JG Bal­lard’s ‘un­filmable’ novel is re­alised

JG Bal­lard’s novel was thought un­filmable but Jeremy Thomas proved the naysay­ers wrong, writes Anna Rus­sell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

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