Directed by Ben Wheatley
J.G. Ballard and the Cinema
Through May 22 at Anthology Film Archives
As they cheered and hooted, they were far more confident than the film actors on display, who seemed ill at ease when they stepped from their cars, like celebrity criminals ferried to a mass trial by jury at the Palais, a full-scale cultural Nuremberg furnished with film clips of the atrocities they had helped to commit.
—J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes
Posthumously ascribing prophetic qualities to defunct writers is a trite and dubious habit, but in the case of J.G. Ballard it can hardly be helped. The novelist from Shepperton, the featureless London suburb where he’d lived most of his adult life after returning from a prison camp in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, had in fact glimpsed in the murky waters of modernity the technological tadpoles that have today grown into pathogenic mutants. Moreover, Ballard had prematurely deduced that fiction was the most authentic form of reality and violence the ultimate expression of civilization. From climate change to gated communities, digital perversions to totalitarian consumerism, his novels have traveled the spinal highways of the 20th century at premonitory speed. Missives from a future past, they remain the most practical maps to navigate the maze of data, images and excessive sensations that make up our daily future. High-Rise (1975) follows the brilliant intuition of Concrete Island (1974) to further explore the anti-social implications of progress and marks a definitive departure, at least stylistically, from his experimental phase (Atrocity Exhibition  and Crash  as well as his devious advertising campaigns). Ben Wheatley’s new cinematic adaptation of High-Rise is a wasted opportunity, if not a well-meant affront to the source material. Where Ballard was an astute pathologist of social diseases, Wheatley seems to indulge in the exterior manifestation of their symptoms. While violence for the British novelist always came with an unexpected meaning and purpose, for Wheatley violence is often meaningless and morbidly lensed. Their antithetical visions of violence and its role beneath the veneer of civilized living visibly clash in this High-Rise adaptation.
There is no such thing as being faithful to a book when adapting it for the screen, for the very simple reasons that the very images the written word evokes are inevitably subjective. In Ballard’s case, then, to diligently stick to the book rather than be inspired by its fervid imagination may even be counterproductive. But that is what Wheatley seems to be doing in his film, diligently transcribing every page into images while ending up transposing none of their psycho-illogical depth. The director doesn’t have the (im)moral audacity to follow the analytical perversion with which Ballard imagines the cataclysmic life in the eponymous tower, “a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways.” Wheatley’s High-Rise is a place where decline is clearly framed as a degeneration from the established order of things. It is evinced in the choice to make Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) responsible for a suicide that in the novel remains unmotivated. In doing so the film almost reverses the “logic of the high-rise whereby those most innocent of any offence became the most guilty,” and at any rate remains hesitant to embrace Ballard’s unethical suppositions. The tower’s inhabitants, likewise, bear none of the futuristic traits sketched in Ballard’s novel: “a new social type, an unemotional personality with no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations.” Their escalating altercations look more like alcohol-fueled brawls than the sort of primal rekindling of violence Ballard outlines in his novel.
Even Wilder, the bovine cameraman who decides to scale the impenetrable heights of the high rise (magisterially played by Luke Evans), is in the film animated by a misplaced Marxist instinct, his apartment adorned with posters of Che Guevara and Karel Reisz’s Morgan. Rather than a Thatcherite premonition, as Wheatley seems to suggest at the end of his film, Ballard’s High-Rise envisioned “the vanguard of a well-to-do and well-educated proletariat of the future, boxed up in these expensive apartments with no possibility of escape” (his 2003 novel Millennium People will be precisely about that). The ecosystem we encounter in the novel is one where corporate euphoria and criminal deprivation seamlessly blend into each; the tribal wars waged between different floors are devoid of any emancipatory purpose.
While the novelist hovered above the high-rise like an omniscient narrator, the director at times resembles one of Ballard’s characters trapped in the building, recording “a moment of hoped-for violence for some later voyeuristic pleasure.” Wheatley recreates the 70s aesthetic with diligent accuracy, from the color palette to the costumes, but it is the visionary flair of Ballard’s intuitions that goes missing. Dr. Laing’s first encounter with the upper echelons of the high-rise is in the novel a sinister, enigmatic episode where the threat of danger is only evoked; in the film it is reduced to a moment of vulgar and arrogant classism. The decision to graphically reproduce an allegorical microcosm where “words introduced the wrong set of meanings into everything” didn’t pay off, as Wheatley’s film ends up feeling more like a detailed, filmed synopsis rather than a cinematic transfusion of Ballard’s visions.
The uneventful failure of Wheatley’s adaptation, though, cannot be solely attributed to the director’s questionable talent. Wheatley is in fact just the latest in a series of directors who, fascinated by Ballard’s creations, end up folding them into uninspiring reworkings. The series Anthology has organized to coincide with the US release of Wheatley’s film highlights both the things that cinema did with Ballard and, more interestingly, the films that Ballard loved, was somehow inspired by, and occasionally wrote about. It is the latter, lesser-known engagement of the novelist with cinema, rather than the other way around, that bore the most interesting results. Even a director like David Cronenberg, whose theoretical and aesthetic concerns have intersected with Ballard’s universe, was unable with his Crash adaptation to translate into images the devious richness of the book (his most Ballardian films by far remain Crimes of the Future and Shivers—the latter is playing at Anthology—though Map to the Stars also touches upon some of the topics Ballard’s late novels explored). Spielberg’s adaptation of his most straightforward, autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, as the premise suggests, is nothing memorable either. The first and last film by one Jonathan Weiss, the 2000 adaptation of The Atrocity Exhibition is as dull and linear as an experimental film can get. But read Ballard’s 1994 review for the Daily Telegraph of Marc Eliot’s Walt Disney biography, Hollywood’s Dark Prince, and the fertility of his relationship with cinema and its industry shows up in all its unsung fecundity. “A vicious anti-Semite and hater of communists who had met with the Pope and Mussolini, the creator of the world’s greatest dreams of childhood had never really known his own,” Ballard writes, and goes on to observe how “the Disney empire now merchandises nostalgia” (something The Economist corroborated in a recent article where it described the Diseny company as “the market leader in the industrialization of mythology”).
Ballard’s film commentary constitutes an overlooked part of his writing career, as well as one of the peaks in the history of film criticism. Whether writing about “punk’s Sistine Chapel” (Mad Max 2) or the “30-second ads for call-girls on New York’s Channel J (some of the most poignant mini-dramas ever made),” Ballard proved to be a committed analyst of cinema and its psycho-political implications. In 1990, in the Independent on Sunday, he mused: “I think there should be more sex and violence on television, not less. Both are powerful catalysts of social change, at a time when change is desperately needed.” Truly memorable remains his takedown of the first Star Wars for Time Out: “a technological pantomime, a massively financed stage musical where the sets and costumes are lavish but there are no tunes,” as well as “one of the most effective means of weaning your pre-teen child from any fear of, or sensitivity towards, the death of others.” Of Alphaville he said that “for the first time in the science-fiction film, Godard makes the point that in the media landscape of the present day the fantasies of science fiction are as ‘real’ as an office block, an airport or a presidential campaign.” Ballard was always deeply fascinated by the Seventh Art, which he dissected with unpredictable acumen. “The confidence of film directors, their zest and appetite for life, are nothing less than daunting, especially to the novelist, a gloomy soul sitting alone in the darkened auditorium of his own head and never certain that the lights will come on,” he once wrote. And yet film directors haven’t yet been able to treat Ballard’s work with the same creative clairvoyance with which Ballard has treated theirs.