All dressed up but no film to go... JGB in costume for his role in Spelberg's Empire of the Sun

JG Ballard: Abandoned Worlds, Fantasy Landscapes

By Adam Pirani

Receiving the special Irving G. Thalberg Award for continued production excellence at this year's Oscar ceremony, Steven Spielberg acknowledged the filmmaker's debt to writers and emphasized the primary importance of the story to a motion picture. "That's where it all begins -- we are first and foremost storytellers," he said, adding, "I think it's time to renew our romance with the word."

The originator of the words for Spielberg's latest movie is J.G. Ballard. For many years a science-fiction writer, in 1984, Ballard turned to his experience as a school-age boy in World War II Shanghai for his novel Empire of the Sun. Widely acclaimed on publication, the book's broad scenario of a child's journey through crucial historical events soon attracted cinematic interest.

"Originally, an option was taken out by Robert Shapiro, an independent producer associated with Warner Bros." Ballard recalls. "He was very enthusiastic about the book, and he commissioned Tom Stoppard, the English playwright [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Jumpers, The Real Thing] to write a script.

"More or less at about the same time, quite independently, Steven Spielberg read the book and became very interested. And there was interest in it from other people in the film world -- David Lean [director of such films as Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India] was very interested. Anyway, out of all this came Spielberg's decision to make the film for Warner Bros."

Ballard did not work on the movie's screenplay. "I didn't want any involvement," he explains, "because film is a medium for top-class professionals, and although I go to the movies, and I love the movies, and everybody who goes to the movies thinks they could direct a film, being realistic, 1 don't know what makes a great movie. And so I thought I would happily leave it to the people who are the best in the field to get on with it."

Only when the movie was well underway did Ballard finally meet Spielberg. "I had several social meetings with Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, his co-producers, and with Robert Shapiro, the executive producer, who had taken out the option in the first place," the author says. "But apart from those, I hadn't any direct involvement at all until the day that I met Spielberg for the first time, on the set here in the Greater London area filming a few interior sequences on various locations.

"I was invited by Spielberg to have a very small part, a non-speaking part, as a guest at the party on the day before Pearl Harbor, which opens the book and the film -- I couldn't turn that down, it was a wonderful opportunity. It was very kind of him to offer it to me. So, I met him on the set during the two days I spent filming the three scenes in which I hope I still appear -- my brief contribution to the art of acting is probably lying on the cutting room floor in Burbank!

"But it was very generous of him to do that, and I was profoundly impressed by him. I liked him enormously, and in fact within five seconds of talking to him, I knew that my book was in the best possible hands: he struck me as a man with a very powerful, hard imagination -- completely unsentimental, quite the opposite of what I had read in the newspapers; he was completely dedicated to tackling the book in the most serious possible way.

"We talked about how he proposed to deal with certain scenes, and I was very impressed -- I told him that I thought his film was going to be, in many ways, a big improvement on my book.

"Anyway, I did my two days there, and that was, of course, tremendously exciting, to be in the middle of a huge-scale Hollywood feature film production -- not only watching it but actually taking part as the cameras rolled was absolutely staggering. On the set, Spielberg very generously offered me a line of dialogue, but I felt just too shy, surrounded by real actors -- I didn't want to spoil the film, frankly. All I had to do was stand there with a glass of whiskey in my hand, and that's something I've had a lot of training at, so I thought I would stick to what I knew.

"I regret it now, I wish I had taken up the offer -- but in fact, I was talking to Kathy Kennedy and Frank Marshall, and Spielberg has asked me to record a voice-over prologue for the film's beginning. It's basically a historical introduction, to give the audience some idea of the political and military situation in China in 1941, at the time of Pearl Harbor, and generally set the scene."

Apart from his cameo visual and vocal contributions to the film, Ballard has been happy to stand back and let the moviemakers get on with their job. "I'm delighted to have taken part; I'm very glad that my own brief contribution -- if it survives into the movie itself is at the film's beginning, because what I really want to do is to go to the movies, and see this picture -- and I mean that literally," he says.

