The following interview was published in the Guardian, 17 March 1988, in connection with the release of Spielberg's film of "Empire of the Sun"
The Sun landing
It has taken a boost from Spielberg to push J. G. Ballard into the movie heights with Empire of the Sun.
Julian Petley reports
Given their pervasive influence on the landscape of modern cinema, it seems extraordinary that none of J. G. Ballard's novels has been filmed until now. Certainly it hasn't been for lack of interest, as the author himself explains: "From the mid-Sixties onwards books like 'Concrete Island', 'High Rise' and 'Crash' have been almost continually optioned. At the beginning it was a very strange experience for me.
"I'd be taken [sic] expensive restaurants and names would be dropped like the sound of rhinos stampeding past -- Sean loves it, Dustin adores it, and so on and so on. It was as if the film was about to start shooting the next day! But nothing ever happened and I stopped going to this kind of thing long ago."
Certainly "Crash" must be one of the most about-to-be-filmed novels of all time. It's now with Mark Romanek (of "Static" fame) but it's been through various other hands. Intriguingly, the spectacular crash that opens "Bloody Kids" (directed by Stephen Frears) is one of the mast Ballardian moments in British cinema. Moreover the sub-motorway wasteland that is the site of the climactic battle in Frears's "Sammy And Rosie Get Laid" is the actual spot beneath the Westway near Shepherds Bush which inspired the setting for "Concrete Island".
"Crash" would not be the easiest novel to film in these censorious times. "I don't imagine that it would ever be made with actors and director following the text line by line -- the entire crew and much of the audience would end up in gaol." Indeed, when a publisher's reader (in fact the wife of a psychiatrist) returned the original manuscript of the book, she wrote: "The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help." Ballard has always taken the remark as a compliment.
"Empire Of The Sun" is not quite his first brush with cinema. That was a Hammer pre-historic fantasy, "When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth" (1970), for which Ballard wrote the original story. Little of it remains in Val Guest's uninteresting screenplay, and to add insult to injury the author's name is spelt incorrectly on the credits. "I'm rather proud that up until now, with 'Empire Of The Sun', my only screen credit is for what is without any doubt the worst film ever made."
Cinema, however, looms large in Ballard's work. Hollywood icons such as Monroe, Dean, Jayne Mansfield and Elizabeth Taylor haunt the mental-breakdown mindscapes of "The Atrocity Exhibition" and "Crash". In the short story "Motel Architecture" a wheelchair-bound television critic plays the shower sequence from "Psycho" over and over again on a multitude of video screens; in "The Screen Game" (in "Vermilion Sands") the making of a film shocks an actress out of the catatonic state into which she has lapsed following a murder.
Ballard's own favourites include "The Incredible Shrinking Man", "Alphaville", "Dr Strangelove", "Them!", the original "Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers" and "The Thing", "Point Blank", "Mad Max 2" and "The Man Who Fell To Earth". He emphatically dislikes science fiction films in which, as in Star Wars, "the special effects preside over derivative ideas and unoriginal plots, as in some massively financed stage musical, where the sets and costumes are lavish but there are no tunes.
"I can't help feeling that in such films the spectacular sets are the real subject matter, and that original and imaginative ideas -- until now science fiction's chief claim to fame -- are regarded by their makers as secondary, unimportant and even possibly distracting."
He is impressed by Spielberg's "Close Encounters" because of the way the aliens make contact not directly, in an immense display of hardware, "but through a system of metaphors, such as mountains and music. I particularly liked the way the Dreyfus character becomes obsessed with the mountain -- even to the extent of recreating it in his own home. I really felt I was on home ground here, since my own characters do similarly obsessive things."
Ballard's admiration for Spielberg has been enhanced by the filming of "Empire of the Sun". "Even in a two and a half hour film you couldn't include every single element of the novel, but those strands which the film does concentrate on are extremely faithful to the book." He's particularly impressed by Christian Bale's central performance, which he describes as the best by a child in the history of the cinema.
"It is extremely sensitive and adds a great deal to the film, which appears on the surface an immense fresco but at its centre contains this intense private drama unfolding within the character of the child."
The original novel is both a horrifying picture of the brutalities of war and a remarkable delineation of a child's-eye view of the proceedings. Ballard feels Spielberg has translated this particular aspect of the book with great sensitivity. "It's to the director's immense credit that at a number of points - for example in the air attack on the Japanese base next to the camp - one is not sure if the events taking place are real or hallucinations in the mind of this
"The exterior and interior landscapes of war begin to invade each other. This is just what I tried to convey in the novel, and Spielberg met the challenge head on, bringing his own powerful imagination to bear without flinching and without a hint of sentiment."
"The novel is an imaginative re-creation of the war, and the film is an imaginative re-creation of the novel. In my opinion Spielberg has done everything I could possibly ask for. Anyone who films anything else of mine will have an extremely hard act to follow."
"Empire of the Sun" gets a Royal Film Performance on Monday at the Odeon, Leicester Square, opening on Tuesday at selected cinemas.