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In Defence of the Virtual: A Secret History of Ballardian Film Adaptations

Author: • Mar 12th, 2012 •

Category: alternate worlds, CCTV, Chris Marker, David Cronenberg, features, film, Lead Story, Philip K. Dick, Shepperton, Solveig Nordlund, surveillance

by Simon Sellars

Originally published in the Norwegian-language magazine Vagant, May-August 2011, pp. 10-11. It appears here in English for the first time.

In 1986, child actor Christian Bale made his breakthrough in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a film based on the wartime experiences of J.G. Ballard. Recently, Bale announced he was returning to Ballard in a forthcoming adaptation of Concrete Island, with Brad Anderson directing (a collaboration first mooted in 2005). This was exciting news for Ballard fans, following the hype surrounding Vincenzo Natali’s proposed adaptation of High-Rise, Ballard’s follow up to Concrete Island. Will these projects eventuate? Natali’s involvement was originally announced in 2002 with little progress made since, save for a mock poster showing the eponymous building, clearly modelled after the Burj Khalifa, plonked in the middle of the ocean (a far cry from the novel’s urban-London apartment block). Ballard’s work, seemingly more than most authors, has generated several failed adaptations and odds are that Natali’s efforts, and possibly Bale and Anderson’s, will similarly fall away.

Ballard is a highly visual writer, with references to Surrealist art and film peppering his work from his first published short story, ‘Prima Belladonna’ (1956), to his final novel Kingdom Come (2006). Unsurprisingly, these atmospheric narratives have influenced many artists and generated many attempts to film them. Almost every one of his novels has been optioned for film at some point along with a few short stories, yet the only features that have so far seen the light of day have been Empire and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), based on Ballard’s infamous 1973 novel, as well as two low-budget, independent productions: Jonathan Weiss’s The Atrocity Exhibition (2000), from Ballard’s 1970 experimental novel, and Solveig Nordlund’s excellent Portuguese-language Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (2002), from Ballard’s 1976 short story, ‘Low-Flying Aircraft’.

I’m editing a collection of Ballard interviews, and one consistent theme in the 70s and 80s interviews is Ballard’s regret about never cracking the American market. For such a lauded and influential writer, it is eternally surprising that his books still do not have a US publisher. But his American stocks might have been very different if a few more of those film options had come to fruition, an observation brought home after reading David Pringle’s 1990 conversation with Ballard published in Fear magazine. There is much tantalising detail about these film projects that disappear into thin air – what we might term ‘vapourware films’ – including the news that Spielberg’s partner Kathy Kennedy was keen to option Ballard’s novella Running Wild (1988) a couple of years after Empire. Ballard, however, feared it was ‘slightly too strong a dish for Spielberg’ while speculating that ‘one of those John Carpenter directors might have fun with it’.

If only…

John Carpenter’s They Live.

Carpenter’s They Live (1988) perfectly matches the consumerist paranoia of Ballard’s 1963 short story ‘The Subliminal Man’, coming on like homage in parts. Dawn of the Dead (1978), directed by Carpenter’s friend and contemporary George Romero, is also completely in tune with Ballard’s attack on consumer culture, and its scenes of resistance fighters holed up in an abandoned shopping centre against hordes of invading zombies anticipates Kingdom Come, which replicates the premise entirely (even if the ‘zombies’ in Ballard’s version are more metaphorical than literal undead). In the Pringle interview, Ballard talks of stalled development on a proposed film of The Day of Creation (1987), before complaining that ‘nobody has ever got it together’ to film Concrete Island, despite the fact it has ‘been continuously optioned ever since it was published’ and that it ‘would be quite easy and cheap to film’. Will Bale and Anderson buck this trend? Given this track record, it’s unlikely.

But the biggest revelation is that Richard Gere wanted to make a film of Ballard’s suburban fantasy The Unlimited Dream Company (1979). Gere, a practising Buddhist, was keen on the book, with its focus on the reincarnation of the central character in a phantasmagorical version of Shepperton, Ballard’s home town. Gere’s star was soaring at that time, riding the crest of Pretty Woman (1990), so the film would doubtless have exposed Ballard similarly, the way Spielberg also pulled him into the mainstream.

