Finally, someone has found a way to adapt JG Ballard successfully for the cinema. Until now he was better suited to providing excellent band names (Comsat Angels) or grim song titles (Atrocity Exhibition) for 1970s-80s post-punk bands. Ballard’s work defiantly resists adaptation. He is an obsessive and an imagist. He doesn’t do plot, he just examines his nightmarish scenarios and mentally collapsing protagonists from every conceivable angle, rather than offering neatly structured climaxes. His dialogue is functional. In conventional outer space sci-fi you can have fun with spaceships, ray-guns and special effects, but Ballard’s “inner space” is far harder to capture.
Why JG Ballard’s High-Rise takes dystopian science fiction to a new level
High-Rise, the most outwardly conventional of Ballard’s 70s steel-and-glass novels, has famously been a property in development ever since it was published, attracting and defeating numerous adapters. Too many of these involved screenwriters superimposing their own ideas upon Ballard’s scenario and killing its internal balance. Ben Wheatley and his partner-editor-scenarist Amy Jump, however, have made several decisions that honour both the novel of 1975 and the cinematic needs of 2016. Firstly, they set the movie in its original period, the mid-70s, in the aftermath of Ernő Goldfinger, the Ronan Point collapse, brutalism and the sorrowful postwar migration from backstreet slums to suburbs in the sky. They have not unnecessarily filled in Ballard’s vacant characters, instead allowing the collective psychosis that grips the high-rise to remain the film’s protagonist. As a handyman puts it: “I don’t work for you, I work for the building.”
he pair also understand that Ballard was, first and foremost, a sublime imagist and they pack every frame with their own audacious pictorialism. Much of it partakes freely of the great British movies of the period, an age of big, mad projects financed by the last US studio money then remaining in Britain. Think of Ken Russell at his Tommy/Lisztomania high tide, or Nicolas Roeg’s menacing reds. Recall the queasy insanity of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital; Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; or those psycho-house movies that bookend the 1960s, The Servant and Performance. And, at a distance, remember Cronenberg’s contemporaneous Shivers (1975), filmed in Montreal’s minatory Nuns’ Island apartment complex, designed by Mies van der Rohe; or the Gropiusstadt of 60s Berlin, which gave us both Christiane F and Bowie’s Neuköln. And, oh yes, Pasolini’s The 120 Days Of Sodom, just for good measure.
A single viewing of High-Rise does not let it settle quietly in the mind. I expect to mine it 10 more times. For now, I know this: in Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, 21st-century Britain has found its postmodern Powell and Pressburger.
High-Rise is released in cinemas on 18 March