It’s actually happening: Paul Johansson’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is coming to the big screen, and on Tax Day, no less. That’s about as subtle as writing a book in which the last bastion of classical liberalism is called Patrick Henry University. Oh wait, that’s been done. Anyway, you can watch the trailer here. What strikes me most about it is not that a story centered on the railroad industry doesn’t really make sense in 2011, nor the level of film-making gravitas that Johnasson brings to the project from his long tenure as a director for One Tree Hill, but the fact that they made Eddie Willers black. Sweet. Tap-dancing. Christ.
For the uninitiated, in the world of Atlas Shrugged, Eddie Willers works for the iconic Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, and more specifically as assistant to its heiress-magnate Dagny. The two have known each other their entire lives, having grown up together as playmates, with the knowledge that eventually she would run the company and he would work for her. Though lacking the vision and brilliance of the main protagonists, Willers recognizes their superiority and gladly serves as Dagny’s subordinate, just as his father and grandfather served Dagny’s forebears. If memory serves, and it will have to since I don’t have a copy of the book handy, Rand describes him as being blond-haired and blue-eyed, which would certainly put him in good company with about half of the book’s good guys. In general and especially in Atlas Shrugged, Rand only wrote good and evil characters, the former being rather predisposed to have Nordic features.
I had never considered Eddie Willers’ race to be in question until I was having a conversation with a young Rand devotée during a high school trip to the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge (that’s a story for another day) and she said, seemingly out of nowhere, “You know, I always thought of Eddie Willers as black.” I was somewhat taken aback. Issues of hair color and complexion aside, when Rand was writing the book in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it would not have made sense for an African American boy or man to occupy occupy Willer’s positions, whether socially or in terms of occupation. This reality was not at the forefront of my mind–I had never imagined Eddie Willers as anything but white, but then again I grew up in San Diego and went to a high school with almost no African American kids. If I imagined the characters that meant so much to me at the time in such a way as to reflect my social experience, roughly one-third of them would have been Latino, one-third Asian, and one-third white. However, in the book as written, only copper baron Francisco d’Anconia is Hispanic, and his family name suggests a colonial European (as opposed to native South American) lineage. As for the rest, although they embody a variety of physical types (always so as to reflect the soundness of their inner character) they are most definitely white Americans.
Which brings me back to my point: based on the trailer and the film’s IMDB page, they only changed the race of one major character, and it was the one in a position of hereditary subordination. Does anyone else see that as being at best a horrible oversight? There are plenty of black conservatives in this day and age–couldn’t we update this story by casting Condoleeza Rice as John Galt and making Dagny into a later in life lesbian? Paging Meredith Baxter Burney!
I’m sure this isn’t the last you’ll read here about what is sure to become the campiest book-to-film adaptation since Mommie Dearest. Over the holidays I read Jennifer Burns’ wonderful intellectual biography of Ayn Rand, and I’ve been meaning to share my thoughts about it here. Until then, I leave you.