Vapourware: Samuel L Jackson in Running Wild (with dialogue from the novella): Ballardé with cheese?

Gere is not the only Hollywood star to fall into the Ballardian orbit. In 2009, Samuel L. Jackson was associated with a vapourware version of Running Wild, although typically nothing has been heard since. It boggles the mind more than Gere. How could Jackson’s larger-than-life, cartoon-Hollywood persona possibly downscale to play the flat, cypher-like detective in this sublime, intense novella about CCTV, surveillance and psychopathology? Ballardé with cheese seems the only outcome. In the 70s, cult English writer Heathcote Williams wrote a script for Crash, optioned with Jack Nicholson to star. According to a 1983 interview with Ballard, this was to be set in Los Angeles with American characters, and ‘was almost Disneyfied – “Walt Disney Productions presents Crash!”.’ It’s unclear if Nicholson was to play the novel’s ‘James Ballard’ character or Vaughan, the sex-and-death obsessed shaman, but imagine the possibilities if the latter. Nicholson’s famously over-the-top Joker would have nothing on this insane piece of casting. Imagine the hypermanic Jack Nicholson of the late 1970s fucking the car-crash-induced leg wounds of Vaughan’s willing victims.

Outside Hollywood, there have been many tantalising near-misses. In the mid-70s, brilliant Nic Roeg was slated to direct High-Rise from a script by Paul Mayersberg, and in the 80s even Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) wrote a High-Rise script. But perhaps my favourite vapourware production was the mooted version of Ballard’s surreal science-fiction novel The Crystal World (1966), designed as a vehicle for the wonderful actor Jean Seberg, from a script by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, directed by towering cultural critic Susan Sontag. Surely this match up would have satisfied the legion of arthouse nerds who reckon Spielberg sentimentalised Ballard or who attack Cronenberg for reducing Ballard to soft porn.

Vapourware: Jean Seberg as Louise in Susan Sontag’s The Crystal World.

Aside from the harsh economic realities of commercial filmmaking, why did all these projects fail to happen? Cinematically, Ballard’s work, especially his early experimental fiction, seems tailormade for adaptation. It is naturally interesting to filmmakers because it already draws upon a number of filmic techniques at the same time as it aims to reflect, through a formal experimentation, the virtuality of a wraparound media landscape manifest in mass consumerism and advertising. As such, it presents a kind of model of adaptation, but one that, curiously, none of the filmmakers tackling his work have followed. Ballard’s writing invites adaptation by virtue of its form, with chapters often reading like film scripts. In the Atrocity chapters, for example, and short stories ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964) and ‘The 60 Minute Zoom’ (1976), it even comes complete with scene placement, exposition of character movement and camera directions. Yet this problematises any attempt to transmute the work into the medium of film because, in a sense, Ballard’s writing is already film adapted into literature, and as such, peculiarly resistant to any attempts to back translate it – to transfer it from the ‘Ballardian’ back into cinema.

Perhaps, then, ‘Ballardian cinema’ can only exist not in a direct linear relationship as suggested by the adaptation process but in parallel with the writing – as in the work of Tarkovsky, Marker and Godard, which Ballard’s writing closely resembles. Indeed, experimental film technique, incorporated into the fabric of Ballard’s earlier work, was designed to reveal the ‘true’ nature of perception, time and memory. Echoing Deleuze’s philosophical analysis of the cinema of the ‘time-image’, this writing utilises ‘nodes of resistance’ in post-war cinema. Ballard deployed the techniques of the French nouvelle vague (‘jump cuts’ in his writing: scenes abruptly shifting, temporally and geographically; ‘slow motion’ narrative descriptions; cypher-characters) as revealing the truth of the merger between the virtual and the actual that was a product of the burgeoning 60s media landscape. In Ballard’s later work, this thesis remains, even as the tropes of ‘outsider’, experimental filmmaking are abandoned in favour of a prose that surveys late capitalism from inside the camera – from the perspective of a world in thrall to reality television and surveillance as mass entertainment, a world in which experimental filmmaking has become as commodifed as any other product.

