JG Ballard and the Cinema of the Millennium

When a fiction writer’s work is referred to as ‘cinematic’, the description is not only usually a cliché; it’s also often inaccurate. Mostly, that term is used to describe a heightened sense of narrative propulsion, but there’s nothing inherently cinematic about that (if anything, it better describes television). However, there are some writers for whom the term is apt—perhaps none more so than the English novelist JG Ballard. 

It’s not that Ballard’s fiction ever lacked for story, action, or character, so much as his greatest quality was his ability to extract complex psychological insight, metaphorical power, and terrible beauty from sheer imagery. As such, he had far more in common with the early masters of silent cinema and the arthouse auteurs of the European New Wave than not only most other prose writers, but most filmmakers working today. 

But Ballard’s cinematic lineage runs deeper than just his abilities as an imagist. Over the last 50 years, a handful of films have sprung from his work, establishing a canon of Ballardian cinema worthy of his radical and prophetic literary legacy.

Ballard, who died in 2009 at the age of 79, was one of the great post-war writers of science and speculative fiction, although it’s too limiting to define him simply as an SF author. Although many of his short stories and novels were set among the stars or ruins of a post-apocalyptic earth, his most daring and original work looked not at outer space, but inner space, and not into the far-flung future, but, as he himself put it, “five minutes from now.”

His run of novels during the turbulent decade of the Seventies—including The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973) and High Rise (1975), each of which would eventually be adapted to film—take place amidst the bland but ominous structures that came to define modernity at the time, particular the newly rebuilt England following World War II: sky-high apartment tenements and office buildings, serpentine freeways, cathedral-like shopping centers and, importantly, the cinematheques. 

But Ballard was just as obsessed with the corporeal power of the cinematic image, as well as the sinister ephemera it spawned: namely, a culture of celebrity worship driven by twinned obsessions with sex and death. Doomed and notorious figures of Hollywood, such as Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Jayne Mansfield, play important roles in his speculative fictions, alongside idols of power like John F. Kennedy, the atom bomb, and the Vietnam War. Ballard eventually lighted upon the perfect apotheosis of both in actor-turned-California governor (and eventual President), Ronald Reagan, whom he wrote about in The Atrocity Exhibition in an infamous chapter titled “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” (Unsurprisingly, that book was deemed obscene and briefly banned in parts of England.)

The same year that novel was published, Ballard penned the treatment for Hammer Film’s When the Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (a sequel to their 1966 remake of One Million Years B.C.) which he swiftly disowned. Prior to this, Ballard’s only direct connection to the film industry came by way of an adaptation of his short story “Thirteen to Centaurus” on the BBC anthology series Out of the Unknown. In 1971, he wrote, starred in and narrated Harley Cokeliss short Crash!, an experimental adaptation not of his furiously controversial 1973 novel—about a group of lost souls bound to one another by their shared sexual fetish for automotive violence—but a chapter from The Atrocity Exhibition which served as the genesis for that later book. 

Given the graphic violence, proud perversity, and experimental nature of most of Ballard’s writing, it was hardly surprising his work didn’t beget any feature-length adaptations during the first 25 years of his career. But that all changed in 1984 with the publication of Empire of the Sun.

Inspired by his real-life childhood experiences as a POW in a Shanghai concentration camp during World War II, Empire of the Sun bestowed upon Ballard a newfound sense of mainstream recognition and acclaim (despite the novel being as brutal and unsettling as any of his previous works). It wasn’t long until Hollywood came calling, with Warner Brothers purchasing the rights and setting up David Lean to direct, with Tom Stoppard on scripting duties and Steven Spielberg onboard as a producer. However, Lean bowed out before production got underway, leading Spielberg to take his place.

On paper Spielberg seems simultaneously the best and worst possible choice of director to tackle Ballard. Although the two men share a number of overriding interests—science fiction, World War II, stories about orphans—on an emotional and stylistic level, they could hardly seem more disparate: Spielberg the great director of populist entertainment and American mythmaking; Ballard the chilly, intellectual English doomsayer of post-modernity.

This contrast is readily apparent throughout Empire of the Sun, which for the most part elides the wanton brutality of the Boschian hellscape Ballard describes in great detail, while bringing to the fore a sentimentality entirely absent from the original novel. (One might argue no movie could adequately capture the book’s true scope of horror…except for the fact that Elmer Kilmov’s Come and See exists.) Yet, Spielberg manages to retain enough of the book’s unsettling qualities that it never feels like a full-on betrayal, and during its best moments—such as an awe-inspiring set-piece that begins with an induction ceremony for Japanese kamikaze pilots and ends with a spectacular American bombing raid, or a dreamlike vision of the atomic explosion over Hiroshima—it viscerally expresses the best of both Spielberg and Ballard. Ballard, for his part, was an enormous admirer of the film (in particular, the central performance of a young Christian Bale as his teenage self).

With the exception of another short film based on one of Ballard’s early stories—1991’s Minus One—it would take almost another decade until someone embarked upon another feature length adaptation of his work. This time, however, there was no question as to the director’s suitability.

