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18 March 2016

What would J G Ballard have made of the new High-Rise film?

Ben Wheatley’s screen adaptation of Ballard's novel brings its dry wit to the fore.

By Will Self

Of the film adaptations that had been made of his work during his lifetime, J G 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.

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, since 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.

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In Ballard’s novel, the eponymous high-rise is presciently sited where One Canada Square, the iconically dull centrepiece of Canary Wharf, raised its ugly, pyramidal head a decade or so later; and although the notion of a war between social classes occupying higher and lower floors of a giant tower block might, in the mid-1970s, have seemed to be taking flight from the perceived problems of brutalist public housing, Ballard’s tale anticipates the London skyline of today, with its row upon row of “luxury” apartment blocks, inflated into salience by global gusts of flight capital.

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It is difficult to locate the site of Wheatley’s and Jump’s high-rise precisely – the film was shot on location in the old Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast but there is a teasing ambiguity in the medium and long shots, with London seemingly ever hovering on the smoggy horizons. Perhaps the boldest decision that the film-makers have made, however, is to set their adaptation not in the near-future of 2016 but in that of 1974. Ballard once said that he was only interested in what will happen in “the next five minutes”; and it is undoubtedly this ­enthusiasm for the inchoate that gives his tales their air of the unexpected. By reverse-engineering an imagined future in which men with handlebar moustaches ply cine cameras while saturnalian suburbanites trash their futuristic pads, Wheatley and Jump have introduced a perverse note of humour to what is otherwise a very grim series of events.

Towards the end of his life, Ballard said to me that he regretted not having been able to write in a more ludic, or even comic vein. I remember remonstrating with him: Millennium People, his penultimate novel, had just been published and I thought it was suffused with the tinder-dry wit that was present in the rest of his oeuvre but only faintly. Now comes an adaptation of High-Rise which brings that dry wit to the fore. It may not be everyone’s idea of a laugh-out-loud film but, frankly, who cares what ­everyone thinks? I don’t – and nor, quite obviously, did Ballard.

“High Rise” (certificate 15) is in cinemas from 18 March

This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue