JG Ballard’s ‘unfilmable’ novel is realised
JG Ballard’s novel was thought unfilmable but Jeremy Thomas proved the naysayers wrong, writes Anna Russell
In the opening sequence of High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s new film adaptation of JG Ballard’s classic novel, Tom Hiddleston’s character listens to a record on his balcony, smokes a cigarette and barbecues a neighbour’s pet dog. “For all its inconveniences,” says a voice-over, “Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise.”
British producer Jeremy Thomas is satisfied as well. Since the late 1970s he has wanted to bring Ballard’s tale of dystopian living in a luxury apartment building to the big screen.
After he secured the rights to the book in 2003, a series of botched attempts left the idea languishing for a decade. But Thomas remained convinced it could work. “Some projects take years,” he says. “A producer like me waits.”
Published in 1975, Ballard’s novel follows a young doctor, Robert Laing, who moves into a sleek new building after his divorce. One by one the complex’s amenities begin to fail and the residents descend into tribal warfare.
The film, which also stars Jeremy Irons and Elisabeth Moss, came out in Britain in March to generally positive — if perplexed — reviews.
Surreal and dryly funny, Ballard’s works have a cult following, especially in his native Britain. Musicians from Joy Division to Madonna have claimed him as an influence, but relatively few filmmakers have attempted to adapt his books. Of the author’s myriad novels and short stories, only a few have had mainstream adaptations, including Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, from 1987, and David Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash, which Thomas also produced.
High-Rise belongs to a small cadre of literary classics, including John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, that have been called unfilmable.
High-Rise isn’t the first of Thomas’s projects to require a long incubation period. It took him 16 years to bring Kon-Tiki, about adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, to the screen. But he’d thought about Ballard’s books even longer. “He’s a guy who gets under your skin,” says Thomas.
He began “sniffing around” a High-Rise ad- aptation in the late 70s with director Nicolas Roeg, but rights to the book were unavailable.
After Crash he tried again and was successful — but still faced the problem of finding a screenwriter and funding. At least two serious attempts, one with Cube director Vincenzo Natali, failed.
By the time Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump approached Thomas in 2013, they faced a “stack of scripts”, all discarded, says the director. Part of the difficulty lies with the text itself. Ballard’s novel begins at the end, sometime in the near future. It is violent, with little dialogue, and most of the humour comes from the author’s sly descriptions of residents. There’s no hero or real villain and — spoiler alert — no happy ending.
“It’s not a story that’s driven by plot, it’s a story that’s driven by ideas,” Hiddleston says. “Ideas around class struggle, ideas around the superficial veneer of English manners. The depiction of the violence and promiscuity that takes place within the building I think perhaps has seemed daunting to other filmmakers.”
In 2013 Wheatley and Jump, who are married, had just finished A Field in England, a trippy historical thriller, and were casting about for a new project. Wheatley saw High-Rise on his shelf and wondered why it hadn’t been done.
In Britain Wheatley has built a reputation for pulling off innovative films on a shoestring budget. Sightseers (2012), about a couple on a road trip who go on a killing spree, was made for £1.3 million, his highest outlay for a feature film before High-Rise. With backing from the British Film Institute and Film4, among others, High Rise secured a budget of £6.1m.
Jump wrote the script on spec, without reading the previous attempts. She added a voiceover and dialogue, based on interviews Ballard gave during his lifetime, and increased the role of women and children. Most significantly, the duo chose to set the film in the period in which the book was written instead of in the future, something others hadn’t attempted.
“It made sense originally to always set it in the future,” Wheatley says. “But by the time you get so far away from the 1970s to now, it makes less sense. It’s almost like it breaks the book.”
In other ways, the couple stuck closely to Ballard’s text. “We didn’t want to bend the book too much to cinema,” Wheatley says. In one rewrite, they left out the book’s opening. But they soon restored it. “Ballard is obviously a master storyteller and he’s done this on purpose, and woe betide the person who f..ks with the structure of his book,” Wheatley says.
High-Rise opens on August 18.
Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise