Category: Bookish

Screen to Screen: High-Rise

The film adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s classic satire loses the plot, literally.

I have been slogging through one hell of a blogging slump. So I was lucky that a recent family outing to The Incredibles 2 inspired me with its retro-futurist look, a vision of modernity that takes its cues from 1950s sci-fi. It brought to mind another retro-futurist movie I caught up with recently: High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s 2015 film based on the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name.

Pixar’s animated movie uses a joyful, colourful palette to set the tone for it’s superhero adventure. Meanwhile, High-Rise‘s vision of the future originates from the 1970s, when the book was written. It utilizes the concrete slabs of brutalist architecture to express its themes.

The reason I’m fixating on the look of High-Rise is because there’s not much substance to it. Most of the book’s story elements and pointed commentary on classism and capitalism have been stripped away. It’s left a film that’s a delightful sensory experience, but not much else.

The Story:

HIGH RISE, JG BALLARD, BOOK COVER, RETROFUTURISMOn its surface, the movie hews closely to the original 1975 novel. In J.G. Ballard’s story, a new, high-tech high-rise apartment opens in London’s East End. The first of several planned towers, it’s a self-contained society, with its own shopping centre, school and recreation facilities. The new residents, despite being all white and middle-class, soon find reasons to divide into new social strata. These factions rapidly descend into open warfare, literally fighting over groceries, parking spaces and time in the swimming pool. As their insular society grows ever more barbaric, life outside the apartment continues with an facade of normalcy.


Differences between the two:

  • HIGH RISE, MOVIE POSTER, TOM HIDDLESTON, BEN WHEATLEYThe novel made clear the inner desires of the main characters, however disturbed they were. It’s difficult to discern what the movie’s characters are after.
  • In the novel, the protagonist, Dr. Laing, has a sister who lives in the same building. In the movie, he has no living family.
  • One character’s literal social climb through the building, a major sub-plot of the novel, is missing from the movie.

Whereas the wicked satire of the book made me smile, my reaction to the movie was a big long “Whaaaaaaaaaaa?”

What the book does well:

  • The tone of the satire is pitch-perfect, as reflected by the classic opening:

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within the huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal….

  • The repetitive cycle of divisions along class lines, no matter how small the group, was a stark statement on human nature under capitalism.

What the movie does well:

  • It absolutely nails the look and feel of a high-rise apartment of tomorrow, circa 1975.
  • The disjointed construction of the film itself parallels the anarchy depicted onscreen.
  • The transformation of the characters into animalistic, primal beings is well dramatized.

Ultimately, the movie was a disappointment for me. I got a real kick out of the visual depiction of what I’d read on the page. But without the biting commentary at the heart of the novel, it felt a bit empty. The movie adaptation is  aggressively weird. After ignoring the social commentary for so long, a Margaret Thatcher soundbite tacked on at the very end feels out of place.

While that lack of message and structure might be the film’ making its own statement, I couldn’t really recommend it to readers who loved the novel. Still, it is beautiful to look at.

Mini-Review Round-Up: SFF Corner

It’s time for a break from the history stuff with some mini-reviews of science fiction and fantasy

This site usually focuses on history, historical fiction, or writing historical fiction. I’ve been writing the sequel to my first novel, so I’ve had to immerse myself in World War II history. Writing fantasy stories and reading fantasy and science fiction offer a welcome break. Here are some mini-reviews of SFF books I’ve recently finished.

Baptism of Fire (The Witcher Saga #3) by Andrzej Sapkowski

ANDRZEJ SAPKOWSKI, THE WITCHER, BAPTISM OF FIRE, FANTASY NOVEL, BOOK COVERMutant monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia continues his quest to find and protect Ciri, the Child of Destiny sought by pretty much every power in the world for their own devious ends.

The gritty, morally murky fantasy setting of The Witcher series fits right in with the recent trend for grimdark works. But Sapkowski has been at it since the early 90s. The series has only recently been translated into English (from Polish.) It’s also been top of mind thanks to exceptional video game adaptations. I blame these games for my slow writing progress.

What I particular like about the series is that its dark world is also full of hope and good people. The Witcher himself always tries to do the right thing, even when it’s hard. Violence is not used gratuitously and humour is liberally sprinkled throughout.

However, what works so well in the short stories (among my all-time favourites) and video games doesn’t seem to transfer to the novels. The narrative of this novel in particular feels disjointed, with clunkily changing points of view. It’s also plagued by long exposition dumps and thematic debates played out in conversation. While characters as archetypes serve to make points in short stories, the longer form exposes their lack of developed motivations. At least the novels don’t have the exploitative attitude towards women that detract from the games.

I’ll keep reading the series because I find the events of the story interesting, even as I struggle with the actual writing.

My rating: ★★★ (of out 5)

The Core (Demon Cycle #5) by Peter V. Brett

THE CORE, DEMON CYCLE, PETER V BRETT, FANTASY NOVEL, BOOK COVERIn the final installment of this fantasy series, the survivors of a world long plagued by demons finally start putting aside their differences to save the world, even as the demons prepare an all-out attack.

It’s always tough for writers to end a series satisfactorily. This is especially true when following an absolute classic, as The Skull Throne was. So it was inevitable that I felt a bit disappointed in this novel. But those were very high standards to maintain. The Core is still a very good book.

What hindered this novel for me were some odd narrative choices and fan-servicey plots. I didn’t feel that they connected well with the main story. There was excessive coverage given to side plots that I just wanted to be done with so I could get back to the main story.

Still, the reason for my impatience was that the main story and the more important subplots were just so compelling. In the end, the conclusion felt earned. The right amount of sacrifice was given by the heroes after so much work and suffering over four books. There was no cheap deus ex machina. The ending was satisfying in almost every way.

My rating: ★★★★ (of out 5)

Bubblegum by Sari Taurez

BUBBLEGUM, SARI TAUREZ, YA, SCIENCE FICTION, THRILLER, LGBT, NOVEL, BOOK COVERIn a cyberpunk-ish dystopia, unlikely partners form a killer-for-hire business and tangle with a crime lord. 

Wow, what a great debut novel. It hits all the beats of a hero origin story, yet felt so fresh in its details.

Full disclosure: Bubblegum is written by friend of the blog Sari Taurez. But I take my integrity as a reviewer seriously. If I wanted to support an author but didn’t think their book deserved praise, I’d just not share my opinion in public. Bubblegum most definitely deserves praise.

The story centres on the pair of Julia and Tiana as the latter starts a business as a killer for hire. Julia is the moral centre but Tiana is the star. She follows a warped moral code. I loved following her adventures. She makes mistakes, she’s not super-skilled, but she makes up for that with a nasty edge and being clever on her feet. At the same time, I’m glad she wasn’t over the top unpleasant like so many grimdark protagonists.

The world of Bubblegum was tantalizing, but I felt frustrated at times that it wasn’t explicitly fleshed out. Ultimately, I could forget those concerns, because the pace of the novel is cracking, with some unexpected twists and obstacles through things for fun loops.

My rating: ★★★★ (of out 5)

The 5 Best Things About “The Terror”

AMC’s (and Amazon Prime’s) limited-run period drama / supernatural horror hybrid is already a hit, but if you haven’t yet been converted, here’s what you should know about my new favourite show.

I haven’t loved watching something on TV this much since The Wire (yes I know everybody name checks The Wire, but there’s a reason for that. The Terror is a perfect mix of period details, a mysterious monster, beautiful Arctic scenery and survival drama, all things that I happen to love.

But if you don’t share my tastes (quite likely, because who else would blog about Sam Hinkie in a post on self-publishing a YA novel) here’s 5 reasons you should be watching The Terror too.


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