The Adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise Challenges the Notion of What’s “Unfilmable”

Director Ben Wheatley tackles the tricky business of translating a novel of ideas

Somewhere in a future so near that it may not be the future, the occupants of a modern high-rise replete with luxuries and conveniences figuratively pull their lives in behind them, lock the door, and toss the key. Cutting themselves off from any social contract that binds the world beyond their walls, they exist according to whatever contract they strike among themselves, assuming anyone gives anyone else much thought at all; isolated from civilization’s demands, a collective notion of civilization collapses, revealing how tenuous civilization is. With the lower classes confined to the lower floors and the wealthier elite on the upper floors, the high-rise becomes its own architectural paradox; the higher the species moves, the more it descends into tribalism and barbarity. Days after seeing this movie, inexplicably titled High-Rise, you may find the building recalls the Titanic (of both film and history), with those drowning in the ship’s bowels desperately trying to claw their way upward and those on the top deck more interested in their place in the hierarchy than in the mammoth white block of ice off the starboard bow. Soon those in the high-rise fight about everything from the use of the elevators to the disruptive effect of a pregnancy, the thought of leaving the premises never crossing their minds.

High-Rise is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by the late British author J.G. Ballard, and for a project that everyone decided was unfilmable the moment the book was published, it’s received a lot of attention from prospective filmmakers over the course of four decades. When people in Hollywood declare something is unfilmable, what they’re usually saying is, “I’m neither smart enough to grasp the essence of the story nor imaginative enough to consider filmmaking in anything but the most strictly literal terms, ergo this is unfilmable.” But as proved by reasonably successful adaptations of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient in the late 1980s and 1990s, nothing is unfilmable any more than anything is unwritable, though in the case of Ballard the argument does admittedly become exquisite. Part of the impact of Ballard’s High-Rise lies in its morally neutral tone. “Later,” the novel begins, “as he sat on his balcony eating the dog….,” shocking us with a casual offhandedness that’s lost the moment the image is visualized—a dilemma that David Cronenberg, not much given to visual subtlety in the first place, ran into with his 1996 translation of Ballard’s Crash and its erotic fetishization of modern vehicular mayhem.

Most dauntingly for filmmakers, Ballard’s narratives aren’t so much structurally fractured and emotionally abstract—although they can be both—as driven by ideas, with whatever human drama the story holds becoming a function of those ideas rather than the other way around. This renders the ideas that much harder to dramatize. A literature of ideas is nothing new: If it didn’t begin around Voltaire’s Candide in the 18th century, maybe it was with Cervantes’ Don Quixote at the dawn of the 17th. While a novelist’s aesthetic preference is usually to subvert ideas to the drama because, reasonably, readers want stories about people, just as reasonably an author like Ballard fears his ideas will get lost in the melodrama, which he’s unwilling to risk when the ideas are what engage his interest in the first place. We certainly wouldn’t want every novelist to write like Ballard, but we should be glad at least one does, and to subject his work and its concerns to conventional critical objections has always missed the point. Ballard’s closest American corollary is Philip K. Dick, who’s been turned into a whole Hollywood industry in the past 35 years, the most famous Dick adaptation being Blade Runner, which, it’s always helpful to remind ourselves, was a critical and box-office failure before it subsequently drifted under everyone’s radar into the cinema pantheon.

Director David Cronenberg on the set of his version of Ballard’s Crash
Director David Cronenberg on the set of his version of Ballard’s Crash

Photo courtesy of the Everett Collection

Blade Runner is as instructive an example of how to visually translate a novel of ideas as another more recent Dick adaptation isn’t. One of the best-looking and most meticulously produced series this side of Game of Thrones, last year’s The Man in the High Castle from Amazon (based on Dick’s 1962 alternate-history opus) nonetheless marginalizes Dick’s themes for the sake of routine characters and conflicts that have little to do with the novel. This isn’t an argument about fidelity to the original story. Blade Runner doesn’t always resemble Dick’s original Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? either, but even when Blade Runner isn’t faithful to every character and plot device, it’s true to Dick’s preoccupation with not just the nature of reality but the nature of humanity, about which the author is more sympathetic—if no less despairing—than Ballard, to whom it’s only a matter of time before we’re eating our pets. Later, Dick would move onto his Really Big Idea, the nature of God, in novels such as Ubik, Valis, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, none of which has been made into a movie despite thwarted attempts, probably because they’re, you know, unfilmable. The idea that Ballard’s and Dick’s books share—with each other as well as with recent movies and television shows like Mad Max: Fury Road, Melancholia, The Walking Dead, The 100, Snowpiercer, The Leftovers, Falling Skies, These Final Hours, and World War Z, along with classic apocalyptic touchstones of the past 20 years, from The Matrix to Battlestar Galactica—is the end of the world as we know it, by God’s hand or by our own.

The conceit of the city is that it rests at the top of civilization’s evolutionary chain. If nothing else, as the doctor in High-Rise, Tom Hiddleston is urbane, with its extra e that supposedly evolves the urban toward elegance. Living just a few floors above his tower’s midpoint, he moves his way up the building socially and psychologically, if not economically and logistically, to the top, where lives Jeremy Irons, architect of the high-rise and his own inevitable destruction when the 39 floors beneath him rise up in resentment and revolution. As filmed by Doctor Who director Ben Wheatley, High-Rise fluctuates between the cerebral and the visceral, aimed at the mind and gut while missing the heart or, more precisely, raising the question whether a heart exists to be missed or, even more precisely, raising the question whether the heart’s absence was J.G. Ballard’s whole point. Tellingly the warmest film adaptation of Ballard’s work is Steven Spielberg’s 1987 Empire of the Sun; more telling is that it’s the coolest of all Spielberg’s movies, by which I don’t mean hippest. Too loyal to his literary source, Wheatley presumably realized along the way that committing himself to a novel of ideas meant turning it into a film of spectacle, a pageant of decadence and a portrait of humankind at its most debased. The result is a futurist Satyricon, which was itself a novel of ideas in the first century, about a guy on the top floor named Nero who sang and played harp as civilization was consumed by the fire he set himself.