Who is John Galt?

In the midst of my absence last month, I managed to squeeze in some time to read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

It was only 1000 pages of very fine print – no problem!

I had been meaning to read the book for years.

I once knew a certain female executive whose passion for work knew no bounds and who once admitted to me that the source of much of her passion came from Atlas Shrugged.

I once played Bioshock on my laptop.  The entire backstory and characters involved in the underwater city of Rapture were based upon the ideas of Atlas Shrugged.  There are many references in the game to Ayn Rand’s story and characters and even Ayn Rand herself.

I also read Francis Ford Coppola’s unproduced years-in-the-making epic script, Megalopolis, which Coppola said was influenced by Atlas Shrugged.

In any case, I could not put the book down.  I flew through the thousand pages without a sweat.  It’s amazing to me how on the one hand, some 120-page amateur screenplays require monumental acts of willpower to get through them and yet, on the other hand, there are giant, thousand-page books that are hopelessly addictive.  Why is that?

What is it about one story that makes it addictive and another one arduous?  How can a writer hold a reader’s attention so intensely for so many pages?

8 Effective Writing Approaches in Atlas Shrugged

While I didn’t agree with every idea advocated in the book, I’m not here to impose my own political or philosophical ideas.  I’m here to talk about the craft of writing, and I must admit, there were some fabulous approaches to the art of storytelling that are worth mentioning.

1) The stakes were raised sky high – In so many reviews I’ve done on amateur screenplays, I’ve complained about the stakes being too low.  “Why should we care?” I’d often write.  And yet, in Atlas Shrugged, the stakes could not have been raised any higher.

Nothing less than the life of a giant railroad, Taggart Transcontinental, hung in the balance throughout the story and subsequently, the economic life of ‘50s America hung on the existence of Taggart Transcontinental.  This is a railroad we grow to become invested in as much as the protagonist, Dagny Taggart, because this was her family’s business.

In so many reviews I’ve done on amateur screenplays, I’ve complained about the stakes being too low.

In the opening section of the book, the goal was to build the “Rio Norte” line in Colorado or else the railroad will go bust.  Add to that the risk of using a new untested metal for the rails, and then pile on obstacle after obstacle after obstacle to get the job done, and you have a compelling story.  No pressure, right?

I loved every word of Part One, and the first chapter is nearly flawless.

2) The obstacles grew increasingly monstrous over the course of the book – What started as a seemingly simple task of building a new line in Colorado to save the railroad evolved into battles with bigger economic, political, and philosophical forces that threaten to undermine everything Dagny held dear.

Toward the end of Part Two, they were fighting everyone in the face of total hopelessness.

3) High drama – Scenes were consistently compelling because not only were the stakes sky high but there was an epic battle of philosophies or the threat of corruption that put at risk something dear to a character.

I loved how some characters, like Hank Rearden, could face open threats to his livelihood and ingenious creation of new metal and yet, he could still distance himself somewhat emotionally and stay focused enough to attack that threat intelligently and brilliantly.

Not only were the stakes sky high but there was an epic battle of philosophies or the threat of corruption.

Ayn Rand was always drawn to scenes of the highest drama with tension so thick you could cut it with a chainsaw.

4) Rand makes her points by showing what’s wrong with the world – Before this, I reviewed a novel by a friend in which everything went right for her protagonist.  I told her, “Too many of your characters are saying all the right things and behaving like good people.  In life, we lead by example. In storytelling, we make our points by showing the world what’s wrong with it through characters who say and do things that are so very wrong.  Avoid speeches.  Show things going wrong in your protag’s world to make your points and create meaning.  Everything that goes right for your protag goes wrong for the story.”  And of course, every conceivable way that something could go wrong, went wrong in Atlas Shrugged.

In storytelling, we make our points by showing the world what’s wrong with it.

