Warning: Contains spoilers for both the movie and the book. Best read by people who know both or who know one but would rather a summary than watch/read the other.
The High-Rise film centers around Robert Lang (Tom Hiddleston), the least interesting character in the movie. Having lost all of his family to death, the last of which was his sister, he feels completely detached as he moves into the new high-rise building. However, it is this cold, heart-of-steel behavior that is said to help him be one of the last surviving residents of the high-rise when it becomes a brutal playground for the most primitive instincts of mankind. In fact, while Laing tries to diagnose Wilder, Wilder is diagnosing Laing. He tells him that Laing is immune to societal pressures of high-rise life and is therefore “thriving like an advanced species in a neutral atmosphere.” However, the film does grant him a spoonful of humanity. He weakens to the will of the high-rise by seeking revenge on his med student who is of a higher class. After a brain scan, he tells Munrow (Augustus Prew) that he is dying, as a way to knock him down a peg, but this news, among other things, leads the young man to leap to his death. Laing’s numbness following this event could be a sign of his guilt. But that scene isn’t in the book. Someone does leap from the high-rise–a jeweler that Laing has little connection with–but it isn’t Laing’s fault and he doesn’t feel particularly sorry for him. So why does the movie go out of the way to make Laing vulnerable and human when we know that it’s his lack of these characteristics that make him uniquely equipped to survive?
I say unique, but there are others like him in the high-rise. There’s also Laing’s neighbor, the orthodontic surgeon Steele (played by Reece Shearsmith). You’ll notice that many characters have names reflecting personality traits. Steele is just as cold and fit to survive as Laing. In the book, when floors break into clans, newsreader Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando in the film) is “appointed” clan leader of Laing’s floor, but Laing is betting on a different horse. He wants Steele to take over, probably because of his similar detachment from people and emotions. The movie doesn’t portray Steele this way, though. He is suspicious of Cosgrove’s flirting with his wife at the first party scene, and later, when he watches the homemade porn reel starring Cosgrove and Steele’s wife, he (presumably) rallies his floormates in an act of revenge. Cosgrove’s murder and installation in Steele’s sick tableau (a dead Cosgrove with his head jammed inside a TV with broken screen) is driven by weak human emotions, exactly what book-Steele is said not to have. In fact, only the film makes you question whether Steele is gay, as it is one of the first things he blurts out upon meeting Laing: “I’m an orthodontist, not a homosexual,” while drinking a flowery cocktail. He is also seen stealing lipstick, far too early for one of his tableaux. Does this give his wife motive to cheat on him with Cosgrove? The affair is not present in the book, and Steele does his best to steer clear of Cosgrove. Instead, he busies himself catching cats and setting dead people up in elaborate tableaux with costumes and face paint in empty apartment rooms. Laing suggests he may some day repopulate the entire high-rise with these morbid displays. So, again, why does the film give Steele a human attribute, going against J. G. Ballard’s point about the steel-like quality of his heart?
Laing has a less pathetic background in the book. The movie portrays him as someone who has no family or loved ones left in the world, but in the book, his sister, Alice, is alive and lives in the high-rise. He cares very much for his sister, and in fact, winds up doing everything he can to protect her, taking her into his apartment in the end (instead of Charlotte Melville, as you see in the movie). But it does have a dark turn. There is something deeply Freudian going on with several of the characters. Laing’s earlier distance from his sister previously had to do with her resemblance to his mother, but now, he says, it’s this resemblance to his mother that is attracting him, and not in an unsexual way, necessarily. This, not unlike Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, is used to signal to us that the morality of family boundaries has broken down. Yeah, it gets weird, so it’s no surprise that the film wanted to make it a little more mainstream by having him fall for and protect Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), the neighbor upstairs, instead. She doesn’t have much of a role in the book. It begins the same, but after the Laing/Charlotte sex scene, she’s barely in the book, save to be attacked by Wilder later. The book doesn’t even contain the secret of who the father of her little boy is.