In a 2003 article, Chris Darke tried to analyse what a ‘Ballardian’ cinema might look like in the wake of Britain’s obsession with CCTV and public surveillance, before deciding that Ballard’s prophetic powers, which so accurately predicted this state of affairs, negates the need for a process of direct adaptation. Referring to the work of Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, who take Ballard as an influence for their books and films, he writes: ‘Petit and Sinclair have never done anything so vulgar as attempting to “adapt” a Ballard fiction. They understand too well that we now live in the landscape that Ballard has been faithfully anatomising and populating with characters since the 1960s. Why bother “adapting” when you can hit the motorway and find all the sets, the actors, and the (CCTV) camera positions ready and waiting for you?’

CCTV screenshot: somewhere, anywhere…

This seems another compelling reason why Ballard’s work has been so resistant to adaptation. But another could be because the idea, the raison d’être, of Ballard’s work is that it is designed to be more powerful in the imagination of the reader than in any ‘definitive’ attempt to fix it in visual terms. Ballard’s work has always contained a degree of enigma, of open-endedness, from its use of similes providing many layers of meaning to its affectless characters less ‘human’ than the technological landscape, which conversely appears sentient and ‘alive’. Individual readers have many different interpretations of Ballard’s writing, which is probably why, in contrast, say, to Philip K. Dick, it’s hard to think of an author who boasts a direct, formal Ballardian influence in their writing style. Perhaps this also explains why filmmakers have also been so thoroughly defeated by Ballard. The enigma of his writing, its resistance to interpretation, is what makes it so vibrant and memorable, and on some level conforms to his long-standing manifesto to utilise ‘the power of the imagination to remake the world’. For Ballard, the imagination, in all its vagaries and virtualities, even psychopathologies, must be preserved like ‘the last nature reserve, a place of refuge for the endangered mind’, a necessary corrective when fighting the long-standing resistance war against a consumer culture in which memory and imagination is outsourced to a variety of products and technologies that do all the imaginative work for us.

How can any adaptation hope to encompass that? Attempts to pin that capacity down to one visual interpretation must surely lead to failure. That’s why, paradoxically, the vapourware films of Ballard’s work are perhaps the most successful ‘adaptations’ of them all. Far more than Spielberg or Cronenberg – who, after all, have built up enough clout and independence to present very recognisable ‘Steven Spielberg’ or ‘David Cronenberg’ productions for any project they work on, regardless of the original source – Ballard’s vapourware adaptations linger in the mind the longest, as each and every one of us tries to grapple with the idea of Richard Gere flying through the air above boring English suburbs or Jack Nicholson having sex with car-crash victims in airport carparks. As the saying goes, the results are left very much ‘to the imagination’. Despite the frustration of not seeing these partnerships realised, that’s the fun of vapourware films: imagining the film worlds that might have happened in a parallel universe where the stars align very differently, ghost-traces along the forking paths of virtuality, each leading to different films that begin to emerge in the mind’s eye.

Myself, whenever I think of Romero, I imagine yet another parallel world in which Kingdom Come was written in the late 70s. George Romero had read the book, after his friend John Carpenter recommended it. Romero, blown away, adapted it as Dawn of the Dead, becoming the first director to adapt Ballard for the big screen and setting the tone for future Ballard adaptations to come: raw, uncompromising, revolutionary, and shot through with the blackest humour, the perfect defence against the insanity of the outside world.

In short: how Ballard’s books (and Romero’s films) always appear to me.

Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

UPDATE: Natali is gone, as predicted. Enter Ben Wheatley

Wheatley High-Rise

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21 Responses »

  1. Thanks for another interesting article, Simon …. and I’m glad you mention “Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude”, which I think is under-rated.