5) I loved the symbolism – In the opening chapter, you had Eddie Willers walking through the city and something made him think of an oak tree from his youth that stood on a hill, that had looked as if it stood there for hundreds of years, and that Eddie Willers thought would stand there forever…

“Its roots clutched the hill like a fist with fingers sunk into the soil, and he thought that if a giant were to seize it by the top, he would not be able to uproot it, but would swing the hill and the whole of the earth with it, like a ball at the end of a string.  He felt safe in the oak tree’s presence; it was a thing that nothing could change or threaten; it was his greatest symbol of strength…”

Until one day, lightning struck it.

“Eddie saw it the next morning.  It lay broken in half, and he looked into its trunk as into the mouth of a black tunnel.  The trunk was only an empty shell; its thin gray dust that was being dispersed by the whim of the faintest wind.  The living power had gone, and the shape it had not been able to stand without it.

Years later, he heard it said that children should be protected from shock, from their first knowledge of death, pain, or fear.  But these had never scarred him; his shock came when he stood very quietly, looking into the black hole of the trunk.  It was an immense betrayal – the more terrible because he could not grasp what it was that had been betrayed.  It was not himself, he knew, nor his trust; it was something else.  He stood there for a while, making no sound, then he walked back to the house.  He never spoke about it to anyone, then or since.”

The symbolism here, as I’m sure you can tell, cannot be missed.  What he was doing, walking through the city, evoked a thought about his childhood that spoke to a greater truth – what he trusted was dead and hollow inside, kinda like his faith in the Taggart Transcontinental company he worked for.

There was also the moment when Dagny saw the old piece of machinery:

“On her way through the plant, she had seen an enormous piece of machinery left abandoned in a corner of the yard.  It had been a precision machine tool once, long ago, of a kind that could not be bought anywhere now.  It had not been worn out; it had been rotted by neglect, eaten by rust and the black drippings of dirty oil.  She had turned her ace away from it.  A sight of that nature always blinded her for an instant by the burst of too violent an anger.  She did not know why; she could not define her own feeling; she knew only that there was, in her feeling, a scream of protest against injustice, and that it was a response to something much beyond an old piece of machinery.”

Ayn Rand made ordinary moments compelling in ways that revealed character.  We do this, too, via our own unique, visual approaches in screenwriting.

6) Effective use of flashbacks – This book probably had the most effective use of flashbacks I’ve ever seen.  A flashback existed not for the sake of exposition only.  It existed to set the stage for an upcoming scene.  It’s a setup to a payoff.

For example, a wealthy playboy by the name of Francisco D’Antonia did some diabolical scheming that nearly destroyed Taggart railroad.  Dagny Taggart, who was the VP of Operations, is walking to the New York City hotel where D’Antonia is staying.  On her way to the hotel, we’re given a flashback that explains the emotional personal history between Dagny and Francisco which goes all the way back to their childhood.

A flashback existed not for the sake of exposition only.  It existed to set the stage for an upcoming scene.

Francisco’s philosophies about succeeding in business shaped Dagny’s life and passion for the railroad and now Francisco’s behaving in ways that go against everything he ever believed.  They also had a love affair, the first love of Dagny’s life.  So all of these things set the stage for an epic scene of confrontation between Dagny and Francisco.

The flashback existed to help us understand the heavy words these two characters will say to each other.

7) Rand was always thinking big – This aspect drives me crazy about most amateur screenplays, because too often, new writers think too small.  Ayn Rand had big introductions to big characters with great depth trapped inside epic conflicts of the highest human stakes imaginable played out in scene after scene of rich drama thick with tension.  That’s writing that’ll blow your hair back.

8) “Who is John Galt?” – Last but not least in any way, the most common aspect Rand keeps readers hooked is to throw questions out there and make them keep reading to get their answers.

But I think there are two kinds of questions: the big picture questions (“Will Taggart Transcontinental Railroad survive?” “Why are the leaders of industry disappearing?”  “Who is John Galt?”), and then there are little questions to keep you hooked scene-by-scene (“Why is a character saying strange things and not revealing the answers?”  “Why is this pirate offering a bar of gold?”  “Who is the mysterious person Eddie Willers keeps talking to in the cafeteria?”)

