If the book version of High-Rise was a strange yet all too plausible nightmare, then its film adaptation is the full-blown fever dream that pushes its alarming themes to the next level, making it perhaps a little less accessible, yet arguably all the more disturbing.
The novel was written in the 1970’s by J.G. Ballard and was, at the time, considered speculative science-fiction, focussing on the inhabitants of a then seemingly futuristic skyscraper that held a completely self-contained society, including its own apartments, supermarket, school, salon, bank, gym and swimming pool; everything they could possibly need. When things start going wrong with the building itself (power outages, faulty elevators, no water supply, etc.) tensions arise, with the poorer residents of the lower floors rebelling against the selfish upper echelons of society who live on the top floors. They quickly degenerate into an entirely dysfunctional, animalistic state, with full-blown warfare erupting between the rival floors and alcohol-fuelled chaos reigning supreme.
What ensues is, frankly, a display of madness. It examines the class divide within British society, the risks of living within isolated communities, and the dangerous, cruel side of humanity that lies so very close to the surface.
The film version retains these major themes, and translates them to the big screen in a visually striking and stylish way that reflects the bizarre nature of the story. I appreciated that the mirroring of the degeneration of the building itself and the sanity of the people within it was retained very well. I also liked that they retained the unique timeline of the novel, opening in the aftermath of the building’s erosion and then going back to show the events that led there. I would say, however, that the film felt more self-indulgent of its themes than its written counterpart. Whilst the major strength of the novel for me was how eerily well it felt Ballard had predicted our current world, and that it thus felt so real, as though these events could be taking place in any number of now commonplace, faceless high-rises we walk past every day, it was perhaps the bold, visual and upfront nature of the film that made it cross into the realms of straight-up allegory, that whilst effective in its own way, made it feel no longer believable.
As a social satire and a warped cautionary tale about the class structure and too great a reliance on convenience in modern life, the film works, but you have to be prepared to be held at arm’s length, as it feels produced purely to convey these ideas far more than it does to tell a coherent story.
Thankfully, the cast (which is an impressive roll-call of [largely] British talent) are enigmatic enough to hold the whole thing together, and the gorgeous nature of the visuals (including sets, costume design and hair and make-up that capture a quasi-futuristic take on the 70s) combined with a great soundtrack also helped to hold my attention and see me through the almost hallucinatory plot.
I think the major difference between the two is that I finished the book feeling firmly in the ‘I enjoyed that’ camp, whereas I finished the film feeling a bit dazed and unsure of how I felt about it. I can see and appreciate what they were trying to achieve by taking on the book’s themes, but can’t help but feel that an approach that was perhaps too stylised and surrealist will leave too many viewers feeling shut-out.
Have you read and seen High-Rise? How do you think the two compare?