Ayn Rand vs. the Invisible Hand: Why Moviegoers Shrugged at "Atlas"

Last Updated Apr 27, 2011 8:27 PM EDT

There are roughly 392,498 hardcore Ayn Rand fans in the U.S., judging by the box office sales for the new movie version of Atlas Shrugged. The film -- Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, to give it its full title -- is tanking rapidly, having grossed just $3 million in two weekends on 425 screens across the country.

If you assume that an average movie ticket costs $7.89, that each screening earned an average of $5,590 (per Box Office Mojo), and that Rand's true believers would see the movie in its first couple of weeks after release, then the rough math suggests just under 400,000 people actually went to see the movie. (Fewer if diehard believers sat through it more than once, or dragged along uninterested dates, of course.)

The movie cost about $20 million to make, and the 47 percent sales decline from its first-week audience suggests it will never be profitable. Doubtless some -- like me -- are waiting for it to show up on pay-per-view or DVD. But the national shrug that greeted Shrugged suggests Rand has far fewer followers than her fans would like to think.

Atlas the book has sold 7 million copies since it was first published in 1957. Rand's adherents are frequently found among MBA students and within the ranks of management. But the lousy ticket sales confirm some anecdotal evidence that I noticed years ago: The number of people who find the book long, boring and heavy-handed far outweighs those who come away fiery-eyed from the experience.

There are two explanations for why the movie did so badly:
  1. It's all a conspiracy by liberals at The New York Times, who have inexplicably not reviewed the film yet.
  2. That Rand fans -- including the movie's director, who was faithful to the book -- don't understand its appeal, which is why the movie is so lousy.
You can read more about The Times' curious decision to ignore Atlas here and here. Even though it's a movie about ideas, and comes with a tangled history, and is known link-bait for those of us in digital media, The Times' enormously influential reviewers decided not to take the popcorn.

This was not, of course, a political decision to ignore a film that provides ideological inspiration for the Tea Party. But it does look like bad editorial judgment. (In the Times' defense, I also asked the movie studio for a review copy and they never responded.)

An atlas to the plot

As for Atlas' appeal, hear me out: The book/film has a really intriguing, sinister premise. America's prominent capitalists begin disappearing... one... by... one. Without them to steer their ships of industry, the U.S. falls into decay. Trains won't run. The lights go out. Unemployment rockets.

The disappearances are organized by a shadowy superman whom the heroine, railroad baron-cum-nymphette Dagny Taggart, sets out to find. Along the way, she learns it's all political: The capitalists, angry that the government steals from them via taxes and hobbles their productivity through regulation, are on strike until everyone else learns to appreciate their talents.

It's potentially a rattling good tale -- there's a train collision, a plane crash, an oil-field fire, and the female protagonist likes her sex rough.

But if you've read Atlas you'll know that 90 percent of the 1,000-page tome is devoted to a series of excruciating meetings about the minutiae of national railroad policy. The dialogue is as unsubtle as a Michele Malkin column.

This is the problem with Rand's fans: They find her political ideas so exciting they're willing to overlook the flaws of Atlas as a novel. If it weren't about conservative economic policy then none of them would have read it. (Even P.J. O'Rourke gets this.) There is a good movie to be made of the book -- and HBO ought to make it, frankly -- but first Rand's heirs need to say one sentence out loud: "Get me rewrite!"

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