J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise (1975) takes place in a block of five apartment towers on the Thames River, the first-occupied of which, with 1,000 units and about 2,000 residents, gradually descends into barbarism. Ballard was writing at the tail end of England’s postwar boom in tower-block construction, when the practical drawbacks of such housing communities had become impossible to ignore. Forty years later, the book’s topical moment may have passed, but it still holds up as an urban Lord of the Flies, and given the enduring cult reputation of David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), adapted from another Ballard novel, you can see how someone might have bankrolled a modestly budgeted screen version of High-Rise. Unfortunately, “modestly budgeted” doesn’t cut it where High-Rise is concerned, because capturing Ballard’s vision onscreen would require hundreds of speaking roles and the art-direction resources of a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.
In one sense the book is easy to dramatize: the narrative shifts back and forth among three characters who live in the tower block. Jeremy Irons supplies his usual malign elegance as Anthony Royal, the wealthy architect who designed the building and lives atop it; Tom Hiddleston is vacantly gorgeous as the protagonist, Dr. Robert Laing, a professor of physiology who moves onto the building’s 25th floor after his sister’s untimely death leaves him with no family; and Luke Evans hurls himself around as Richard Wilder, an impetuous TV cameraman who lives near the ground floor with his wife and children and the rest of the block’s poorer tenants. Wilder resents the inequality between the classes and, as the building’s residents break up into hostile camps, he resolves to make the treacherous climb to the 40th floor and confront Royal, making an ally of Laing, the architect’s occasional squash partner.
Screenwriter Amy Jump has tricked all this up into a proper three-act structure, and the first half of the movie is luridly effective at capturing the 70s mood of unchecked hedonism and emotional disconnection. Laing is first introduced sunbathing nude on his balcony; a wine bottle explodes on the floor next to him and Charlotte Melvin (Sienna Miller), his jaded neighbor from two floors up, bends over her own balcony to apologize. Within a couple days Laing is two floors up, vigorously humping Charlotte on her balcony as they trade gossip about Anthony Royal. While Laing is going down on her, she casually interrupts him to ask how his sister died; a few moments later, when her young son walks in on them midcoitus, she disengages herself from Laing as if nothing has happened. The child removes himself from this tawdry scene, and Charlotte begins to follow after him. “I thought we were doing this,” Laing protests weakly. “We’ve done it,” she shrugs, breezing off with a cigarette.
No matter how much one shades the characters, though, High-Rise defies adaptation because the most vivid character is the building itself. The initial conflicts among tenants are all exacerbated by flaws in the building design—elevators break down, garbage chutes jam up, and the parking, which spreads outward from the building at ground level, encourages people to compete for closer spots. Even worse, the building’s common spaces irritate the class differences between the tenants: the lower and middle classes are informally divided by a giant concourse on the tenth floor, with a grocery store, a hair salon, a swimming pool, a small grade school, and other amenities, whereas the middle and upper classes are separated by another, more exclusive concourse on the 35th floor, with a sauna, a swank restaurant, and another swimming pool. Some of these spaces appear in the movie, turning into war zones once hostilities erupt, but one loses the sense of verticality that Ballard used so effectively, with the stairs and elevators becoming tactical weapons.
Also lost is Ballard’s portrayal of the community as an organism within the building space, an organism that gradually disintegrates into vicious tribalism. Countless speaking roles would have been needed to dramatize the tenants’ elevator wars, the epic vandalism of the common spaces, the endless electricity blackouts and air-conditioning breakdowns, the systemic targeting and ransacking of apartments, and the formation of little societies among neighboring floors, which eventually break down into smaller cells confined to single floors and, ultimately, solitary grubbing for food or sex. Like Cronenberg’s Crash, the movie offers lots of pervy, soft-core action—the horny Laing mates not only with Charlotte but with Wilder’s pregnant wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss)—yet Jump omits much of the social detail about the little harems that form around the more forceful men as the law of the jungle prevails and the women are subjugated.
In the book, this unraveling of civilized norms is so gradual and so fascinating that Ballard can get away with his three main characters acting as little more than archetypes and his plot slowing to a stroll. No such luck for Jump or director Ben Wheatley. Without all the observational detail (much of it involving the physical deterioration of the building) they haven’t got enough story, and to fill out the last act they’ve concocted a half-baked subplot in which Royal and the other muckety-mucks enlist Laing in a plot to lobotomize Wilder. They’ve also amped up the story’s political slant, scoring the upper-class gatherings with fussy classical music and the middle- and lower-class apartment parties with ballsy 70s rock. Early on, there’s an over-the-top scene in which the upper-floor residents attend a Marie Antoinette-themed costume party on the 35th floor (with a string quartet playing ABBA’s “SOS”), and the movie concludes with an ironic sound bite of Margaret Thatcher hailing the benefits of free enterprise.
This last flourish reconnects the story to its period, but High-Rise speaks to something timeless and savage in the human race, which is why the book still packs a punch four decades after its publication and why the screen adaptation succeeds as a punk-rock horror movie, even if it lacks Ballard’s finer sociological insights. If anything, the coarsening of civic life Ballard dwelled on has only accelerated since then. To Laing the high-rise is “a Pandora’s box whose thousand lids were one by one inwardly opening.” To Wilder it’s a prison like the ones he covers as a TV journalist, a “hanging palace self-seeding its intrigues and destruction.” To Anthony Royal it’s “a gigantic vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other.” Their various metaphors share a sense of something ugly and ungovernable, manageable perhaps when it’s spread out across a horizontal cityscape but potentially apocalyptic when it’s thrust into the sky. v