There may be no director/author match more obvious or inevitable than David Cronenberg and JG Ballard. Along with their shared obsessions with biomechanical fetishism, pathology, surrealist art, modernist literature, evolutionary theory, institutionalization and experimental therapies, the expanding power of the surveillance state, and the artistry of the automobile (Cronenberg has been a lifelong a motorcycle fanatic and gearhead), the trajectories of their careers are remarkably similar, with both men starting out as cult favorites best known for their genre efforts before achieving something akin to mainstream success even as they retained their singular transgressive visions. 

The same year—1975—that Ballard published High Rise, his darkly funny horror novel about an ultra-lux apartment complex on the outskirts of London whose tenants are driven into a state of violent and sexual frenzy, Cronenberg released his first full-length feature, Shivers…a darkly funny horror movie about an ultra-lux apartment complex on the outskirts of Montreal whose tenants are driven into a state of violent and sexual frenzy.

Following Cronenberg’s radical adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ infamous novel Naked Lunch (one of the major influences on Ballard’s own fiction), he decided to tackle another seemingly unfilmable book by way of Crash. Five years later, he managed to pull it off, updating Ballard’s chilling and deviant novel of symphorophilia to tell a tale of yuppie malaise transformed into a violent and self-destructive quest for a “benevolent psychopathology.” The result is an repulsive and seductive film that serves as the ultimate road’s end to a generation of erotic thrillers. It’s also the best End of History—or pre-9/11—movie of its time, sharing many of the same themes as the likes of Fight Club or American Beauty, but aging far better than both.

As with the original novel, notoriety has followed Cronenberg’s film since its furiously controversial release, but over time it has been solidified as one of his best films, with a sterling new Criterion Collection edition due out this week. More importantly, Ballard himself was effusive in his praise for the film, saying “”[It’s] actually better than the book. It goes further than the book and is much more powerful and dynamic. It’s terrific.”

The next few years saw two more Ballard adaptations come to fruition: Jonathan Weiss’s adaptation proper of The Atrocity Exhibition (2000) and Swedish director Solveig Nordlund’s Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude, based on the writer’s post-apocalyptic short story “Low Flying Aircraft”. Like the title of the latter, both films flew under the radar and remain little seen or known today, with The Atrocity Exhibition almost impossible to track down (full disclosure: all my attempts to watch it have failed). Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude is, at current, easy enough to watch online (although not by strictly legal means), and it comes highly recommended for Ballard completists. Trading in similar ideas as Children of Men and Cronenberg’s The Brood, it’s a spare and surrealist adaptation that convincingly conveys the scope and feeling of Ballard’s apocalyptic vision in spite of its miniscule budget. For his part, Ballard admired the film—as well as the The Atrocity Exhibition–very much.

(In 2003, the BBC produced another television adaptation of Ballard with Home, based off his short story “The Enormous Room”. The hour-long film sees a suburban Londoner voluntarily restrict himself from leaving his house while recording his descent into madness…or perhaps enlightenment. Needless to say, the already unnerving story takes on newly disturbing dimensions in this current age of COVID.)

In 2015, English director Ben Wheatley managed to pull off nearly as impressive a feat as Cronenberg getting Crash to screen by directing an adaptation of High Rise (which, for several years, had sat in development hell with Cube director Vincenzo Natali attached). Granted, that novel does not contain as aggressively off-putting a plot as the former—although given that it opens with a man casually eating an Andalusian Hound, it’s hardly four quadrant material—but it is also a much larger and more ambitious story. That Wheatley was able to get it made at all, let alone with the proper scope and grandeur (and featuring a star-studded cast lead by Tom Hiddleston), in this day and age, is an achievement all its own.

As a whole, the film is a success, although it’s the most flawed of all the Ballard adaptations. Hueing closely to the novel for the most part (it even retains the ‘70s setting), Wheatley creates an exhausting portrait of hell, but one in which the shock and horror is often lost within his many stylistic flourishes, as well as the movie’s baggy runtime. More egregious yet is Wheatley (and screenwriter Amy Jump) jettisoning the novel’s chilling ouroboros ending in favor of unnecessary and muddled anti-Thatcherite messaging. Ultimately, for all of its admirable qualities, High Rise still feels like the second-best film version of the story, given that Shivers already exists. One wonders what Ballard would have thought of the film had he lived to see it. 

On that score, one wonders what he’d make of the state of cinema as it stands today. A prolific film critic in his own right, it seems likely Ballard would have been dismayed by the way media conglomerates (with the backing of the military industrial complex) have used science fiction stories to infantilize audiences and flood the market with artless, sexless Corporate Product. 

On the other hand, Ballard might not find things so bad. In his introduction to a recent drive-in screening of the new 4K version of Crash, Cronenberg quoted Ballard’s description of the ideal way to watch the film: “It would be best seen in a car that was traveling 100 miles an hour.” Given that such a viewing is now entirely achievable, the cinema of the millennium might be exactly how he always dreamed it.

“Crash” is out on Blu-ray tomorrow from the Criterion Collection.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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