"Much of Empire of the Sun was shot in Shanghai and certain scenes in Spain, and they very kindly invited me out to Spain, but I decided not to go: I don't want to see the film and spend my time recognizing pieces of scenery, or to have that constant feeling, 'Oh yes, I saw them rehearsing that, they did it a bit differently then,' or, 'That was that day the assistant director fell into the canal.' No, I just want to see this film because I know it will be a great film, and I want to be able to sit back in the audience like everybody else, and be captivated by the magic of Steven Spielberg."

Pressures to write

Ballard, who now lives in a small, comfortable house about 10 miles outside London, England, was born of English parents in Shanghai, China in 1930. He has spent most of his working fife as a writer. "I came to England in '46 from Shanghai, and I went to school here," he says. "Originally, I wanted to be a doctor: I went to Cambridge, studied medicine for a couple of years, but then the internal pressure to become a writer was too great. So, I had a number of jobs: I worked for a scientific film company; I worked as a Covent Garden porter, in the flower market; but eventually, I got a job on a scientific journal as assistant editor, where I stayed until I became a fulltime writer in something like 1961."

From the start, it was always a deliberate choice for Ballard to write science fiction. "I was very excited by SF," he says. "When I first started out as a writer, I didn't want to write anything like a conventional mainstream novel, that struck me as far too boring. I wanted something more challenging and original, and something about the present day in which I lived -- this is mid-50s. I wanted to write about change: the world of jet travel and computers, and the consumer goods society, and the threat of nuclear war -- I wanted to write about all of the exciting things I saw going on in life around me then. Underpinning everything were these huge changes in science and technology -- and science fiction seemed to have terrific vitality.

"I wasn't that keen on the outer space or time travel aspects of SF, they didn't interest me as much, because I felt that what I wanted to write about was this planet, and I coined a phrase to describe the type of SF I wanted to write -- the science fiction of 'inner space,' not outer space. It seemed to me that this planet was infinitely more weird and strange than any planet that anyone could invent." Ballard's work during this period includes The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1965) and The Crystal World (1966), as well as several volumes of short stories.

The author has no particular favorites among his early books. "Once I've finished with a book, I don't read it. I've never read any of my early stuff again, so I've only got a hazy notion of what it's like," he says. "But I hope it still stands up. Most of it is still published around the world and reissued, so I'm pleased that later generations of people -- people who weren't even born when I wrote my first novels and short stories -- are still enjoying them. That's important to me."

Ballard's connections with SF have become somewhat more tenuous in recent years. "In the early '70s, I started writing what I would call novels of the 'urban disaster': Crash (1972), Concrete Island (1974), High Rise (1975)," he says. "They're not science fiction, strictly speaking, but they have something of the science-fiction atmosphere.

"And although, in fact, I haven't written much SF in, say, the last 15 years, it still strikes me as being a tremendously important kind of fiction: In fact, I really believe that it is the true literature of the 20th century because it's the only literature that really responds to scientific change."

Reasons to wait

Ballard's most recent novels have been The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) and Hello America (1981). But it wasn't until 1984 -- 40 years after the events happened, and more than 25 years since he had begun writing -- that Ballard first wrote about his childhood in China. "I knew that one day I would probably write a novel about my experience in China during the second world war, my childhood there, because it was such a large part of my life," he says. "I was born but there, I didn't come here until I was nearly 16, so that was my background.

"Why I waited so long is hard to say. Part of the reason was that China was taken over the Communists in 1949, and I knew, and my parents, their friends and so on, knew that there was no going back. China virtually retreated from the world -- it's only in the last 10 years really that it has opened up to the West.

"So, therefore, in a way I had to forget about my background, and come to terms with living in a very, very different kind of country -- this one -- with a different climate, a completely strange language in many ways, different landscape. So, I dedicated all of my energies, I think, to coming to terms with English life.

"After my own children grew up and left home, I could look back and risk exposing my younger self to all those wartime dangers. Even if it's only in the pages of a novel, one is still emotionally engaged. That may be the main reason, in fact, that I chose to write the book when I did. It has something to do with reaching a certain age, where one can look back."

The uniqueness of Empire of the Sun is partly due to the fact that few books have been written about the Japanese prison camps in Shanghai and the Far East -- what Ballard calls a "forgotten theater" of World War II.

