“Who is John Galt?” This is the question which drives Ayn Rand’s most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, forward. Atlas Shrugged is also the last novel Ayn Rand wrote, and many consider it one of the most important books in American history. Ayn Rand herself considers it her magnus opus. The story concerns the productive and smart members of society who get sick of government control and taxation and go into hiding. Their leader is the mysterious John Galt, who’s purpose in the strike is to accentuate the problems of a controlling government. The protagonist is a railway owner by the name Dagny Taggart. She experiences first-hand the hardship of the thinking-class going into hiding with John Galt and experiences problems building a new massive railway to match the competition.
Rather than being a straightforward novel with complex characters and quick situations, the 1168 page (in original hardback) novel manages to cover Ayn Rand’s entire philosophy of Objectivism in excruciating detail. Objectivism’s main point is the importance of self and personal achievement. Ayn Rand herself was an atheist, and her philosophy demonstrates this. In Objectivism, mankind is raised to the status of gods in their unlimited potential (as long as man is given free reigns to expand).
Objectivism is an attempt to create a fulfilling atheistic worldview. The philosophy essentially states that everyone should pursue their own happiness in a sort of rationally-induced free-for-all. To use Ayn Rand’s own words in Atlas Shrugged, “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (p. 1170). Born in Russia, Ayn Rand built Objectivism largely out of her terrible life experiences there and her reaction to immigrating to the United States.
Atlas Shrugged was adapted into a two-part motion picture, the first directed by Paul Johansson (who also played John Galt in the film, the film’s symbol for mankind’s glory and potential). It was released on April 15, 2011 in limited theaters and moved quickly to home video. Produced for $20 million, the film only made $5 million at the box office. To top it off, the film received very negative reviews, only garnering an 11% on Rotten Tomatoes scale. Friends of mine have argued that this is to be expected, given even the original book released to widely negative reviews. However, I propose there are some very important reasons the film adaptation largely failed beyond what issues the source material had.
One of the most obvious issues when adapting Atlas Shrugged to a film lies with the film’s source material. The novel has no realistically logical story and its characters aren’t believable at all. In fact, Ayn Rand’s characters here are about as flat as they come. That’s because Atlas Shrugged isn’t really what I would call a novel. It is really a thinly veiled political treatise masquerading as a novel. Its characters are flat because they are pawns and silhouettes whose sole purpose is to make an overarching political claim possible. Whether the final claim (Objectivism) is a realistic one, even given the flat, unrealistic characters, is not within the scope of this paper. What is at issue here is that flat, unrealistic characters pose an obvious problem to film adaptation. This is compounded by the fact that the film was marketed as entertaining and believable. It’s one thing to read about characters who are taken to the extreme, it’s another to see it in action and hear each character say exactly what they are thinking.
For instance, in the book Atlas Shrugged, the reader might be interested, slightly confused, and also feel sorry for Henry Rearden when he comes home with a gift for his wife, only to have her essentially reject him. However, in the film, virtually the same interaction is played out, only outside of text the language is awkward, the acting stilted, and the reaction totally unbelievable and unwarranted. In fact, by the end of that particular scene I hated virtually every character in the room, whether I was supposed to or not. As mentioned earlier, the book was adapted into a two-part film series. The second part has not been released yet. Presumably it is still in production.
Along came BioShock in 2007. Developed by 2K Games (now Irrational Games), BioShock is a first-person survival horror game which follows a plane crash survivor’s journey through the underwater city of Rapture. Opening to rave reviews, BioShock is now an established game franchise. The most fascinating part about BioShock is that the game is a complete response to Objectivism and deals with many of Ayn Rand’s arguments in Atlas Shrugged. In their review, the Chicago Sun-Times stated, “I never once thought anyone would be able to create an engaging and entertaining video game around the fiction and philosophy of Ayn Rand, but that is essentially what 2K Games has done.”
