An Ideal for Film: JG Ballard’s The Drowned World
Novelist JG Ballard is so clever he’s managed to wangle a spot in the dictionary:
World English Dictionary Ballardian (ˌbælˈɑːdɪən)
adj 1 of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works
2. resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social orenvironmental developments
The prolificacy, uniqueness and sheer brilliance of Ballard isn’t as revered as it should be, his body of work a master class in science fiction. After spending his formative years in Shanghai, Ballard went on to become the founding father of harrowing dystopian science fiction that’s become so prescient and intriguing amongst British literature of the 20th Century. His renowned contemporary Anthony Burgess, author of the disturbing A Clockwork Orange, said of Ballard; “not that he is among our finest writers of science fiction but that he is among our finest writers of fiction tout court period”.Ballard’s novels often depict disturbed distortions of the modern world, wholly recognisable but impossibly depraved and perverse, riddled with protagonists on the cusp of mental collapse and existential crisis. Dealing in external, environmental, change and internal conflict between the contradictions of our natural past and self-fostered contemporary identity, Ballard’s tales are foreboding instances of the self-destructive streak in humanity.
His notable bodies of work include High Rise, the degeneration of residents in a luxury apartment block, Atrocity Exhibition, a bizarre set of surreal dreamy excerpts that inspired Joy Division, Crash, an exploration of car-crash sexual fetishism, and and his most celebrated and traditional work, Empire of the Sun. Curiously the latter two are the only certified examples of his work being reimagined in film; by David Cronenberg and Steven Spielberg respectively, which seems at odds with cinema’s terminal reliance on ready-made material for its output, and the fact that Ballard’s novels are so vividly relevant in their bleak portrayal of modern life.
Stemming the tide of neglect on Ballard’s cinematic potential is the recent news that both High Rise and The Drowned World will be getting big screen adaptations. High Rise will be directed by the macabre Ben Wheatley, based on his previous works like A Field in England and Kill List he will undoubtedly produce a vexing and imaginative take on the sordid narrative. The Drowned World has only just been acquired by Warner Bros meaning details on the adaptation are scarce but the prospect of its prehistoric swamps lathering the remnants civilisation is a scintillating one.
The Drowned World is a foreboding warning regarding the future of humanity, despite being written in 1962 Ballard is alarmingly prophetic about global warming when he describes the scenario that has left a world mostly submerged in sea and swamp: “as these [ionospheres] vanished into space, depleting the Earth’s barrier against the full impact of solar radiation, temperatures began to climb steadily…the continued heating of the atmosphere had begun to melt the polar ice caps”. Just as the natural environment regresses back to an inhabitable era, filled with mutant reptilians and scorching temperatures, so do the humans left over. Protagonist Kerans glumly accepts the end of civilisation as tensions arise amongst the small team posted in the sunken remains of an unrecognisable London. The group, including stern Captain Riggs, one by one become marred by horrific dreams that harken back to a return to a primitive reawakening, beyond the internal strife lurks the unhinged evil of renegade Strangman on the horizon.
The cinematic suitability for the novel stems from Ballard’s illustrative words that conjure a rich vision of the dilapidated world ten storeys deep in a murky green liquid. Ballard’s attention to detail is astounding; metaphors litter his work to supply complete scenes, from the once regal Ritz to the silt riddled Planetarium, while is scientific background gives an assured description of the malformed vegetation. For cinematographers and directors the book is a vast oasis of compelling visions for the narrative backdrop, a culmination of Planet of The Apes finale and Inceptions deserted dream world a likely outcome.
Narratively the book indulges in Kerans’ cynicism that often boarding on delirium. While versed in the 3rd person Ballard follows his protagonist with an eagle eye allowing events to unfold under his perceptive and arrogant gaze. The balance between being a relatable voice in a world of oddities is conflicted for the reader by the growing rejection of society imprinted in his mind by the unfamiliar world ahead. Far from the archetypal hero, Kerans is filled with tragic traits and internal strife that both endures and conflicts; he’s a superb character study for which ever actor fills his bleached blonde beard. The sultry atmosphere of the lagoon is loaded with the tensions of each dynamic character; the enticing Beatrice, strained Riggs, broken Hardman and the manic death incarnate Strangman.
There’s a darkly atmospheric and brooding film waiting to be forged from The Drowned World; its prescient prose is hotly topical without dominating proceedings as disturbed characters, questioning their existence and role, give thematic significance to the narrative. Perhaps the polarising Nicolas Winding Refn could take on the project, although undoubtedly striking his shallow caricatures would fail to do Kerans and co justice. A director with an introspective, and perhaps surreal, take on the inner tensions of the mind would be ideal; perhaps Polanksi, calling on Repulsion or the Tenant, or the inimitable David Lynch can realise the claustrophobia atmosphere. Closer to the mainstream Darren Aronofsky or Christopher Nolan would be strong candidates with their creative visions, the former getting good practice with water world in the making Noah.
Whoever takes on The Drowned World needs to focus beyond the immersed, jutting remains of civilisation. The setting is a catalyst and extension of the individual struggles of the narrative. The fact the novella has been acquired for cinema, along with the recent news of Wheatley’s High Rise, will hopefully place Ballard’s impressive body of work at the forefront of minds again. The cinematic potential of each novel is indisputable, however tackling them appropriately in order to keep the original Ballardian themes will be the ultimate challenge for film.