J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise has struggled to find its way to the big screen since its release in 1975. Producer Jeremy Thomas tried to get an adaptation going for years, with Nicolas Roeg set to direct at one point. David Cronenberg may have been a good choice, seeing as he adapted Ballard’s Crash in 1996 and has shown in his films similar themes and ideas to the author. It may have been too familiar, as Cronenberg’s Shivers also explored an outbreak of violence and hedonism in an apartment building, a film that oddly enough was released the same year as Ballard’s book. Jeremy Thomas saw Ben Wheatley’s 2013 film Sightseers, another film about ordinary people revealing a darker primal intent, before he was approached by the director to bring the long-gestating project to life.
Amy Jump, long-time collaborator with (and partner of) Wheatley, wrote the screenplay with him in the director’s chair. While Jump apparently prefers to let her work speak for itself, the director has spoken about the film numerous times as he toured England with the film earlier this year. Cronenberg’s Crash was cold and mechanical, but with High-Rise Jump and Wheatley brought out the humour in Ballard’s writing. From Den of Geek:
“Well, I think the book’s very funny. And we wanted to make an adaptation of the book that was close to the book! I mean, why adapt a great writer and then throw out all the stuff that works in the novel? You see it a lot where these films get made and they just jettison all the interesting stuff and then basically only use the title”
This approach was applied to the film’s setting too, as the decision was made to keep the story set in the 1970s rather than bringing it into the modern era. The book was made in a very particular time, with the rise of Thatcherism and the excess of the 1980s just around the corner. The brutalist modernity of the new urban developments were symbolic of what the future held for Britain, a relentless surge forward in the name of progress that Ballard was highly sceptical of. Keeping it in that era was a good decision to tap into these issues, while the mere fact of its existence as a 2016 film further complicates its status. There’s a sense of dread and inevitability to the ensuing violence, as we are looking back to a past looking to its future. There’s a personal edge here that the English filmmakers use to connect to the story:
Amy and I have an axe to grind – or a perspective on the material, should I say – because of our ages. We’d have been the same ages as the kids in the tower, while Laing, Wilder and Charlotte would have been the same age as our parents.
This is an interesting note to take, as the only child who has a notable presence in the film is Charlotte’s son Toby. He is mostly quiet, and frequently ignored by the adults in the building – whether they’re socialising or raiding each other’s rooms for food. He is a passive observer, with his thoughts on the situation undisclosed. Anthony Royal contemplates the future of the building and its inhabitants, but is blinded by his own arrogance and prejudice. When Laing asks Toby what he sees, looking through his kaleidoscope, he replies “the future”.
There are inevitably some alterations when moving from one medium to another. High-Rise is astoundingly faithful to the original book, despite the fact most of its scenes are newly conceived. Ballard’s novel was often referred to as “unfilmable”, and that mostly came down to the fact that there is very little dialogue and a surprising lack of character interaction. It descends into a series of random events that set the scene of dysfunction and tribalism, but wouldn’t translate easily to a film. Charlotte and Helen are given much more screen time than fans of the novel may expect, and the journey of the women in the building is much more prominent than its stealthy background status in the novel. The omission that stuck out most to me was Laing’s sister. She’s referred to a few times by Laing as recently deceased, a trauma in his past that he’s escaping from. In the book, however, she is alive and living in the same high-rise on one of the lower floors. There’s a slight uncomfortable sexual tension between the two of them, which is effectively transferred to Helen in the film. It’s not a direct translation, but Helen takes on a similar role in some ways. This kind of streamlining is necessary to make a film work, as literature has a lot more time to envelop you in its world. Other scenes, such as the ostentatious penthouse parties, follow the basic path of the original story, but amp it up for the sake of cinematic effect:
I think it would have worked to do it exactly as it was in the book, but it would have appeared a lot calmer and more reasonable. In film you just have far less time and space to get across information, full stop. But that’s even truer when it comes to character and setting. Reading a book is very different to watching a movie as the reader controls the pacing to an extent. I mean, you can go back and re-read certain sections as many times as you like, whereas when you work in a time based medium like film you just don’t have that luxury
The film uses the strangely-paced, obscure structure of the novel to jump forward in time as its pleases, and create its own scenes that establish character and place. I believe this was the best route to take, even if it means the film loses its energy in the final act just as the book does. Ballard’s novel is told from the perspectives of Laing, Wilder, and Royal, and much of the major events that take place are remembered or interpreted through these viewpoints. The most impressive thing Amy Jump did with her screenplay is externalise these internal monologues through action and dialogue.
A faithful adaptation doesn’t just mean it copied the events as closely as possible. It’s about an exchange of ideas into a new format, and the ways in which cinema expresses itself is very different from literature. Jump and Wheatley understood that to make it work, the perspective and structure needed to be modified. This means the addition and ejection of material that can’t be communicated to a cinema audience, depending on what is true to the philosophy of its source. High-Rise has the same anarchic, cynical-yet-playful spirit as its 1975 counterpart, and this is the best possible outcome of its tumultuous journey to the screen.
All Quotes: Den of Geek
Featured Image: StudioCanal