In the game’s story, an extremely successful business man named Andrew Ryan has done something similar to John Galt in that he took some great scientific minds and abandoned society. He and his fellow thinkers built an underwater city in the middle of the Atlantic and named it Rapture. It was here that ADAM was discovered. ADAM is a DNA-altering substance which gives the host super-human powers. Not only is Andrew Ryan’s name a partial anagram for Ayn Rand, Andrew Ryan is the embodiment of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism beliefs. He had nearly unlimited resources and built a place where science, thought, and progress wouldn’t be hindered by taxation, morality, or any other belief systems.
In the storyline of Rapture before the player arrives, the once great city fell prey to politics and greed. Various factions arose in Rapture, despite Andrew Ryan’s attempts to keep everyone working to better themselves. Once plasmids were derived from ADAM, the whole city broke into violence. The plasmids degenerated the population’s genetic code to the point they were nothing but mindless zombies called splicers. Despite Andrew Ryan’s objectivist belief in no major government interference, Ryan was forced to nationalize Fontaine Futuristics, the producers of the plasmids, or risk the entire city cannibalizing itself. Frank Fontaine, the leader of Fontaine Futuristics, faked his own death and blamed it on Ryan. He then became a protestor by the name Atlas – another blatant reference to Atlas Shrugged. Atlas became a mysterious voice for the resistance, and many signs were even made which read “Who is Atlas?” This is a reference to the “Who is John Galt” question. Atlas became an ironic John Galt type character against Ayn Rand’s own beliefs, leading the scientifically minded away from Objectivism.
The Randian philosophy is put to the ultimate test three-quarters through the game, when the protagonist, Jack, meets Andrew Ryan. Up until this point, Jack has been led around and directed by radio transmissions from the man known only at this point as Atlas. Jack is in Andrew Ryan’s office to kill him. Before Jack kills him, Ryan says, “Stop, would you kindly?” It is here Andrew Ryan reveals that you the player have actually been controlled through the whole game thus far by Frank Fontaine, and you are merely an assassin. Each time Atlas/Fontaine had asked Jack to do something, he had used the term “Would you kindly?” as a kind of mind controlling term. As a side note, this entire idea of the player being manipulated and controlled throughout the game is a fascinating one which could be investigated in nearly any video game in a future paper or class.
Andrew Ryan’s philosophy does not allow him to be a violent person. As he says in the game, “My strength is not in steel and fire. That is what the parasites will never understand.” Andrew Ryan’s power is his intellect, so he hands Jack his golf club and states, “A man chooses, a slave obeys.” This is the epitome of Ayn Rand’s argument. Ryan gives Jack the choice between politics and Objectivism. Showing Jack the two choices he has, Ryan says again, “Kill!”
Jack kills Andrew Ryan. This is the most important moment in the game’s argument against Atlas Shrugged. Andrew Ryan is the ultimate Randian superhero, yet he is corrupted and is defeated by another faction leader in Rapture. This is a display of the true power of politics and greed over smarts and intellect. Andrew Ryan learned the hard way that, despite what Atlas Shrugged argues, people aren’t inherently good enough to work for the betterment of themselves and thus the whole human race. This one scene in BioShock offers the death blow (pun intended) to Atlas Shrugged’s whole philosophy.
As a general rule, books aren’t directly adapted into major video games. If they are, books are usually adapted to a film first, and the games produced as a tie-in. This makes BioShock a important, and a rare example. However, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is also a rare example of a long, unrealistic story with flat characters becoming very popular. Perhaps this is the reason Atlas Shrugged was the perfect match for BioShock. By way of interaction, video games can make long scenes and deep political conversation more accessible, believable, and ultimately bearable than a movie generally could. Ayn Rand’s world is also populated by extremes. Each character is an extreme example of a human trait. BioShock employs this idea generously, each of its villains taking Objectivism to its extremes. Games have typically benefitted from more extreme characters and villains, perhaps this has something to do with why reviewers and consumers accepted the game much more quickly than the film. However, the reason may also be that people love to hate on Ayn Rand. Why go watch a low-budget film praising her philosophy when you could buy a triple-A game which completely deconstructs her ideas? I know which one I would choose.
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