"It was only out in the Far East, to all intents and purposes, that large numbers of British and Allied civilians were interned by the enemy occupying forces," he explains. "It didn't really happen in Europe -- I mean, apart from the POWS: I'm talking about civilians. There were small groups of British civilians who were interned in Europe, but they were a matter of a few hundred, diplomatic people and others caught up in the German occupation of Europe."

But Ballard's book isn't a piece of dry reportage or solemn autobiography. "Empire of the Sun is a novel, and it's part fiction, part fact: it's a mixture of the two," he says. "I don't want to go through the book saying, 'True, true, true, false, true, true, false': It incorporates a very large number of incidents in which I was personally involved, but they're not necessarily in the order in which they occurred."

The one major departure from Ballard's own experience is that early in the book, the young Jim Graham (which is, incidentally, what the author's initials J.G. stand for) is separated from his parents. "I wanted a story that most summed up my own feelings, my own memories of what Shanghai was like," Ballard says. "And although my mother and father lived with me, and were in fact in the camp with me throughout the war, as I set about looking for a story, it seemed, looking back, that I was alone a great deal, both before the war, during the internment period in the camp, and then in the period immediately after the war, when I used to rove around by myself.

"It just seemed to me psychologically truer to my memories of my childhood to put myself on my own. That was the key to the whole thing, and once I had done that, the story unfolded itself."

The rest of his work, Ballard believes, was "enormously" influenced by his experiences in China. "Remember, they were the only experiences, to all intents and purposes, that I'd had," he points out. "So, when I started to write in the '50s, when I was in my mid-to-late 20s, I was writing out of the background described in Empire of the Sun. There's no doubt that these early novels of mine like The Drowned World, The Crystal World, The Drought, are sort of disguised versions of my Shanghai experiences. There are bits of wartime Shanghai in all those books: I mean, in The Drowned World, I describe London being covered with great sheets of water, where it's flooded, and I can remember looking out from our camp during the war, about 10 miles south of Shanghai, at the abandoned paddy fields that had flooded in the spring, and I would look out across these great sheets of water at the distant apartment blocks of the French concession, which seemed to rise out of the water. I can see it in my mind's eye right now. I looked at it every day. And if you looked at Shanghai, you saw it apparently rising out of this great sea of inland water.

"Many of the images in my fiction of abandoned apartment blocks, and abandoned, empty hotels, and drained swimming pools -- I can remember wandering around the French concession, through a world like that, the landscape of war-time Shanghai."

Films to come

Prior to Empire of the Sun, Ballard's involvement with the film industry has been sporadic. "Back in 1967, I was commissioned by Hammer Films to write an original treatment for the sequel which they planned to make to their version of One Million Years B.C., starring Raquel Welch, which itself was a remake," Ballard says. "Hammer brought out their remake in 1965 or thereabouts, and it was a big success and they decided to make a sequel.

"Aida Young, the producer, had read my early novel The Drowned World, which had come out a couple of years beforehand, and was very taken with it. Of course, it had certain affinities with One Million Years B.C. and the dinosaur films, and that's why she got in touch with me.

"They eventually brought out this sequel, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and I wrote the original treatment for it, for which I got a screen credit. It was a film without dialogue, and the script was credited to Val Guest, the director; I would say that of what you see on the screen, many of the basic elements and the overall storyline are mine, and much of the detailed narrative is his.

"But I haven't really had much to do with the film world since then. I haven't wanted to, in particular."

Nonetheless, Ballard hasn't obstructed moviemakers who want to adapt his work. "Most of my novels have been optioned in the intervening period, and in some cases, the rights sold," he says, "but Empire of the Sun is the first to have been filmed.

"Several other books were optioned by French film producers, and now young American director Mark Romanek, who directed a film called Static, has taken an option on my novel Crash, and has produced a very good script, and there's a good chance that it will go into production -- though one can never say with these things. "

Meanwhile, Ballard continues his writing career. His new novel, The Day of Creation, will be published in America early next year. Set in "central Africa, in the present day, in a rather godforsaken corner of the continent, "it is the story of a young British doctor and his obsession with a miraculous river whose creation he seems to be responsible for. "Of all the novels I've written, The Day of Creation is probably the closest to Empire of the Sun in its feel and landscape, its setting," J.G. Ballard says, while noting that it's not science fiction, though "I like to think of it as an imaginative novel."