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Lost in Translation: Notes on Adapting Ballard

December 9, 2013 | by

highriselarge

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. Read More »

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