Would Ballard have approved High-Rise adaptation?

Will Self rates the film as an adaptation of Ballard’s vision
Promotional poster for Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise

Of the film adaptations that had been made of his work during his lifetime, JG Ballard vouchsafed to me that he liked Jonathan Weiss’s version of The Atrocity Exhibition the best. It was hardly a surprising verdict; the movie, released in 2000, eschews any of the easy certainties of narrative for a furious collage of extreme images – urban wastelands, nuclear explosions, penises rhythmically pumping in and out of vaginas – all to the accompaniment of a voice-over comprising near-verbatim passages from the quasi-novel. And as the book is a furious collage of extreme images, the film is of the highest fidelity imaginable.

Ballard also liked Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Empire of the Sun, although more, one suspects, because of the opportunity he got to be an extra in a party scene that was set in a simulacrum of his parents’ interwar home in Shanghai. So tickled was he by this Möbius-looping of reality and the imagined that Ballard wrote about the episode in another roman-à-clef, The Kindness of Women. When it was announced in the early 1990s that David Cronenberg was to adapt Ballard’s apocalyptic tale of autogeddon, Crash, and moreover set it in Toronto, I was so exercised that I phoned the writer. “You can’t let him do that, Jim,” I protested (or words to that effect). “Crash is one of the great London novels. The city demands that it be set right here!” He was having none of it and gently talked me down: the point of the novel was to describe a global phenomenon, one Ballard termed “the death of affect”. It was quite irrelevant which city the film was set in – the important point was that Cronenberg’s affectless vision and planar cinematography, all lit at operating-theatre strength, strongly resonated with Ballard.

J. G. Ballard

Again, I rather suspect he liked the furore that surrounded its release – the late Alexander Walker having conniptions, screening bans all over the shop – rather more than he did the film. It would be a very absurd counterfactual indeed to try to imagine what Ballard would have made of the latest adaptation to enter the lists – but then, I’ve never worried about appearing ridiculous. For my money, Ben Wheatley’s film of High-Rise, scripted by his partner, Amy Jump, is a superb piece of work but how far it conforms to Ballard’s notoriously minatory vision is another matter.

I suppose I could be credited with an infinitesimal contribution, as Jump came to see me when she was working on the screenplay. She wanted, she said, to speak to someone who had known the writer personally, but whether she managed to get much of use out of me, I have no idea. All I can recall saying is that she and Wheatley had their work cut out, given that the novel has no proper plot to speak of, being, in ­essence, a series of flashbacks from a scene neatly encapsulated by the book’s opening line: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

Ballard had an impressive strike rate as a prognosticator. His early apocalyptic novels fried, drowned and blew the world apart, anticipating the environmental depredations to come, while his acute apprehension of what he saw as “the marriage of nightmare and reason which has dominated the 20th century” made him sensitive to both the rise of mediatisation and its associated pseudo-events, and also to the peculiar forms that anomie takes in societies that are characterised by material abundance and spiritual poverty. [Read More]

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