According to David Cronenberg, the idea of adapting J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash came, appropriately enough, by accident. Jeremy Thomas, who had produced Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, based on an “unfilmable” novel by Williams S. Burroughs, asked him what he wanted to do next. Cronenberg spontaneously said, “I think we should do Crash.” Thomas was immediately taken with the idea; in addition to Naked Lunch, he had produced The Sheltering Sky, another adaptation of an “unadaptable” book. Meanwhile, Cronenberg wondered what it was that led him to say that in the first place. He had read the novel but wasn’t a fan, and he had never considered making a film version before.
This pattern of “ambivalence towards Crash eventually giving away to curious interest” is hardly unique. Martin Amis published an admittedly sarcastic review of the book when it was published only to later confess, “It took me a long time to get the hang of Crash.” Personally, the first time I read it I found much of it boring…but boring with a purpose! The second time, however, I was intrigued and fascinated.
Cronenberg’s initial impulse was to mix parts of the novel with scenes based on Ballard’s life while he was writing it. He had used this “lives of the artists” approach for Naked Lunch once he realized that the novel was, if not unfilmable, then unreleasable if it was faithful to the text. But Ballard’s home life was about as far from his work as could be imagined. After his wife died in 1964, he became a single father as well as full time author. “I wrote Crash with three children running around…I wrote that between 1970 and ’72, when [his daughter] Bea was ten,” he explains. “So most of my fiction has been produced out of the huge harum-scarum of domestic life! It’s none the worse or better for that.” It’s just as well that the idea of including any biographical elements, apart from the playfulness of the main character being named “James Ballard,” was dropped. The irony of a loving father writing transgressive fiction by day while he takes care of his kids is too pat, too obvious. Even worse, it could make the film seem moralistic, something neither Cronenberg nor Ballard (“It’s none the worse or better for that”) had any interest in doing.
Ballard’s novel is about people who are sexually fixated on car accidents, a new fetish born by 20th-century technology, a compulsion that’s never fully understood or analyzed by those who have it. The first-person narrator details his sexual encounters with others who share this fetish, using a language so clinical and scientific it borders on the absurd. He finds himself in a loose subculture that revolves around Vaughan, who is both a scientist and a thug. Vaughan’s ultimate goal is to die mid-orgasm in a head-on collision with the film actress Elizabeth Taylor. To borrow from the advertising slogan for Kubrick’s Lolita, “How did they ever make a movie out of Crash?”
“I think it’s impossible to translate any book into a movie,” Cronenberg says. “It’s not really a translation that you’re doing, it’s a kind of a transmutation…the two media are so completely different.” Cronenberg’s movie is shot in the cold style of a thriller and at times looks like softcore erotica with a decent budget. With minimal editing and redubbed dialogue, one could easily change it into a movie about a gang trying to pull off a crime or a thriller about a couple of married swingers terrorized by a guy they picked up for a threesome one night (“You’ll find that in our ‘erotic thriller’ section.”) The acting is all quiet, slightly distant. Dialogue is whispered, and there’s little eye contact between people. Even Elias Koteas’ Vaughan is hushed, a quiet menace. Imagine if the characters from an Antonioni film exchanged their ennui for car accidents.
The idea of filming a story about a group of people with an uncommon fetish as if it’s a slick suspense movie is a witty one, but Cronenberg isn’t really a self-conscious or postmodern director. While he certainly knows how to use film’s formal properties, it’s in service to ideas and character rather than to exploration of or commentary on the properties themselves. He says that with Crash, “It’s the lighting that is the equivalent of the texture of Ballard’s prose. It’s the editing, it’s the camera angles, it’s the music, all of those things are the equivalent for me of the texture of Ballard’s prose.” Which may be true, but then why does Crash look and feel like other Cronenberg movies like Dead Ringers and eXistenZ? All have a cold color palette, with similar editing and shot composition. This may be because the same editor, production designer, composer, and director of photography worked on all three films. It’s an auteurist argument: no matter what the subject matter, Cronenberg movies look like Cronenberg movies.
For comparison’s sake, here’s a passage from Ballard’s novel:
In his vision of a car crash with the actress, Vaughan was obsessed by many wounds and impacts — by the dying chromium and collapsing bulkheads of their two cars meeting head-on in complex collisions endlessly repeated in slow-motion films, by the identical wounds inflicted on their bodies, by the image of windshield glass frosting around her face as she broke its tinted surface like a death-born Aphrodite, by the compound fractures of their thighs impacted against their handbrake mountings, and above all by the wounds to their genitalia…
It was only at these times, as he described this last crash to me, that Vaughan was calm.
This passage makes my head buzz. The visual equivalent might be something like the paintings by pop artist James Rosenquist, large dynamic murals depicting spaghetti, hairdryers, nuclear weapons, and lipstick. There’s no equivalent in Cronenberg’s movie, not in the lighting, editing, camera angles or music, skillful as all those are. While the film works when it uses the style of mainstream cinema to document the life cycle of a fetish, it’s missing the novel’s crazed philosophy, one that seems quintessentially British in the way it depicts the outlandish in language either clinical or neutral. There’s a madness in Ballard’s novel that’s completely missing from the film, but in its place is an acceptance, a lack of judgement on what adults choose to do with their bodies. Cronenberg’s cool style doesn’t editorialize on what the characters are doing, and his script doesn’t punish them for exploring an unconventional sexuality, which makes it revolutionary in its own quiet way.