Another interview in connection with the release of Spielberg's film of "Empire", this time from "The Scotsman", 14 March 1988:
Spielberg backs into the future
Lindsay Mackie talks to J. G. Ballard, author of "Empire of the Sun", the award-winning book about a young boy's experiences during the Second World War and on which Steven Spielberg's latest film is based.
The American premiere of "Empire of the Sun" was celebrated in a marquee the size of an airport, which housed a Chinese temple with the approximate dimensions of the Taj Mahal. This is a Spielberg film. And it was because of Spielberg that there was a red carpet street for guests to read [sic]. Tom Stoppard did the script, and that added dazzle too.
But the man who wrote "Empire of the Sun", the book which has been called the greatest Second World War novel produced by Britain, is J. G. Ballard. When it came out in 1984, "Empire of the Sun" caused a sensation. The story of a 13-year-old boy imprisoned by the Japanese in Shanghai in 1942 until the end of the war, an odyssey through loss, destruction, fear and dereliction, the book towered above the novels of manners and refined relationships which by and large cart off all the
prizes in Britain.
For a man who has written some of the most chilling futuristic sci-fi ever to have a stab at imagining our future, J. G. Ballard is surprisingly cheery. "Ah. The Scotsman!" he cried, offering up a generous malt whisky at four in the afternoon. (Martin Amis once wrote that J. G. Ballard's standard opening greeting to chums was "Whisky! Gin! Vodka!" but things have apparently calmed down since then).
When J. G. Ballard was 13 he and his parents were interned by the Japanese in Shanghai and many of the events which occur in his book happened to or around the boy. He was able at this young age to observe how the 2,000 internees were affected by their appalling circumstances, and he became familiar with all the ways in which human beings can lose their humanity. But Jim, the hero of the book and now the film, is a real hero; he can form affections, feel affinities, think of others, even in extremity.
"I never wanted to create an atrocity parade," he says now about the book. And though some have claimed that the film is overly sentimental, Ballard says that he did not make the book as violent as the reality was.
Ballard was not asked to script the film; if he had been asked he says, he would have refused. "I wrote the book and I cashed the cheque," he says, in a gale of laughter. But he seems to have kept in close touch with the making of the film. He likes and respects Spielberg, and admires his film. He goes further - the film enabled him once again to go back to his own childhood in an extraordinary way.
"Seeing the printed page brought to life is a remarkable experience for a writer, and it was tremendously powerful, and overwhelming for me. The thing was, for me, that while I had to remember Shanghai, and describe it from memory and imagination, Spielberg had gone there and filmed it. I sat there in the Los Angeles cinema and saw those very streets of my childhood again. It was an extraordinary experience for me."
J. G. Ballard has not written science fiction for 20 years. He wrote "Empire of the Sun" rather late - he is now in his fifties - though his boyhood was evidently an extraordinary one, something you might imagine a writer would get to work on much earlier than he did. "I had always intended to write about it, I don't think I put it off." But one writer, familiar with the author and his work, has suggested that only once Ballard's own three children were grown up (he brought them up himself after his young wife's tragic death from pneumonia in 1964) could he examine his own past as material.
He is currently writing short stories, but mainly what occupies him is, he says: "The monster that has escaped from the bottle - the genie that is 'Empire of the Sun.'" In two weeks, he points out with discomforting relish, he will never, never have to speak about "Empire of the Sun" again.
It seems to have amused him though, the rotating search lights in the Los Angeles sky illuminating billboards as big as two tennis courts with his own title looming down. And since he believes that cinema is the way in which the twentieth century imagination is expressed, and long ago gave up, he says, any idea of putting a message in his work, the whole furore has probably been less tiresome than he now imagines.
Cinemagoers will see in "Empire of the Sun" things that are unbearable; things that are as brutal as we in the late century have got used to. But Ballard injects not just a note, but a whole symphony of optimism into his view of the future. "Large areas of the world are getting more prosperous, less confined," he says bullishly.
Forty years ago, according to him, the typical public sound in Britain, in bus shelters and shops and railway stations was "of children crying" through misery or rejection or neglect by parents who were too tired and poor to help them. Now we live in societies that are more just, more humane, more sane. Our lives can be more imaginatively led. Though "Empire of the Sun" is fiction, it can be seen that these are a survivor's thoughts, the sort of hope that would carry a boy forward in a terrible war.