Lost in Translation: Notes on Adapting Ballard
December 9, 2013 | by Calum Marsh
The first sentence of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise ranks, in my estimation, among the most striking ever written. It begins with a characteristic bit of misdirection:
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the usual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.
It’s a singular accomplishment: one word into the novel and the reader is already disoriented, groping for the context of time, left to wonder what precisely constitutes the implied before. This is typical of the sensations incited by reading Ballard’s prose. His writing throbs with vigor and curiosity, springing forth the recesses of his vision, every sentence wound into curlicues of imagination. It’s rich, robustly literary stuff—which is to say intensely literary stuff, difficult to envision translated faithfully to the silver screen. An aesthetic medium, the cinema seems ill-equipped to convey the density of great prose, to illustrate externally the inner life articulated with nuance by words. Film is bound to a certain literalism: the indexical relationship between the image and what it communicates is direct, unavoidable. A film can’t describe—it can only show.
We refer to this as medium specificity—those qualities which distinguish the art of literature from the art of cinema, as well as from theater, painting, poetry, and so on. When a literary work is adapted as a film, the specificity of the art must be translated: it may be about the same thing, but, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, how it’s about what it’s about needs to be reconceived. Now, a variety of screenwriters and directors have sought to realize a film version of High-Rise since its publication in 1975, including Paul Mayersberg, Nicolas Roeg, and, much more recently, Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali, whose take came perhaps the closest to fruition. Only now has it finally seemed underway: British director Ben Wheatley, the radical auteur responsible for Kill List and Sightseers, has been confirmed as the project’s new lead and is set to begin shooting in early 2014. We will learn soon enough how he has dealt with the issues of translation.
The prospect is doubtless intimidating. Ballard’s prose resists translation: its hard to account for its almost poetic sense of rhythm and meter, for the elasticity of the sentences, for the density of the page. What are you going to do, shoot a writhing mass of ex-bourgeois maniacs in the corridors of an oversized apartment? How painfully literal. Certainly the images are there in the work—the garbage-piled elevator shafts, the smears of blood and graffiti along the inner hallway walls, the half-drained pool with its acrid-yellow water. This is stuff you can film. But what about the pungency of the air, the encroaching lunacy of the mind? What about that crucial later: How do you begin a film with something as succinctly remarkable as the novel’s first sentence, without recourse to the artlessness of a solitary title card?
Adaptation, as a practice, intends to convey three things from the source text: the story, which is usually easy enough; the imagery, which is manageable; and the tone or tenor of the writing, which is where these kinds of difficulties arise. Consider the following passage from High-Rise:
Far below him, the cars in the front ranks of the parking-lot were spattered with broken eggs, wine and melted ice cream. A dozen windshields had been knocked out by falling bottles. Even at this early hour, at least twenty of Laing’s fellow residents were standing on their balconies, gazing down at the debris gathering at the cliff-foot.
Translation, in this case, seems fairly straightforward: the cinema is certainly capable of handling an image of trash-strewn vehicles and residents peering curiously down at them, and little, if anything, would be lost in the process. But take a passage like this, by contrast:
He gazed up at the derelict washing-machine and refrigerator, now only used as garbage-bins. He found it hard to remember what their original function had been. To some extent they had taken on a new significance, a role that he had yet to understand. Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways. Laing pondered this—sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.
The strange beauty and intrigue of this paragraph, the compelling mystery of its reflections, seems beyond the range of the image it suggests: you could imagine Wheatley shooting a man and a trash-filled fridge, but not the implication of their meaning—not the “exhausted” future pondered, the landscape beyond technology.
I conducted an interview by telephone recently with author Martin Amis, who has adapted his own work for the screen (his script for London Fields is currently being filmed). I asked him about the process. “The better the prose in the novel,” he observed, “the less likely that a successful film will be made of it. You really want something that’s written like The Godfather, where the prose is nothing much.” In such cases the screenwriter and director are left only with the task of translating the story and its attendant images, which in the best cases have been described plainly and simply as if in preparation for the inevitable film. This isn’t necessarily a guarantee of a great film, but in general poorly written books lend themselves better to the act of adaptation—if for no other reason than there is less to fail at and less to lose. Consider this passage, from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight:
They didn’t look anything alike. Of the three boys, one was big—muscled like a serious weight lifter, with dark, curly hair. Another was taller, leaner, but still muscular, and honey blond. The last was lanky, less bulky, with un-tidy bronze-colored hair. He was more boyish than the others, who looked like they could be in college, or even teachers here rather than students … But all this is not why I couldn’t look away. I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine.
This description, written perfunctorily (and quite badly), presents few problems for the filmmaker tasked with bringing it vividly to life on screen. You merely need to cast actors who resemble these descriptions, and shoot them in a way which complements their “devastating” beauty. The prose more or less goes on like this:
One side of his mouth pulled up into my favorite uneven smile. I couldn’t catch my breathe soon enough to respond to that remark. He turned and walked away. “I’ll see you at lunch,” he called over his shoulder. Three people walking in the door stopped to stare at me. I hurried into class, flushed and irritated … I sat in my usual seat, slamming my bag down in irritation.
This isn’t really even prose—it’s stage direction. The book consists of little else: long exchanges of dialogue enriched by the occasional description of the facial expression of the speaker. And this is all you really need if you want your book to serve as a strong foundation for a film: a cracking story of young love told in a simple, straightforward manner, as if the book itself were only one or two steps removed from a screenplay already. The elegance and sophistication of Ballard’s prose, which seems to spill out over the sides of the page, won’t be contained by a screenplay or an image so easily—it must be whipped into a very different kind of shape. The film version of High-Rise needs to thrive on its own kind of elegance and sophistication: and elegance and sophistication of image, of vision. It needs a filmmaker who can not only translate, but invent, flesh out, enliven. The image needs to be animated by its own inspiration—one that imagines something as marvelous as later.
Calum Marsh is an essayist and critic born in Great Britain and based in Toronto. His writings have appeared in such periodicals as the Atlantic, Esquire, and the LA Review of Books.