Too often, amateurs are too obvious and throw out too few questions and reveal answers too quickly.  I think many great authors are more disciplined about waiting until much later before revealing the big and little answers.  They also toss up interesting developments to make you keep guessing and asking more questions.  (Which reminds me of the Lost TV show.  Of course, we hope now that the answers are worthy of the questions we’ve been asking.)

Is Atlas Shrugged adaptable for the big screen?  Absolutely.  Ayn Rand was a former Hollywood screenwriter herself and began writing her own Atlas Shrugged screenplay but passed away in 1982 with only 1/3 of the script finished.  There’s been a long history of development for the project.

Personally, I think a trilogy is the way to go.

– Mystery Man

I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.

I also write for Script Magazine.

50 thoughts on “Who is John Galt?”

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who hasn’t read this. My kids read it, but I haven’t gotten past good intentions. I also have a book she wrote on writing…also still on the good intentions list. Thanks for helping me see that it would be well worth my time to read them all. I’m actually working on my first novel right now, so I’ll keep the points you made in mind.
    And I agree with you about LOST.

    • Hope to find the copy I read more than 30 years ago. I loved it and now I am eager to read it again !! thank you all.

  2. Excellent review and analysis. Ayn Rand would be pleased that you understood her method of writing.

    I urge you to read the book made from her lectures on fiction writing: “The Art of Fiction.” Available from Amazon.

    • For those who don’t know who Dr. Binswanger is, he was one of Ayn Rand’s closest associates in the last decade-plus of her life and has an encyclopedic knowledge of her thought. You can be proud of hearing this from him.

  3. Gosh, this is the most objective review of “Atlas Shrugged” ever. Primarily, yours is a review based on the book, rather than a muckraking thinly disguised as a review. Thank-you, for your intellectual integrity!

    The muckrakers spend more words on Ayn Rand’s supposed character flaws than on the novel. Worse, those flaws are claims published by individuals she determinedly ejected from her life. How could they be legitimate sources, given that Rand plainly ejected them for a reason? Gosh, might those sources have been dishonest? Might their claims be false? The answer is plain.

    Can we anticipate a review of “The Fountainhead” or the very short “Anthem”?

    [On the latter, observe the intentional, laudatory, references to Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, and Thomas Edison … three men whose discovery of electricity affects ALL modern humans, every day (especially us of the Internet).]

    How about a different challenge: an objective review of the non-fiction “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand”, by Leonard Peikoff.

    Your site is now a highly placed bookmark in my (terrific) Firefox browser.

  4. I am glad this is a moderated site. How did my “from Ontario” get duplicated? I am sure I only typed it once… (looking at it in the above box it is only shown once). Heck 12 characters duplicated: that is one heck of a ‘typo’. I dare suggest that something else is afoot in the digital world of programming.

  5. As an aspiring writer and a big fan of Ayn Rand, I think you’ve captured much of what makes her writing so compelling. I agree with Harry Binswanger that you should not miss “The Art of Fiction.” You’ll find that Ayn Rand shares many of your views on storytelling.

    I’ll be following your blog from now on!

  6. Great review!

    Atlas Shrugged is a book that deserves to be read multiple times for its literary qualities alone.

    • I could not imagine struggling through this piece of junk another time. I felt masochistic to do it once. The lady just could not tell a story, probably because she kept putting her words in characters mouths rather than letting them develop organically.

  7. Thank you for this marvelous “review” of Atlas Shrugged and the writing skill and craft that make it possible — and addictive. It’s so nice to encounter for once a discussion of Rand and her work that isn’t written by a fault-finding poltroon of the picayune. Your article highlights some of Rand’s best story-telling techniques, and I’m sure you could write a book on it that would complement “Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged,” one of a series of scholarly books on her novels, including Anthem, We the Living, and The Fountainhead.

  8. Thank you for an excellent review, probably the best I’ve seen on “Atlas Shrugged.”

    Your focus on the elements of story-telling within the novel allowed me to consider aspects of the book I hadn’t even thought of, which was a really exciting experience.