    The Ballard Archive at the British Library reveals more film vapourware. Channel 4 were interested in Cocaine Nights in two 90 minute parts, but the option expired. There was also talk of Cronenberg directing Samuel Jackson in Cocaine Nights, and Super-Cannes was to be filmed by John Maybury, but that option also expired. Other projects included a TV adaptation of Kindness of Women, using archive footage to be contributed by Adam Curtis. Incidentally, the first talk of Brad Anderson fiming Concrete Island starring Christian Bale was in 2005, and that of Natali and High-Rise was back in Sep 2002!

  2. An interesting list of the Ballard-based movies that we’ll never see, but I don’t really think this is somthing specific… I mean, if one takes a writer who’s been apparently luckier than Ballard in terms of adaptations, the usual Philp K. Dick, he’ll find as much vapourware as that which surrounds the four extant Ballard movies… from the phone call Dick received from Tim Leary calling from Lennon’s bedroom in some NYC hotel, about the possibility to make a movie from Palmer Eldritch… to the film with Victoria Principal… etc. etc. I guess there’s just as much vapourware around any other writer that Hollywood has fallen in love with… Ballard has not been so unlucky, all in all…

  3. Thanks Mike, I did know about those extra films – they’re mentioned in another post on the site … except I didn’t know about the Cronenberg/Jackson collaboration! That’s a good/weird one.

    Umberto – I’m not saying this is unusual. Of course, it’s the way Hollywood works. I think my point is a little more personal than that…

  4. Very nice article, Simon! informative and laconic. The Concrete Island adaptation is great news – one can only hope for its fulfilment… Last Saturday I began watching a US TV series called Homeland. It deals with a CIA agent that is very suspicious of a saved sergeant in Iraq and she is prety sure that he is a sleeping one-man terrorist cell. There is a guy who works with her on every phone-tapping and surveillance-camera planting, and his van bears a somehow enigmatic “Ballard Technologies” motto on its two side panels… Hope you are in the best shape man – I kinda missed this blog, but I’m back again in this Ballardian fever – just got a ’70s Penthouse interview of JGB by Dr Chris Evans (a great piece of Ballardiana I was hunting for many years). Special hugs from Greece!!!

  5. Hey Simon, have you seen “The Machinist”? An incredible feat, and not just because of Bale’s weight loss for the role. It was understood from the start that it would be an underground movie. Really, really good move and extremely Ballaridan. If this team could get that movie done then there’s no reason why Conctrete Island should be out of the question. Though I get your pessimism.

    ( from my SE Melbourne desk )

  6. Jase,

    Yes, I’ve seen The Machinist – I thought it was good, but not great! And just for the record, I don’t necessarily bemoan the fact that there’s so many ‘ghost’ Ballard adaptations. For me, the reasons why that happens – linked, I believe, to how Ballard’s writing work, and its intangible qualities – is far more fascinating. I just find ‘ghost cinema’ really interesting, and am informed by Phillipe Met’s work on this phenomenon. Having said, I would like to see both Bale’s Concrete Island and Natali’s High-Rise come to fruition!

  7. An enjoyable and interesting meditation. I’m especially
    appreciative of the personal touch.
    Ballard spoke of an invisible literature, perhaps the vapourware films
    could populate the same world.
    A film that is so Ballardian he should have received credit
    is: Castaway on the Moon.

  8. Another great article Simon – thanks. I was at a Ballard talk at the British Library in London last year, when producer Jeremy Thomas mentioned the High Rise adaptation, but I didn’t know it had been bubbling under for so long. I am sceptical about any big-budget treatments of his work, if only for the fact that crass lowest common denominator, and commercial/economic, imperitives will bowdlerise any chance of unique Ballardian beauty.

    In terms of the ‘best’ or most truthful Ballard adaptations you are correct that they have already been made, as other films, in some respects (although I havn’t yet seen The Atrocity Exhibition, and Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude). Take Godard’s Weekend, Faraldo’s Themroc, Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel or Boorman’s Point Blank for instance. Ballard most probably saw all of these, and they must have had a huge influence on his literary philosophical and aesthetic sensibilities, transmuted through the novels, and thus became elliptical adjuncts of the Ballardosphere.

