September 27, 2012 — "Why has Part 2 been recast?" We get that question more often than any other about Atlas Shrugged Part 2. Unlike the James Bond franchise, multi-part adaptations from a single literary work tend to use the same cast throughout. That's true of Lord of the Rings—a model that the Atlas team often discussed—and of The Godfather. Why not Atlas Shrugged?
The answer requires a bit of history. When John Aglialoro decided to do the film adaptation as an independent production, after a long series of unsuccessful efforts in partnership with studios like Lionsgate, his option was about to expire. In early April, 2010, after the last Lionsgate effort collapsed, he took the plunge. He teamed up with veteran producer Harmon Kaslow. Over the next two months they formed a production company; opened an office in Los Angeles; created the script, which Aglialoro co-wrote with Brian Patrick O’Toole; hired the production team and crew; auditioned cast; and lined up locations for shooting the film. Paul Johansson signed on as director just nine days before filming was to begin, after the first director was fired. Cameras rolled on June 13, two days before the deadline.
That is an astonishing achievement. But it had its costs. Lord of the Rings, with a budget of $285 million and eight years in production, could afford to film all three parts at the same time, with the same cast. That was not a luxury Aglialoro and Kaslow had. With a budget under $15 million, and a two-month deadline, there was no way to do more than the first part. As Kaslow has explained, "When we set out to make Part 1 we had a ticking clock where if we didn’t start production by a certain date John’s interest in the rights could lapse. We didn’t have the luxury at that moment to negotiate future options with the various cast members.” The rest of the story would have to wait.
A clean sweep
After the theatrical release, the team moved on to planning Part 2. But the need for a larger budget, especially for promotion, meant lining up outside investors, which took until early this year. And the critical response to Part 1, though chiefly hostile to the ideas, did highlight some shortcomings of the hasty production. In the circumstances, the producers decided on a clean sweep.
Lord of the Rings, with a budget of $285 million and eight years in production, could afford to film all three parts at the same time, with the same cast. That was not a luxury Aglialoro and Kaslow had.
In any film, the actors are the visible connection with the audience. But the artistic quality of a film—its visual power and impact for an audience—depend at least as much on those behind the camera: the screenwriter, director, and the heads of cinematography, production design, art, and music. Indeed, a film is normally cast in terms of who can best work with a previously chosen director to enact a pre-determined script. In Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, and the first three installments of Star Wars, all of these other roles, along with the cast, were filled by the same people in all three parts.
By the same token, it is not just the cast that has changed in Atlas. The clean sweep included additional writers, a new director, new people in the other key roles. When you see Part 2, I think you will find that the script, direction, and other dimensions are as different from Part 1as is the cast—and, in my view, these other elements are a distinct improvement.
Re-assembling the cast for all the speaking roles would have been a near-impossible task, especially since the producers were committed—in early 2012—to have Part 2 in theaters by October. Without a previously negotiated contract, the actors understandably moved on to other projects. Re-assembling the whole cast would have been difficult enough, and potentially costly. Re-assembling them along with the other principals would have been an order of magnitude more difficult. And, frankly, there were good reasons to replace some of the behind-the-camera people.
The learning curve
We should remember, too, the learning curve that the producers have traced. In part, that curve was a consequence of Aglialoro's inexperience in movie-making, along with the severe pressures of time and budget. With Part 1 completed and the option secured, he and his colleagues had more time to learn from experience and put it to use in planning the next installment.
Anyone filming Atlas Shrugged would have to experiment, and learn from their first efforts, about how best to adapt this unique work. That's one reason why it has taken over half a century to bring Atlas to the screen.
But a deeper aspect of the learning curve was determined by the work itself. Atlas Shrugged is a long novel. Unlike Lord of the Rings—also a long work—it does not consist in a single quest with episodic challenges along the way. It is tightly plotted, with nested events, complex interactions among characters, and mysteries that build from frame to frame. The core of its plot is not the victory of one family's gang over others (Godfather), nor a series of fanciful battles against imaginary monsters (Lord of the Rings), nor a sci-fi battle of conventional good-guy heroes against tyranny (Star Wars), but a mystery story about the role of reason in man's existence and the assault on man's soul by bad ideas.
Anyone filming Atlas Shrugged would have to experiment, and learn from their first efforts, about how best to adapt this unique work. That's one reason why it has taken over half a century to bring Atlas to the screen, despite the popularity and impact of Rand's novel.
Imagining the characters
I liked Part 1, and I especially liked the cast. I thought they did a wonderful job bringing the heroes and villains in Rand's novel to life. As I got to know some of them, I found that they felt a real engagement with the ideas of Rand's novel, an engagement that they brought to their performances. I feel the same about the cast of Part 2, and I hope to find the same talent and commitment in the cast of Part 3, which the producers have already decided will involve yet another new cast.
To be sure, I have my preferences. For some roles, I like the Part 1 actor best, for other roles, the Part 2 actor. If you love Rand's novel as I do, you will have your own favorites. But I urge you to consider one overarching thought. Those of us who love the novel have created images of the characters in our minds. The task of the film is not to reproduce those images. There's no way to do that. The producers' task is to create an adaptation in which the actors can bring Rand's epochal theme and narrative to life.
Within less than a minute of Part 1, my reader's image of Dagny, Hank, and Francisco was replaced by Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, and Jsu Garcia. Within a minute of Part 2, my image of those characters was replaced by Samantha Mathis, Jason Beghe, and Esai Morales. That's not because I see these actors as interchangeable vehicles for Rand's ideas. On the contrary, they brought different interpretations to their respective roles, revealing new dimensions of the characters, enlarging my understanding of therm. I have immense respect for all these professionals. Nevertheless, as Kaslow says, “The message of Atlas is greater than any particular actor, so it’s one of those pieces of literature that doesn’t require in our view the interpretation by a singular actor.”
In the end, the central character of the films is the world Rand created. In notes she made while writing the novel, she made the arresting assertion that the focus was to be about the world, not about the characters as individuals:
Theme: What happens to the world when the prime movers go on strike….
The first question to decide is on whom the emphasis must be placed—on the prime movers, the parasites, or the world. The answer is: the world….
In this sense, The Strike is to be much more a "social novel" than The Fountainhead…. In The Fountainhead I showed that Roark moves the world—that the Keatings feed upon him and hate him for it, while the Tooheys are consciously out to destroy him. But the theme was Roark—not Roark's relation to the world. Now it will be the relation….
In The Fountainhead I did not show how desperately the world needed Roark—except by implication… It was Roark's story. This must be the world's story—in relation to the prime movers. [Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 390-93]
Rand did not carry through consistently on the intention to make the world the centerpiece, rather than her characters. She created heroes of startling individuality and stature, and villains representing distinctive varieties of human evil. But her overarching theme of a world perishing from the growth of power and loss of freedom—and its meaning for her fictional world as well as for our own—is the essential standard for any film adaptation.
In my judgment, the cast change is compatible with this standard. And, if the changes help audiences abstract the message from the characters portrayed by the cast, the change will have proved inspired.
EXPLORE: Atlas Shrugged Part II
The official movie site.
Final Filming Days for Atlas Shrugged Part 2
Read Laurie Rice's intriguing and fun account of the final days of filming Part 2 of the Atlas Shrugged movie. Included: a glimpse of cameos by conservative and libertarian activists, and off-camera antics and amusing comments by the film's stars.
David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harper's, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; TheEvidence of the Senses; and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and chief intellectual officer of The Atlas Society.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was set forth in her epic novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and in her brilliant non-fiction essays. The Atlas Society promotes Objectivism and its core values: reason, achievement, individualism, and freedom.