J.G.Ballard is where it all began for me. When I was 13 I was auditioned for the film of Empire of the Sun, his autobiographical novel about his years in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. Over a month or so of train rides to interviews and camera tests I devoured most of his fiction. Then a year or so later, on a chilly Sunday morning, I went to the London cast and crew screening of the movie, and for two hours was transported from London 1987 to Shanghai 1945. To one degree or another, I’m not sure I ever left. To a kid brought up on Octopussy and The Goonies, the movie was a revelation: gorgeous and brutal, epic and personal, funny and tragic, all wrapped in the soaring music of John Williams.
It’s brilliantly acted too: John Malkovich prefigures Dangerous Liaisons as the seductive, scheming Basie, and Leslie Philips and Nigel Havers reach far beyond their comfort zones to show depths we’d never seen before. And of course there’s Batman: Christian Bale, unforgettable as Jim, the pampered choirboy turned hard-eyed cynic, stealing the shoes from a still-warm corpse. Looked at from this distance, Empire of the Sun seems like a curious prequel to many of his later films: who, with such a childhood, would not grow up to be a Dark Knight, or an American Psycho? The most bizarre example is Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, in which Bale plays a fighter pilot — that childhood obsession with planes! — shot down in Vietnam: when he ends up as a prisoner you can’t help thinking, “well, he’ll know how to get along”.
Ballard loved the movie: when I interviewed him some years later he defended it fiercely against critics who’d attacked Spielberg for sanitising life in the camp. The film, said Ballard, like the book, was a portrayal of how it had seemed to him as a child: so yes there were games to be played in the ruins, beauty in the bombs that fell. Looking at the film today, it still seems startling, and one of Spielberg’s most creatively daring. Here’s a sequence early in the movie, where young Jim, obsessed with aeroplanes, takes his model aircraft to a fancy dress party, a scene that Spielberg turns into boyish fantasy, then sobering fact. You also have to love the irony of Leslie Philips’ final line:
This sequence in particular is almost an encapsulation of the movie. It’s both pure Spielberg and pure Ballard, beautiful and shocking all at once:
But Ballard, of course, was far more than Empire of the Sun and its tender, under-rated sequel, The Kindness of Women. Along with Harold Pinter he was the only contemporary British author whose name became an adjective; an adjective that seemed increasingly to apply not just to his world, but our own. The landscapes of his fiction — airports, motorways and shopping malls – and the themes of his work — sexuality, celebrity, consumerism and surveillance — feel ever more relevant, and his best work, far from feeling dated, feels like a guidebook to the future, not the past.
Along with John le Carre, Ballard in his seventies was writing books that felt more engaged, more passionate and more contemporary than those of writers half his age. His cool, clear, amused pessimism shone from his books, reviews and interviews, and you can’t read his work without hearing his voice. In a week whose news is dominated by police brutality, popular rage, climate disaster and the crisis of capitalism, it feels as if we need him more than ever, just as he is snatched away.