    This was the book that got me into philosophy, and made it necessary for me to learn about the field. The events of the novel made clear, in fictional terms, that *ideas matter*, that knowledge matters, that the mind is of the utmost importance. Finishing the book changed me, and I have no regrets.

    Thanks again!

  9. Nice review! I love the book so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.

    It blows my mind to read some reviews that only see negatives. It’s like going for a ride in the Space Shuttle for the first time, and complaining that you didn’t like the crackers they served.

    Still, one of my favorite things about the book is the small details that are imbued with larger meaning; you mentioned a few. Sometimes the amount of scope she manages to pack into little stuff amazes me. I think she’s a great descriptive writer.

    The link between their childhoods and adult lives is very important, because some characters were loyal to their dreams while others betrayed them. Plus, Francisco was usually involved, and how could you not like him?

    Anyway, thanks!

  10. Thank you for a fair and honest review. You’re absolutely right that in Atlas Shrugged the stakes are high. But they’re not just transcontinental-railroad-high; they’re fate-of-man-on-earth high.

    • yep… which leads me to note that I believe Mr. Mystery Man missed the mark on his point about the lightning-destroyed oak tree and Willer’s response. It was about America and the moral abyss AR claimed was due to altruism as our accepted decree.

  11. Thank You so much for recognizing great fiction writing!! It is so rare these days to find an honest, objective reviewer who knows what he is talking about. This blows the doors off all those ignorant literati who claim the novel is “ponderous” or “pedantic”, etc. What a breath of fresh air!

  12. thank you for this review. you hit on many of the points which make rand’s fiction so rewarding. you raised some points I never noticed. now I want to read or listen to it again. have you read any of her plays? I love “Ideal”

      • Here I am back at your review, having listened to the book again on audio and just watched the movies on DVD. Did you manage to watch Zardoz again ?

        Anyway, the movies really were a let down compared to the book. I’ve watched The Fountainhead many times but can’t see myself watching Atlas again.

  13. Dear Mystery Man:

    At most forums, I’d be talking to the wall as far as any ideas about a movie version of ATLAS SHRUGGED is concerned. But while I know you aren’t involved yourself, you may know people who know people… so maybe you could put a bee in their bonnets.

    First off, I agree with you about the idea of a trilogy. I can’t see how AS could be done as a single two-hour or even three-hour movie. The obvious parallel is THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which brings up another key point. What the movie needs is a Peter Jackson, a director with enough respect for the novel to insist on doing it right. We’ve had too much mickey-mousing around about using a star like Angelina Jolie or Charlize Theron to “sell” the project – the LOTR movies succeeded through story power, not star power.

    Back in 2004, my friend Lisa J. Binkley, who had never even heard of ATLAS SHRUGGED before her sister pushed it on her, posted a very perceptive review:


    As a science fiction fan, she immediately recognized the novel as an “alternate history.” That was NOT Rand’s intention, but it is the only way to read it today — and the only way to film it. It makes more sense to imagine an alternate history in which there NEVER WERE things like computers and commercial air travel than to imagine a future where these things have entirely disappeared before the story even begins — trying to explain that would be awkward at best, and throw off the entire rhythm of the story. Moreover, people today are familiar with alternate history not only through best-sellers like THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION, but at least one movie, FATHERLAND, based on the Robert Harris novel.

    Having been an sf reader, scholar and critic for most of my life, I know what I’m talking about. Depend on it.

    • Francisco Domingo Carlos Andres Sebastian D’Anconia is not a playboy. Atlas Shrugged is neither science fiction nor alternative history. It is not unless the author wishes it to be. It is closer to science fact with fiction by a certain nature and closer to future history, futurology, future depictions, and future possibilities. It is a classic and is recent. It describes things close to literally and metaphorically of what is occurring before, presently, and will unless… It can include certain types of warnings against suppressors and opressors of righteous and right freedom…It is a book which cleans certain wrongs…The review is novel. Once rereading it, one may note more details and answers… It is a pro-life, pro-mind, pro-creativeness, and pro-innovation book. It may contain loops.