    Cronenburg’s Crash is a massively wasted opportunity. There are many things wrong with it, even though he did get a few things right too. I am not sure that I agree with your contention that film cannot transmit the pellucid Inner Space landscapes peculiar to Ballard – it just takes the right screenwriter and director to accurately translate the Ballardian ambience and obsessions.

    We can but hope!

  9. PS : I produced and presented a 1 hour radio programme on Ballard last year on Resonance FM. The podcast is available here (just scroll down). If I had known of you at the time I could have had you on as a guest. Never mind – maybe I will do a follow-up at some point. Cheers!


  10. Forgive me, if I’ve misunderstood, but you seem to be asking why the films didn’t get made, and then ‘answering’ by saying why the films wouldn’t have worked.

    Films that don’t work get made all the time. Every Dick adaptation? You have to be rather charitable to the film biz–aesthetic savvy determining its business decisions–to connect question and answer, no?

    That’s not to attack anything you say about the difficulty of successful adaptation.

  11. As a set designer working in the biz for many years and a huge fan of Ballard’s work, I feel the aesthetics of Ballard’s work probably dominates discussions about bringing them to fruition on the screen. Sets and settings are a huge production expense and so much of the oft facile appreciation of Ballard’s narratives must certainly lie in the visuals. My own experience has shown that investors get cold feet when they begin to realize a script cannot be done properly without sufficient capital to manage the production design. There is an old trope in Hollywood… Sci-Fi cannot be made on a shoe-string. (Apparently LA producers haven’t seen La Jetee!!)

    Solveig Nordlund’s excellent Portuguese-language Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude” clearly shows what can be done with Ballard when true talent (and not just $$) is at the helm.

    Having been royally screwed by Natali after designing the primary creatures for his movie Splice (at one point during his attempts to reassure me it would “all be alright” he even dangled the High-Rise project in front of me!!)… I’m actually personally and creatively grateful he has failed to bring such a fantastic narrative to the screen.

    Also of note, you failed to mention the fact that Cronenberg’s They Came From Within (Shivers) was very close in concept to High-Rise. Do you agree?

    Love the site. Regular visitor!

  12. @Matthew Brandi: Yes, I’m aware of the failed Dick adaptations and how Hollywood fails to get films made all the time. As I’ve said in a previous comment, though, I think there’s a quality in Ballard’s work that, in this instance, helps to explain it. I like the enigma of vapourware films as a cultural phenomenon, and for me it links to the imaginary scenarios that play out in certain Ballard texts, which are heavily influenced or informed by film culture – and post-film culture (surveillance, reality TV etc). This is not meant to be a catch-all theory to explain why all Hollywood adaptations fail, just a rumination on Ballard and film. I’m glad it’s a talking point, though.

    @Dan Oullette: Thanks for the insight into the film biz. I agree – La Jetee should be the model for filmed SF, not CGI etc. But I reckon this would place me in the minority! Also agree on Solveig’s film – brilliant work, and a brilliant Ballardian artefact.

    @JamesDC Godard etc as ‘elliptical adjuncts of the Ballardosphere’ is a great way to put it. Kind of like reverse engineering a history of Ballardian cinema. Thanks for the podcast link. I’ll hunt down your Ballard show.

  13. […] A szöveg forrása: Sellars, Simon: In Defence of the Virtual: A Secret History of Ballardian Film Adaptations. ↑2.  A „fantomfilmek” eredetijeként Sellars a „vaporware films” megnevezést […]

  14. Simon, you’re not quite right when you say: “as I work my way through the 70s and 80s interviews is Ballard’s consistent note of regret about never cracking the American market. For such a lauded and influential writer, it is eternally surprising that his books still do not have a US publisher.” In actuality, JG had many US publishers, right from his early days with Berkley. In the 1970s & 80s his stuff appeared in Playboy, and he was published by Putnam, Berkley, Grove, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Pinnacle Books, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Simon & Shuster, Vintage, Carroll & Graf, Arkham House, and MacMillan… it’s more likely his books were never given much promotion… until Spielberg & the Hollywood machine got into it. And, to a surprising degree, JG wasn’t really making dough for his UK publishers, either — none of his hardcovers (the ones that actually make a profit) before Empire had a press run beyond 5,000… and today he still has many US publishers: Norton, Picador, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Counterpoint, Re/search, Vintage, Simon & Shuster… maybe just goes to show: you can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think

