Towering ambition: Ben Wheatley on bringing J G Ballard’s ‘unfilmable’ High-Rise to the screen

It's taken over 40 years to bring JG Ballard's "unfilmable" novel High-Rise to the big screen. Sightseers director Ben Wheatley talks about how he succeeded where so many failed before.

The release of director Ben Wheatley's High-Rise marks the end of a 40-year struggle by filmmakers to bring J G Ballard's classic sci-fi novel – about a luxury tower block that descends into tribal warfare – to the big screen.

Almost as soon as the novel was published in 1975, rumours of a movie adaptation began, with renowned directors including Nicholas Roeg and Vincenzo Natali attached to the project over the years. As they failed to come to anything, the novel gained the dreaded “unfilmable” label.

Decades later, Wheatley – the British director of Sightseers and Kill List – has achieved what many said could not be done.

He has his own ideas about why everything finally came together for his version.

“I think one of the issues with the book is that people had always tried to adapt it to the future,” he says, “but we decided to make it a period piece set in the era in which the book was written. That could only have happened now.

“It made perfect sense, if you were making a film of it in the 1980s, to try to shift it into the future – but by the time you get to 2016, there’s a lot that doesn’t really work anymore.

“A lot of what was in the book is now in newspapers – gated communities, buildings with two entrances depending on your income, and stuff like that.”

The film's tone has a distinct late 1970s/early 1980s feel to it, evoking memories of classic, British psychedelic sci-fi. It is also reminiscent of films such as Lindsay Anderson's If... , while the debauchery and scenes of primal violence recall Ken Russell in his prime. Even the movie's poster appears to be a homage to the one for Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

Wheatley insists any similarities were unintentional.

“I didn’t plan the film around making reference to other filmmakers, but you can’t really avoid it,” he says. “I think it’s been evident in all the films I’ve made – but it’s probably more evident in this because it’s the first time we’ve actually had enough budget to move the camera around and play with the full deck of cards that those filmmakers had.

“There are all sorts in there. There are hand-held social- realist sections towards the end, elements of Kubrick-style camerawork, but that’s all very surface. What is in Kubrick’s or Anderson’s films’ ethos, I think, is very different to this film. When you actually get down to the politics, it’s different – but, for sure, there are elements on the surface.”

Dystopian drama has been in vogue in cinemas recently, from The Hunger Games to more meaty, adult fare such as Mad Max: Fury Road, but Wheatley says his vision has a distinctive twist.

"Because High-Rise is in the past, it's kind of a dystopia that's already happened to us," he says. "It's not the destruction of everything, and everyone living in the wreckage. It's more society collapsing around you, yet somehow remaining the same, so you don't even realise.

“Look at the banking collapse. That’s dystopian. We lived through it, we saw the UK’s social spending collapse. We may not have all driven round on motorbikes, sporting mohicans and shooting each other with crossbows, but it did happen and affect us all.

“I think the thing with dystopia is that you can only really recognise it when you’ve got a bit of distance. When you look back at it afterwards, through the 1970s and 1980s, all through Thatcherism, it’s only after a bit of time you can look back and say, ‘That was actually really bad’.”

Ballard is one of the best-loved 20th-century novelists, so there are always high expectations for adaptations of his work – perhaps more so now, given that previous films include Steven Spielberg's ­award-winning Empire of the Sun and David Cronenberg's cult classic Crash. Wheatley says he just tried to focus on the task at hand.

“If you thought about it, it would cripple you,” he says. “They’re not really connected either, other than in a kind of ‘list’ way. The books and the times they were made in are so different and the size of the movies is completely different.

"Even the Cronenberg movie is quite a big-budget movie in comparison to High-Rise. You just don't think about it. If you did, it would be completely ­crushing."

High-Rise is in cinemas now

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