Toward A Ballardian Future

Film

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The problem with J G Ballard, from a filmmaker’s perspective, is that he does not tell stories. He suggests futures and new psychologies. His characters are ciphers, his plots are liminal and his prose is exquisite, none of which makes him easy to adapt. Spielberg made a fine job of ‘Empire Of The Sun’, although it was always going to be the easiest to film, being a personal memoir. Cronenberg made a disastrous mess of ‘Crash’, a perverse and troubling book that received a timid, watered-down, misguided film adaptation.

So it was left to a British director, Ben Wheatley, to get to the heart of Ballard. With four films under his belt (all of which I loved, even the hard-to-get-through ‘A Field In England’) he seemed in pole position to catch the tone of ‘High-Rise’. Bruce Robinson had tried and failed, and the book option had been with an old friend of mine, producer Jeremy Thomas, for the best part of 40 years – so has he pulled it off?

The answer is mainly – yes. Wheatley and writing partner Amy Jump have been faithful to the original’s elliptical dialogue – almost too faithful in fact, setting events in the 1970s, when it was written, and keeping the surreality of the novel intact. But doing that does throw up some awkward questions…

‘High-Rise’ charts the societal breakdown that occurs inside a futuristic tower block, one of five being built as a future blueprint for cities. Laing (the hero, played by Tom Hiddleston, is named after psychiatrist RD Laing) is a neurologist, a neat, trim, buttoned-down executive seeking inner calm. Instead he gets an escalating war of attrition between haves and have-nots – ‘Isn’t it funny how the poor always go on about money?’ says one of the rich characters – until he discovers that far from being afraid of the breakdown of civilisation, it might lead to a new life-saving psychology that will get us out of the capitalist trap.

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What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen. Instead of a slow descent into anarchy there’s very little normality at the outset, and we get a quick drop without any sense of initial rationality. And as with the book you do wonder; without societal strictures how will they raise children, fend for themselves, avoid descending into moral chaos or even find anything to eat? And what is the rest of the world doing while this happens? What goes on during the day when some of the tenants trot off to work? The questions you don’t ask yourself on the page can become unavoidable on-screen.

Jeremy Irons plays the building’s architect as a Bond villain (and is probably right to do so – this being the era of the Goldfinger architects and the Barbican) living in the penthouse with a white horse in his garden and a wife dressed like a shepherdess, but in reality such buildings are now owned by faceless global conglomerates – something the author didn’t foresee.

Never mind – the parallels to today soon make themselves clear, and there are some superb standout sequences in a handsome, powerful production which even echoes typefaces and book cover styles from Ballard paperbacks. But time has moved on around it, and most audiences will find that Laing’s future offers something few of us now want. British society has been partly stitched back together by connectivity and working together, so the desirability of the alarming premise is harder to understand.

One minor miss-step that pins the fable to an era is the inclusion of the inaugural speech by Margaret Thatcher about capitalism. Although actually, it was rather nice to hear a politician make a proper speech about anything whether you agree with it or not – nobody seems to have a future vision anymore.

The big question for me was; why set the film in the past? Why not have it directly reflect what’s happening to us now? Wouldn’t the contrast between order and chaos have been even greater? It doesn’t matter that we have mobiles and social media – the point is that the residents turn inward for help, not outward. They don’t want to leave, they’re not trying to escape. If anything, they would go to greater lengths to cover up what’s happening.

Would Ballard have liked this version? I hope so; it’s a cerebral arthouse movie that offers food for thought, and as such should be regarded as the closest we have to his ideas on screen. It’s only as a linear, realistic film that it’s more problematic. I’m a Ballard fanboy so maybe no one film was ever going to please me completely. But Wheatley largely nails it.

5 comments on “Toward A Ballardian Future”

  1. snowy says:

    I don’t enjoy Ben Wheatly’s films as much as I would like to, there seems to be a total lack of ‘light and shade’ in the characters. Even in ‘Sightseers’ which should have been a doddle.

    He was on R4’s Film Prog. talking about why he chose the Seventies setting, it was in part due to the complete lack of ‘social media’. [I’ll throw in a link in case anybody fancies a listen. Available as a stream or as a download.]

  2. Phil Gray says:

    Got to admit, a) I haven’t read ‘High Rise’ and b) didn’t attempt to question the apparent self-imposed isolation. Instead I just sat back and admired the way in which the film, to me, reflected my perception of Ballard back at me.

    I also found that the 70s setting made it much easier to believe the combination of high gloss finish and underlying shoddiness.

  3. admin says:

    I feel I’ve been harsher than intended here. I already want to see it again!

  4. Steve says:

    I read the book in the 70s so I never thought about that as a setting.
    When I first came across Ballard, Dick, and also Barry Malzberg, these three authors all had a big impact on my teenage mind. This was while Ballard was still an “sf” author. Malzberg is still around but never became famous like the other two, but I remember “Beyond Apollo” impacting me so I felt my head was done in by reading it (OK I was a teenager!). Ballard’s Vermilion Sands shorts, Concrete Island, and Crystal World were (still are) also big favourites, maybe more than High-Rise because they are in a certain sense more “romantic”.

  5. Steve says:

    PS by “I read the book in the 70s so I never thought about that as a setting” I mean that it seemed obvious, I had always imagined it that way anyway.
    To be fair to the screenplay, the book start off with eating the dog and the word “normal”, and then works back. I felt it was a typical Wheatley film which somehow stays in the mind but you never feel it reached “excellent”.

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