Adapting J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise

Mark Kermode (The Observer) interviews the film’s director, Ben Wheatley
Ben Wheatley

Set in a brutalist 70s “luxury” apartment block that becomes a twisted microcosm of society, High-Rise stars Tom Hiddleston as Dr Robert Laing, a smooth, slippery antihero who moves in just as the cracks of anarchy start to appear. While Jeremy Irons’s architect Anthony Royal lords it up in the penthouse, below him dog-eating chaos begins to reign, rising up in feral fashion, floor by floor. Despite their vast differences, there’s a connection between Zardoz and High-Rise, both of which are home-grown, sci-fi-tinged works rooted in the mid-70s. Ballard’s novel was published in 1975, the year after John Boorman’s dystopian epic provoked gales of laughter with scenes of Sean Connery climbing into a flying head to break into the plush world of “the Vortex”, wearing only a bright red posing pouch. Both depict a future in which a class-segregated society is teetering on the brink of collapse; both imagine lavish idylls and increasingly hellish environs existing side by side.


“I read High-Rise when I was about 17,” he says, “along with all the usual counterculture stuff: Naked Lunch, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The thing about Ballard was that you could feel his radiation. He seemed scary, and dangerous, and that was why you had to read his books. I read Crash around the same time, and I remember thinking it had a turn of phrase that didn’t feel like anybody else. A way of looking at the modern world and making it alien. I read Hello America and The Drowned World and so on, all in a lump. But High-Rise kept returning…”


Several film-makers have tried and failed to bring High-Rise to the screen, most famously Nicolas Roeg in the late 70s. “I had no idea about that,” Wheatley says, “which was a good thing. Imagine how intimidating that would be: ‘Hey, let’s try to do the thing that Nic Roeg didn’t manage to do…’ Ha! But what happened was that we had just done A Field in England [2013’s hallucinogenic English civil war weirdie, released simultaneously in cinemas and on DVD, VOD and TV], and Amy and I thought we were starting to get enough clout to be able to option books. So we looked on the shelf and saw High-Rise. And I thought, ‘Fuck, I love that book, and it’s never been made, I wonder why not.’ I called my agent who said [producer] Jeremy Thomas had it, and within three days I was in his office. It turned out he had just seen Sightseers, and loved it. So it was all very fortuitous.”

With High-Rise, Wheatley and Jump (the latter takes sole screenwriting credit on the project) wanted to return to the source. “What Jeremy liked about our approach was that we were going back to the book, and to the 70s – to make it period, which no one had done before. If you’re trying to develop a film of High-Rise in 1978, it makes sense to set it further in the future, because the book is probably set in ’82 or ’83. But then that thinking goes on and on, and eventually you get too far away from the book, and more importantly from the technology. You get into the world of social media, and then the story about the isolation of the tower doesn’t work any more.”


So which elements of Ballard’s book proved most difficult to adapt?

“Well, I don’t want to speak for Amy, but the book is tricky because there’s not a lot of dialogue in it. A lot of it is reported action, and a lot of the fun of the book for me is in the descriptions. Also the book is full of hidden narratives – basically the story of the women and of the children, which Amy wanted to bring out more. As far as the setting is concerned, we were in the future, looking at the past, looking at the future. There’s also the fact that both Amy and I were born in 1972, so we would have been the same age as the children in the tower block. So as much as it’s looking at Ballard, it’s also looking at our own parents – at what that generation means to us. That then coloured how those characters were brought forward.”

Born in Essex and now based in Brighton, Wheatley moved to London’s Belsize Park when he was seven and attended Haverstock school, subsequently dubbed “Eton for lefties” in honour of such high-profile alumni as the Miliband brothers. Wheatley met Jump at a Feet First indie night at the Camden Palace and they married in 2006. Both were “first generation to university for our families”, and both felt an affinity with a central theme of High-Rise: the strange tensions between the bizarrely defined strata of British society.

“What was difficult was getting the upper echelons right,” says Wheatley. “That’s when I’m outside of my comfort zone. Because I didn’t go to Eton. And much as you want to be true to the characters you know about, you also want to be true to those you don’t. Oddly, you assume that in the book it’s the working class versus the upper class. But it isn’t. There is a class war, but it’s like lower middle v middle v upper. What makes it all break down in the book is that they’re put together in what is meant to be a kind of utopia, and then they all join together in moaning about stuff that’s broken. It’s as if anarchy can come from the lift not working or a lightbulb breaking or a window getting smashed – and from there it all tumbles out of control. And that middle ground they have of complaining joins them back together again. That’s really the arc of the story.” [Read the Full Interview]

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