad build N-scale models and is currently working a stone’s throw from The Union Pacific, I take no pleasure in saying this.  But it’s true.

No, the book is about stifling innovation and creativity and wealth creation by mediocrity’s need to crush greatness, and the damage that does to all those people who aren’t great.  (It’s also about lots of other stuff, too, but that’s the point I want to focus on.)  So in an era when people are liable to ask, “why on earth would they stoop to bother about a train?” would the film’s power be better served by making Dagny and Hank something else, something that really is on the cutting edge right now?

You can think of dozens of examples without trying very hard.  She’s got an internet business model that will change the world, but it needs Hank’s new infrastructure to carry the data.  She’s got a vaccine to cure a disease, but it needs Hank’s delivery system.  More bleeding edge: she’s ready to make commercial space travel as common as, well, a commuter rail trip from Boston to NY, but needs Hank’s metal.  Wyatt sits ready to provide her the power, but his next-generation nuclear plant sits idle for lack of plutonium.

Obviously, such a substitution would do violence to the project of literally translating the book to the screen, but it’s completely in the spirit of this.  The question is, would it get in the way of the story to make the industries affected more immediate, or would it help?  Would it complicate or simplify the filmmakers’ task?  We have, today, in the headlines, the FCC trying to force internet service providers into being candidate for the DJ Utilities Index.  We have, today, Obamacare doing to the same to insurance companies and, eventually, hospitals and doctors.  Would a change have made the story more relevant, or just have made the filmmakers seem opportunistic and editorializing?

So while it’s completely unthinkable that Dagny Taggart could be anything other than a railway executive, and that Hank Rearden could have anything other than a super-strong, super-light metal to sell, what if?

With the premiere two months away, it’s probably exactly the wrong time to be asking this question.  It’s too late to do anything about it, it would probably just be better to wait and see how well they’ve done with the original source material.

But hey, that’s what blogs are about.

UPDATE: And this, too. A little behind-the-scenes featurette from a few months ago over at reason.tv