  14. Thank you for writing the most interesting Atlas Shrugged review I have encountered. Most are too focused on Rand herself, or the underlying philosophy. By focusing on the writing you showed me why I enjoyed the book so much, which I hadn’t been able to determine on my own.

    I think a trilogy would be a good way to film the book. But I think a better media for adaptation would be television. I could see Atlas Shrugged produced as an hour-long drama set in her fictional America of the 1950s. It would have the visual appeal of Mad Men, but with a fixed story arc, like LOST. I think that is the best way to maximize on Rand’s many little and big questions that you so aptly described.

    I hope John Aglialoro, the guy with the rights to make this movie, doesn’t waste the effort on landing big stars instead of producing a great show.

    • >television. I could see Atlas Shrugged produced as an hour-long drama

      Perhaps you mean a series of hour-long parts.

  15. Your article was educational for me in a very gratifying way as I’ve just finished a treatment for a screenplay and was questioning the stakes, if they’re set high enough. I’m feeling quite confident now that they are. :)

    Thanks for your great insights. I always learn something new from you.

    All my best.

  16. This is a really interesting article, as I’ve been meaning to try Atlas Shrugged for a while now. The only Rand I’ve managed to read was Anthem, mostly because once you decide to read it there’s really no excuse not to – it’s so tiny. But I was reminded of this goal when I saw a “Who is John Galt?” bumper sticker in my hometown yesterday afternoon.

    Thanks for the breakdown, and for the renewal of incentive! :)


    • Oh, Grace, if you think the reviewer has given away the plot and the climax and the motivating ideas and the “solution” to the problem shown in the world, it is only because you have NOT read it. Having read it 1`4 times in 40 some-odd years, I can tell you that the reviewer did NOT give away the enjoyment you’ll get, when you do read it. With a BA in English, I can say that nothing about the plot is borrowed from other plot inventors. I can also say the that book may make you re-0think every idea you’ve ever heard or lived your life by. Ayn RAnd is a real-life challenge, as artist and as philosopher.

  17. Flannery o’Connor dares to disagree:

    “The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

    Flannery O’Connor, 31 May 1960 Letter to Maryat Lee, “The Habit of Being,” (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979), 398.

    • Well, Ayn Rand was correct in Atlas Shrugged where John Galt enlightens us how inferiors always come to hate and vilify their superiors. In your case, my dear, she was exceedingly correct! Your jealous condemnation of literary excellence amply demonstrates your inability to achieve it.

  18. If O’Connor–a poor, paltry writer obsessed with the Catholic ideal of tortuous suffering (picture a female Mel Gibson) and with a fetish for iconic symbolism–thought AS terrible, then there can be no higher recommendation to others to read the novel.

    Thank you, MM, for one of the most honest reviews of Atlas that I have ever read. And, thank you, Edward Cline, for linking to this in your article on the film–http://www.capitalismmagazine.com/arts/movies/6399-cortlandt-homes-redux-why-john-agilardo-s-adaption-of-ayn-rand-s-novel-atlas-shrugged-utterly-fails.html.

  19. I first read the book when I was 9 years old (had the reading IQ of an 18 year old then already). I’ll be honest and admit that at first I was impressed. However, my perspective changed over many years. I became an agnostic from the age of 23 but struggled with the shackles of religion before that time.

    Ayn Rand was not a philosopher even though she wanted to be considered such, and the majority of Americans gradually fell into her snare. According to Ayn Rand, one should live only for oneself. But of course the most miserable individuals do not realize that true happiness comes from getting along with and helping others. We are not all equal in talent for whatever reasons; whether we were born into opportunity or poverty does not matter. Thus her Golden Rule for success only applies to those with exceptional talents – the imaginary John Galts. Rand’s philosophy is not intended for just anyone.

    Rand was herself a wishful wannabee John Galt. To wit, the hypocrite collected social security and medicare benefits. She was what some might call a morally loose woman but she had intellectual appeal which caused people to listen.

