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

Simon Sellars Film & animation, J.G. Ballard

Originally published in the Norwegian-language magazine Vagant, May-August 2011, pp. 10-11.

In 1986, Christian Bale, as a child actor, 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 the author’s classic mid-70s novel Concrete Island with director Brad Anderson (actually, this collaboration was first mooted in 2005). This was exciting news for Ballard fans, following the recent hype surrounding Vincenzo Natali’s proposed adaptation of High-Rise, Ballard’s follow up to Concrete Island. But will these projects actually eventuate? Natali’s involvement was originally announced in 2005 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’s 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), based on Ballard’s experimental novel of 1970, and Solveig Nordlund’s excellent Portuguese-language Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (2002), based on Ballard’s 1976 short story, ‘Low-Flying Aircraft’.

I am editing a collection of Ballard interviews to be published in September 2012, and one theme I have particularly noticed 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. But his US stocks might have been very different if a few more of those film options had come to fruition, an observation brought home to me after reading David Pringle’s 1990 conversation with Ballard published in Fear magazine. In this interview there is much tantalising detail about these phantom 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!

Still from John Carpenter’s They Live.

Carpenter’s They Live (1988) perfectly matches the consumerist paranoia of Ballard’s 1963 short story ‘The Subliminal Man’, and seems 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 also talks of stalled development on a proposed film of his novel The Day of Creation (1987), going on to bemoan 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 anyone’s guess.

But the biggest revelation is that Richard Gere wanted to make a film of Ballard’s suburban fantasy The Unlimited Dream Company (1979). Apparently, Gere, as 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 on the back of Pretty Woman (1990), so the film would doubtless have exposed Ballard similarly, the way Spielberg also pulled him into his slipstream.

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

Gere is not the only Hollywood star to venture near the Ballardian orbit. As recently as 2009, Samuel L. Jackson was associated with a vapourware film version of Running Wild, although typically nothing has been heard since. As a match up, 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 likely outcome. In the 70s, cult English writer Heathcote Williams wrote a script for Crash, optioned with Jack Nicholson attached 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 – the hyper-maniac Jack Nicholson of the late 1970s would have been a treat to watch fucking the car-crash-induced leg wounds of Vaughan’s willing victims.

Outside of Hollywood, there have been many other tantalising near-misses. In the mid-70s, the brilliant eccentric, Nic Roeg, was slated to direct High-Rise from a script by Paul Mayersberg, and in the 80s even Bruce Robinson of Withnail and I fame tried his hand at 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), which was supposed to have starred the wonderful actor Jean Seberg, from a script by the film writer Jonathan Rosenbaum, directed by none other than towering culturalcritic Susan Sontag. Surely this match up would have satisfied the legion of arthouse nerds who believe that Spielberg sentimentalised Ballard’s work or who point the finger at Cronenberg for reducing Ballard to soft porn.

Jean Seberg as Louise in Susan Sontag’s The Crystal World?

Aside from the harsh economic realities of commercial filmmaking, why did all of these projects fail to happen? From a cinematic perspective, Ballard’s work, especially his earlier, experimental fiction, seems tailor-made 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 who have tackled his work have followed. Ballard’s writing invites adaptation by virtue of its form, with chapters often reading like film scripts. In the Atrocity Exhibition chapters, for example, and the 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 also problematises any attempt to transmute the work into the physical 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 Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical analysis of the cinema of the ‘time-image’, this writing utilises ‘nodes of resistance’ in post-war cinema. Ballard deployed the cinematic techniques of the French nouvelle vague (‘jump cuts’ in his writing – scenes abruptly shifting, temporally and geographically; ‘slow motion’ narrative descriptions; vague, cypher-like characters) as revealing the truth of the merger between the virtual and the actual that was a product of the burgeoning media landscape of the 1960s. 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 to 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 certainly 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 individual 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 that provide many layers of parallel narratives to its affectless characters who seem 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 had aligned very differently, ghost-traces in a mind that follows forking paths of virtuality, each leading to different films that begin to emerge in the imagination.

Personally, whenever I think of Romero, I imagine yet another parallel world in which Kingdom Come was written in the late 70s, and Romero had used it as the basis for 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.

Still from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.