The book does not only center on Robert Laing. It equally shows the perspective of Richard Wilder and Anthony Royal, two far more interesting people. Richard Wilder (Luke Evans in the movie) is a more sympathetic character in the book. Despite his self-appointed mission to reach the top of the high-rise, even with elevators and stairs being blocked, he still makes time to visit his wife (who isn’t pregnant in the book) and two sons each day. It is actually the wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss), who is considering abandoning the boys, and it is Wilder who wonders if he should take the boys with him on his mission to save them from her strange mental state and inability to care for them. But he decides against it. His mission to reach Anthony Royal at the 40th floor is wrapped in a twisted confusion about his father. Desperate to be parented into adulthood, all he wanted from his marriage was to be mothered again, but Helen’s role as wife was far more different from a mother than he’d expected. Giving up on this dream, he seeks the patriarch of the high-rise. (However, in the movie, he arrives to the top seeking both revenge and his missing wife.)
Royal (Jeremy Irons in the movie), by contrast, can’t wait for he and Wilder to be the last two men alive in the high-rise. This seems inevitable, and although he does somewhat fear Wilder’s…er…wildness, he looks forward to the confrontation. He does not, like in the film, try to get Laing to give Wilder a lobotomy. This goes against book-Royal’s desire for a fair one-on-one. But it does bring up an interesting point. In the movie, Laing says he can’t lobotomize Wilder because he’s the sanest person in the high-rise. In the movie, he doesn’t really seem sane, so it’s a strange thing to say, but if you read the book, you realize that film-Laing is right. Even though Wilder is just as affected by the primitive lifestyle of the high-rise, he is the only one who is conscious of the changes and bothered by them. If you read Laing’s chapters, there is an ironic distance: we know that people are being affected in a scary way, but Laing isn’t bothered by it. In Wilder’s chapters, there’s no irony. He’s mystified and startled by the changes going on–perhaps because he had been away for three crucial days on assignment while the high-rise began to fall apart. This explains why in the movie Wilder is screaming his name into the tape recorder, which later just becomes screaming. He is trying to remind himself of his humanity and the horror of what he’s become (or perhaps the true self the high-rise has shown him) is too much for him. Sadly, this scene in the book is different. Instead of character-revealing screams of agony as his moral compass shatters and sense of language de-evolves, book-Wilder creates a complex series of burps to play back to Charlotte later on.
Finally, the book takes the downfall of the high-rise further–or perhaps just explains what happens better. I hate that there is so much montage in the film, glassing over the really interesting shifts in high-rise culture. The book better explains how the residents started out solo, then broke into clans, and then wound up solo again, every man for himself. Residents slowly loose their use of language. Wilder becomes mainly grunts and belches, which is only shown in the movie through the tape recorder scene. They lose their need for clothes and food, worrying only about what to eat in this moment and not about what are they going to eat tomorrow. Wilder paints wine stripes across his naked body as some kind of symbol to the other “creatures” in the high-rise, a lowly form of the alphabetic graffiti on the walls earlier in the decline. Eyesight grows weak as the residents only are awake at night, and there is no power in the building. Hearing, on the other hand, grows stronger. Laing can tell when the plumbing is working (for only a few minutes a day) by the music of the pipes. They become more and more primitive. Primitive in species as well as in age. Everyone is reverting to their younger selves. In the film, Laing confides in Charlotte’s son Toby that, “When I was your age, I was always covered in something.” This is in stark contrast to Laing’s perfect suit, but as the story goes on, he winds up covering himself in paint. This is also not in the book: Laing is painting his new apartment the color of the sky. What does this say about his impression of his room or where he really wants to be? He goes as far as fighting off looters in the checkout line at the market to bring home his sole bucket of paint. His walls are symbolic, as the book states over and over that Anthony Royal was actually a zoo architect and had inadvertently created a lateral zoo, and likewise Wilder is a prison documentarist and inadvertently created another prison documentary by filming the residents of the high-rise. Perhaps Laing’s blue sky walls represent freedom, since Charlotte does say that he is the best immunity in the building after all. The one last piece of the wall that is important is the tack that Laing finds already embedded in the wall. He uses this to pin up a picture of his sister, but more importantly it shows us that, despite this being a brand new building, someone had lived in this room before Laing. Thoughts?