  15. film adaptation of kingdom come, starring jon hamm as richard & christian bale as david cruise. simon sellars has something to do with the production, maybe production design or even the screenplay, (which george a. romero and john carepenter turn down the chance to write, but rumors fly about their continued involvement in the film’s production), which goes through a wringer of attempted revisions. ultimately, the film remains very true to the book, (though the movie takes place in the midwest of the US (the suburbs of indianapolis?) “the day after” the audience views the film). paul thomas anderson somehow beats out steven spielberg to direct, perhaps due to the negative tweets about the choice of the latter to direct. the soundtrack, co-produced by throbbing gristle and einsturzende neubauten, is virtually an homage to the tremendous influence of ballard on the post-punk and industrial genres, and results in a kind of musical renaissance, the concept of noise music finally mainstream to audiences who are finally receptive to it. the movie wins numerous awards, (including best actor nominations for both hamm and bale, the former winning his 2nd oscar) and is one of the highest grossing films of the year, despite its highly controversial subject matter, hushed rumors of riotous audiences and the collapse of wall street the week prior to release.

  16. PS maybe lesli linka glatter directs, and p t anderson writes the screenplay?

  17. […] Ballardian » In Defence of the Virtual: A Secret History of Ballardian Film Adaptations. Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  18. maybe lemmy should do the soundtrack

  19. Solveig Nordlund in her interview with Rick McGrath elsewhere on this website suggests another reason why so few Ballard adaptations reached the screen: Ballard’s agent raised the film rights to prohibitive levels after Spielberg’s Empire movie. As Ballard was and is very much a cult writer appealing more to independent filmmakers no independent producer is going to stump up a reputed 3.5 million dollars (pounds?) just for the rights. Cronenberg’s Crash only cost ten million all in. I assume producer Jeremy Thomas procured the rights pre-Empire making the movie affordable. As the great Godard once said:”If you want to discuss my films you must first discuss money”!

  20. A note on the CGI aspect of potential JGB adaptations:

    In relation to Dan’s (fascinating) comments about the seemingly prohibitive nature of the fantastic visuals needed for any JGB film, CGI could actually be used, in a precise and subtle manner, for a relatively low cost.

    Much of modern CGI is created by computer nerds who haven’t spent enough time learning the basic rules of drawing and anatomy/geometry etc, and thus end up producing inferior and ‘cheap’ looking special effects. However, as the technology of CGI increases and becomes easier to use, many technicians are getting a better handle on it.

    A case in point – the Steampunk ‘Space Nazi’s’ film Iron Sky had some beautiful, authentic-looking and subtly ‘drawn’ special effects, littered throughout the film, all done on a very low, partially crowd-sourced budget. The film itself was an embarrassing disaster of epic proportions, but the superb CGI effects proved what could be done, visually, on a low budget ‘independent’ type film.

    A great-looking, CGI effect-driven adaptation of, say, The Crystal World, or – one of my personal favourites – The Drought, could be done quite easily, for perhaps a low budget of 5 million, by an independent production company. The main risks wouldn’t be that of attempting to properly realise the unique visual beauty of Ballard’s work, but making sure that the screenwriter, director and producer had more than a crass, ‘trendy’ inkling of Ballard’s complex philosophical/psychogeographical themes, descriptive surrealism and socio-political commentary!

    Late 60’s/early 70’s era directors like Nicolas Roeg or John Boorman would have been perfect for a Ballard adaptation. I can’t think of who would be good for a Ballard film, nowadays. Perhaps someone like Alfonso Cuarón, who made the excellent Children of Men, which – for me – had a very Ballardian sensibility about it, if not the depth of his work.

    We will see, eh?

  21. I actually think the UK TV adaptation of The Enormous Room was perhaps a bit more successful than any of the other Ballard adaptations I’ve seen.

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