‘The movie did explode, and took a lot of people’s heads off as it did so.’ David Cronenberg on ‘Crash’

Today is what would have been J.G. Ballard’s 85th birthday. To celebrate, we have quite the Ballardian line-up on the site. Here, though, is a very special piece written by none other than David Cronenberg…

When renowned film producer Jeremy Thomas suggested to me that we collaborate on a movie adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash, I had to confess that though I had heard of Ballard, I had never read him. I thought of him as a sci-fi writer, and I had stopped reading sci-fi in my teens. “I’ll send it to you,” he said. And he did.

I had no idea what to expect, and thus was completely unprepared for the assault that was contained in that small paperback. I found the book so disturbing, so repellant, so coldly sinister, so non-human, so clinical in its prose and its understanding of technological man, that I only managed to get a third of the way through the book before I put it away. Patient and clever man that Jeremy is, he never mentioned Crash to me whenever we ran into each other at one film event or another. And then one day, for no particular reason, I picked the book up again and read it from where I’d left off.

It was a revelation. Everything now made sense. The humans were actually human, for all that they were dispassionately dissected by Ballard’s prose. The underground cabal of car-crash aficionados had a clear understanding of the perverse sexuality of all technology, and were willing to throw themselves into the maw of that volcano. My nervous system seemed to have been quietly absorbing and adjusting to Ballard’s austere vision of reality since I had read those first pages, to the extent that now the story seemed to take place not in London, not in England, but in Toronto, my Canadian home town. (The movie was ultimately shot in Toronto). But a movie? No. A book like Crash obviously could not be a movie.

The next time I saw Jeremy – it was probably at the Toronto International Film Festival – in the middle of some conversation we were having, I found myself saying, “By the way, yes, of course we must make a movie of Crash.” I barely knew which part of me was saying that, but it was probably the part of me that had me leaping into the mouth of live volcanoes several times before.

Casually, as though he had expected my words all along, Jeremy said, “I know Jim Ballard. I’ll introduce you.”

Flash forward several years to the Cannes Film Festival, 1996. Gilles Jacob, the director of the festival, had told me he wanted to program Crash “so that it explodes like a bomb in the middle of the festival.”

I laughed. “It’s an old book. It’s been absorbed by the culture. It’s not explosive by today’s standards.”

How wrong I was. The movie did explode, and took a lot of people’s heads off as it did so. We, the makers of the movie, faced an extremely hostile press of about 300 journalists. More were watching us on hastily improvised remote live screens, so intense was the interest in the Crash press conference. I had Jim at my side, and all my main actors, and Jeremy. A journalist from Finland spoke up and attacked us in a novel way. Rather than excoriating us for making a film “beyond the bounds of depravity” (per Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard, who actually shook a schoolmaster’s disapproving finger at Jeremy from the back of the packed hall), he said that the movie completely betrayed the book, was a pathetic and weak skimming of a powerful work. Jim answered him: “The movie is actually better than the book. It goes further than the book, and is much more powerful and dynamic. It’s terrific.” An astonishing thing for an author to say. Abashed, the Finnish journalist sat down.

We all spent a few more days in Cannes with Jim, celebrating the volcanic eruption that was Crash, the movie. Although he had a reputation as a ferocious and intellectually merciless opponent when attacked, I saw nothing of that. I revelled in his sweetness and profound, easy human warmth, which I had discovered when I first met him earlier in London, and I was very unhappy to say goodbye to him when he said, “This is all a bit too exciting for a writer, David. I need to get back to Shepperton.”

I’m still unhappy to have had to say goodbye to him.

Words by David Cronenberg

Consumed is out now

Crash is also out now, with introduction from Zadie Smith

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