You can see Ben Wheatley’s JG Ballard adaptation in cinemas today. Our depravity and brutalism correspondent Indy Datta saw it at the London Film Festival. Here is his building survey…
“It looks like the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event”, says Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) to the architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) early on in Wheatley and Jump’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s classic 1975 novel when he sees Royal’s architectural blueprints for the tower block of which they currently occupy the roof garden and its four siblings; clustered around a lake, Royal has designed them to look like the fingers of a hand grasping for the sky. “Very good “, responds Royal, “I’ll use that”. That this quintessentially Ballardian aphorism is lifted verbatim from the drily omniscient third-person narration in the book and transplanted into Laing’s mouth is, while a fun moment if you spot it, an almost too-perfect encapsulation of the perennial problems with adapting J.G. Ballard’s work for the screen (producer Jeremy Thomas has finally succeeded in getting High-Rise there, having first acquired the rights shortly after the book was first published). In another early scene Laing, like any good movie teacher, takes a break from his medical school teaching to lead a small class in a demonstration of Thematically Appropriate Metaphor 101, peeling back the skin, fascia and musculature from the disembodied head of a human cadaver to reveal the grinning death’s head that was, if you care to decipher this double meaning, there all along (he then proceeds to saw into the skull, but in coronal rather than sagittal section, which is All Wrong).
Ballard’s original outline for his novel, which he once said he considered to be the best version of the work, was in the form of a social worker’s report on the trouble that erupts inside an upmarket tower block, and the finished novel retains a clinical distance in its telling. As in a great deal of Ballard’s work, a key feature of High-Rise is that the extreme behaviour of the characters in it appears to seem, to the author, quite normal and natural – and he observes his characters as he would a pack of hyenas, or the constituent bacteria of a culture spreading on an agar plate, having little apparent patience with the psychological or emotional interiority that most fiction writers consider essential to their depiction of characters. Wheatley and Jump, while appreciating, as shown by that post-mortem unmasking, that Ballard’s characters aren’t driven to derangement by the stresses he places on them (so the specific characteristics of the building that cause the trouble here, and the class-war curlicues of Ballard’s telling are, at least in part, red herrings) so much as their inherent derangement is thereby revealed, don’t follow his lead in keeping a distance from their characters. After a brief introductory voice-over lifted straight from the book’s opening (balcony, Alsatian), their characters speak (and think, and feel) and act for themselves, given psychologically cogent goals and emotional voids within themselves that they seek to fill.
This causes specific problems, such as the fact that, where Ballard can afford to be cavalier about the precise trajectory of the building’s descent into anarchy, the film makers’ resort to a montage to paper over this narrative crack is uncomfortably obvious. And in general, the more people in a Ballard story resemble real people, the harder it is to ignore that the specific behaviours of people in Ballard’s stories rarely comport with the behaviour of recognisably real people, even while many who are unconvinced by those depictions would accept the general proposition embodied by the skull unmasked. Which is to say: when you concretise the propositions in a lot of Ballard to the extent necessary to film them, their verisimilitude dissolves before your eyes. People don’t get sexually aroused by car crashes, people with options don’t treat the badly designed building they live in as a closed system staging a zero-sum territorial game.
Ballard’s specific voice, then, is inherent to the power of his science-fictional imagination, in contrast with his near contemporary in his genre, Philip K Dick, whose work is seeded through with ideas and conceits that have survived being grafted into many films that often have little else in common with their source texts. Reproducing that voice (Thomas’s director on his previous Ballard adapation, Crash’s David Cronenberg, was probably as good a choice as he could have made) is probably key to any successful adaptation of his fiction work. High-Rise, however, scarcely feels Ballardian at all – in addition to the film makers’ very different approach to character, they have no truck with Ballard’s minimalism – working for the first time with a big budget they have opted for a scheme where everything is bigger and more outrageous than everything else (if they’re ventriloquising anybody, it’s not Ballard or Cronenberg, but maybe Tommy era Ken Russell). Is this fearlessness, or a failure of nerve when faced with a source work that has defeated so many for so long? Paradoxically, it feels like both. The upside of Wheatley and Jump’s maximalism is that, given their talent and ambition, their film is full of vivid images, sequences and performances, and a rewatch and reassessment would seem mandatory.