“Ballardian” is a word that will only gain currency during 2017 and the years to come. If there were a stock market for words, I would be bullish on this one. Today’s jobs, homes, vacations, grocery stores, politicians, kinks, vehicles, riots, drugs, disasters, wars, and surgeries all seem to have come out of a Ballard novel.
But the feature that gave Ballard his first film credit (as treatment writer “J.B. Ballard”), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), is so uncannily prescient as to resemble raw news footage of the day after tomorrow. Watch it alongside any 24-hour cable network and you’ll see: it’s like the screenplay of Dinosaurs was ripped from the headlines.
In his last book, the autobiography Miracles of Life, Ballard recalled the meeting that gave life to the movie:
The first time I saw my name (even if misspelled) in the credits of a film came in 1970, with the British release of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. This was a Hammer film, a sequel to the Raquel Welch vehicle One Million Years BC, itself a remake of the 1940 Hollywood original starring Victor Mature and Carole Landis. Hammer specialized in Dracula and Frankenstein films, then much despised by the critics. But their films had tremendous panache and visual attack, without a single wasted frame, and the directors were surprisingly free to push their obsessions to the limit.
I was contacted by a Hammer producer, Aida Young, who was a great admirer of The Drowned World. She was keen that I write the screenplay for their next production, a sequel to One Million Years BC. Curious to see how the British film world worked, I turned up at the Wardour Street offices of Hammer, to be greeted in the foyer by a huge Tyrannosaurus rex about to deflower a blonde-haired actress in a leopard-skin bikini. The credits screamed ‘Curse of the Dinosaurs!’
Young brought Ballard up to date on the status of the project (“Raquel Welch would not be available”) and escorted him into the office of Hammer’s Tony Hinds, where Young narrated the entire story of The Drowned World for the studio boss. Hinds muttered something about water being “trouble” and asked Ballard for his ideas; the writer described a few that had occurred to him on the drive between Shepperton and Soho.
‘Too original,’ Hinds commented. Aida agreed. ‘Jim, we want that Drowned World atmosphere.’ She spoke as if this could be sprayed on, presumably in a fetching shade of jungle green.
Hinds then told me what the central idea would be. His secretary had suggested it this morning. This was nothing less than the story of the birth of the Moon–in fact, one of the oldest and corniest ideas in the whole of science fiction, which I would never have dared to lay on his desk. Hines stared hard at me. ‘We want you to tell us what happens next.’
I thought desperately, realizing that the film industry was not for me. ‘A tidal wave?’
‘Too many tidal waves. If you’ve seen one tidal wave you’ve seen them all.’
A small light came on in the total darkness of my brain. ‘But you always see the tidal waves coming in,’ I said in a stronger voice. ‘We should show the tidal wave going out! All those strange creatures and plants . . .’ I ended with a brief course in surrealist biology.
There was a silence as Hinds and Aida stared at each other. I assumed I was about to be shown the door.
‘When the wave goes out . . .’ Hinds stood up, clearly rejuvenated, standing behind his huge desk like Captain Ahab sighting the white whale. ‘Brilliant. Jim, who’s your agent?’
There is, as far as I can tell, no decent copy of When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth on YouTube or any subscription streaming service, but the movie is available on DVD. Below is the original trailer for When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, followed by the 1990 BBC program “The Unmade Films of J.G. Ballard,” which is, unfortunately, cut short.