    My advice is that readers should not believe anything that is written in print. From experience I have found that most Americans do exactly this! I encourage you to read but form your own opinion, not that of the author or the reviewer or anyone else.

    One can have all the knowledge in the universe, yet unable to form one’s own opinion.

    • Rand recognized the value in “getting along with and helping others” but to advocate that as the source of true happiness as you do is insane. Drafted into Hitler’s Gestapo would you have derived your true happiness from getting along with your superiors and helping them commit mass murder? That may not be what you meant, but it is what you said.

      Her “golden rule for success” is that each person ought to pursue his rational self-interest and seek his own happiness as his highest purpose. This “rule” can be undertaken by everyone, regardless of circumstances. It is no guarantee of success, it is a guarantee of greater happiness than to abide by some other rule. Unlike altruism, the pursuit of one’s rational self-interest is consistent with the Golden Rule which entreats us to consider the interests of valued neighbors on par with our own. Altruism demands that we consider our interests to be subservient to those of every other being on the planet. Now that is a philosophy that is not intended for any rational person to practice.

      Finally, what would have been hypocritical would be if Rand had committed the act of total self-sacrifice and not taken advantage of state-provided health care or pensions. It is only someone like Rand, who opposed the state’s theft and redistribution of property who has a moral right to these – as partial restitution. Those who support such criminal acts are those who have no right to benefit from them.

      Rand was indeed a philosopher, and a great one, to be appreciated by those who actually read her. Clearly your nine-year-old mind was not up to the challenge.

      • “Drafted into Hitler’s Gestapo would you have derived your true happiness from getting along with your superiors and helping them commit mass murder?”

        Mr. MacKinnon, where did you read anything about Hitler in Gabriel’s post?

        “Finally, what would have been hypocritical would be if Rand had committed the act of total self-sacrifice and not taken advantage of state-provided health care or pensions. It is only someone like Rand, who opposed the state’s theft and redistribution of property who has a moral right to these – as partial restitution. ”

        It would help if you had some common sense and logic. Your arguments are clearly incoherent. I think Gabriel’s 9 year old mind was more advanced than what yours will be by the time you die.

    • Ayn Rand and Jesus Christ – both dead Jews with diametrically opposite ideas. Of course only an ignorant person (such as most conservatives are) claims to be a follower of both.

  20. This is one of those NaNaNaNa times (Twilight Zone). When I saw the “Who is John Galt?” link, I almost messed in my pants. I am 350 Pages through the book currently and at times it is challenging, knowing that I still have another 700 pages to go. It is odd that it was written in 1957 or before, given the topics discussed. My wife and I have been married almost 34 years and my Mother-in-Law gave it to us on our first anniversary. Somehow I never got around to reading the book (probably the fact it was over 1,000 pages. Thanks for the Twitter “Follow”.

  21. I find it funny that you say “avoid speeches” yet praise rand. John Galt’s speech is what 90 pages? Francisco has some that are 10+. Atlas Shrugged has historical significance and is a calling card for the extreme free market types and it does some things well, but it’s far from an outstanding literary work in my view. I appreciate your comments about how her flashbacks were effective, that’s an subtlety I hadn’t picked up on. I think she’s also effective at creating moral dilemmas, which she herself said were critical to effective story telling. It also connects itself to something that matters to people, something they can relate to but suffers from being heavy handed in its demonstration of those principles. Overall I wouldn’t recommend it as a great story or great work of fiction but it certainly does some things well and is worth learning from.

  22. The book strikes me as a vague attempt at being Ulysses, shifting among points of view. It is reminiscent of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminati trilogy, which is in part a parody on Ulysses. Especially similar are the names Rand comes up for people. The premises and actions of the characters are about as preposterous and unrealistic as Wilson’s, too.

  23. Pingback: Atlas Shrugged, Part I: A Cinematic Go-Cart | NEW ROMANTICISTNEW ROMANTICIST
  24. That is what a fiction author does. Uses their characters to say what the author wants to convey. Glad that the core underlying element of storytelling wasn’t lost on you.


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