Welcome to By the Book, where we compare books with their cinematic adaptations. Are they faithful and delightful partners in storytelling, or are the authors turning in their graves through these unholy versions of their work? This time round, it’s Trainspotting…
SPOILER WARNING – From this point on there are plot spoilers to both the novel and film
First things first – if you’re going to do a comparison of the novel and the movie Trainspotting, the first thing you have to confront is the goddamn-hard-to-read nature of the novel. If you’ve ever read Irvine Welsh’s novel, you’ll already know that it takes a while to get used to the phonetic Scottish dialect in which it’s written. But once you’re in, you’re in, and this is the factor that makes it all the more engaging to read. This is certainly something Danny Boyle captures in his film adaptation. Set in the heart of Edinburgh, Boyle does an excellent job of capturing the gritty, authentic essence of the novel, not only with the characters’ and narrators’ broad accents, but in the nonsensical slang with which they describe pretty much everything in their lives. Throw in a slurring, drug-dealing cameo from Mr Welsh himself, and it’s safe to say that Boyle has hit the correct tone for an adaptation of the highly controversial, but inherently accurate, depiction of drug abuse that is Trainspotting.
For all intents and purposes, Boyle is very faithful in his adaptation in terms of voice – he captures the colloquial nature of the novel, staying true to Renton’s rambling dialogue and keeping it relatable. And believe it or not, it’s exceptionally difficult to make most people relate to a reprobate heroin addict.
Realism vs. Surrealism
While Boyle has moments of perfect clarity and grittiness in his adaptation, the most memorable moments in the film derive from the surrealist images. Take McGregor’s midday dip into the toilet to track down his suppositories. Or the entire ‘drying out’ sequence, including – but not limited to – dead baby Dawn crawling across the ceiling. Half the beauty in Boyle’s interpretation derives from the stark contrasts between the surreal and the painfully real (filthy flats, track marks, and illegal one-night stands). With this in mind, it’s clear from the outset that the film is a lot more surrealist than the novel, which is almost entirely reliant on an expressionist realism.
Now, we’ve already covered the use of Scots dialect to keep a certain authenticity, but we haven’t even started on the stream of consciousness that is the entire novel. The difficulty in adapting such a convoluted quasi-narrative can have parallels drawn with the issues that directors have had with developing any Kerouac novels into film. For example, how the hell do you turn The Dharma Bums, which like Trainspotting is essentially a collection of rambling characters, thoughts and ideas, into a coherent film? It’s here that Boyle has to be most loudly applauded. Not only does he overcome the loose narrative structure, he uses it to his advantage.
Trainspotting is categorically made by its strong characters – because that’s all it’s really about. Not many people would want to watch a heroin addict sit around shooting up alone, whereas Trainspotting (both novel and film) studies how the characters engage with each other while they’re doing it. And the strong characterisation and development is perhaps the best thing about both versions of the story. For those of you who are unfamiliar, or perhaps just haven’t seen the film or read the book in a while, here’s a whistle-stop tour of the main characters of Trainspotting we all know and sort-of love:
Renton – Although the narrative of Renton is very similar, his actual characterisation is quite different. In the novel, Renton is depicted with a dark sense of humour (there are shades of this in the film, but certainly not to the same extent) and a lot of his narrative discusses his depression and complete failure to fit in with normal society. While this is largely a given when it comes to the film adaptation, and it would be impossible to squeeze 200 pages of depressive ramblings into an 86-minute film, Renton is a lot more charismatic and functional for the most part in the film adaptation. But then equally, the film version of Renton is very much in line with how you imagine him to be in the book – highly critical of his friends, despite the fact that he lives the exact same life as them, and in the exact same way.
Sick Boy – Possibly the most accurate portrayal, Sick Boy is very much presented as a charismatic ladies’ man. The one thing that isn’t shown, and honestly, there probably aren’t enough hours in the day to show this with the same deft hand that Welsh does in the novel, is the complete sociopathic trait that defines Sick Boy, especially after the death of his baby daughter.
Spud – There’s an interesting contrast to be made between Spud in the book, and the Spud that’s portrayed on screen by Ewen Bremner. The Spud of the novel is used as a tool to present naivety and innocence in a cruel habitat. Spud in the film, however, whilst still holding his childlike innocence, is perhaps not nearly as sympathetic as Welsh makes him out to be. Case in point: the film’s highly memorable scene wherein Spud spills his guts at a speed-fuelled job interview. Not that this doesn’t appear in the novel – but in the novel it’s made more obvious that Spud is coerced into attending his interview in such a state by Renton, making him a more sympathetic depiction of relative innocence.
Begbie – A fantastic performance from Robert Carlyle, perfectly capturing the insanity and depravity that is Francis Begbie. And much like Renton does throughout the novel, Boyle leaves the audience wondering whether Renton was ever truly friends with such a murderous maniac. This characterisation captures one of the many themes of the novel: are they really friends? Or are they pulled together by a mutual need to get high, essentially validating each other’s life choices?
In summary, in terms of characters and characterisation, the film is largely faithful to the novel, only omitting some characters, such as Davie Mitchell and Matty Connell. But arguably this omission only proves to strengthen what could be considered a slightly diluted story arc.
As mentioned previously, the novel is essentially one long stream of consciousness, a convoluted description of various incidents during drug-fuelled benders. In this respect, it’s difficult to say what are the key moments of the novel. But quite honestly, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work) have done an exceptional job of picking out the main events that drive the plot forward, whilst developing the rich characters of the novel. The filmmakers haven’t shied away from depicting the horrific moments that are scattered throughout. Take that heartbreaking moment where the group come down from their heroin-induced highs to find wee Dawn dead and rotting in her crib: Boyle’s depiction of this horror packs more of a punch than Welsh’s novel. While the novel is relatively deadpan in its sequence of events, it’s moments like these that benefit (not in a pleasant-to-watch way, unfortunately) from being shown on the screen.
The main, notable difference is the omission of the death of Matty Connell, which is given to Renton’s childhood friend Tommy in the film. Again, it is possible that Boyle’s depiction of Tommy’s descent into heroin addiction and subsequent contraction of HIV, and ultimately sudden death, is even more powerful than Irvine Welsh’s – though this may simply be because, over the course of the film, we grow more familiar with Tommy as a person. Does this make it better? Perhaps not, just different – but the main themes and the purpose of the death are the same, in that they give Renton the guilt, and therefore the development, he needs to drive the rest of the plot.
Although there are massive differences – mostly deriving from the fact that it would be nigh-on impossible to 100% faithfully adapt such an incoherent novel – Boyle does a pretty damn fine job of detangling and making sense of difficult and at times unsympathetic subject matter. Not only does Boyle capture the essence of the late ‘80s, carefully presenting the difficulties and hardships of life on the dole in Scotland during this period, but he accurately presents both the beauty and the ugliness of each character that is so meticulously described by Welsh. And the best part? Renton’s immortal “Choose Life” monologue in the novel makes it into Boyle’s final cut in epic fashion, summarising beautifully the entire purpose of Trainspotting.