Despite all the dissimilarities between films and novels as aesthetic forms, novels continue to provide one of the richest sources for adaptation into film. There seem to be generally three strategies that can be taken in adapting a film from a novel. The first is to fairly literally and directly transcribe narrative and dialogue straight from the source. Films such as The English Patient or The Horse Whisperer provide examples of such adaptations – faithful to their sources, but in cinematic terms, fairly dull. Another approach is to take the novel merely as a springboard and to fashion a film that often only references the source obliquely. Many of Stanley Kubrick’s films function in this way, Apocalypse Now as a reimagining of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is another. The third, and in my opinion, most successful film adaptations of novels employ all the strengths of film, specifically montage, sound, spatial fluidity and immediate, visceral accessibility while still preserving the tone and rhythm of their sources. Such adaptations do not necessarily invite competition with their sources, but rather act as complementary works of art that are successful on their own terms, and also inform and are informed by the novels on which they are based. Fight Club and Silence of the Lambs are two such films, Trainspotting is another.
I am therefore going to discuss the ways in which Danny Boyle’s film of Trainspotting diverges from Irvine Welsh’s novel and identify the ways in which John Hodge’s screenplay streamlines the 345-page novel into a 90-minute film while retaining the integrity and tone of Welsh’s vision.
Both the novel and the subsequent stage adaptation, in which Ewen Bremner, who plays Spud in the film, starred as Renton, are highly episodic. The novel is essentially a fragmented collection of short stories which are tied together by a common background; the heroin subculture in late-80s Edinburgh. The novel shifts between third-person and first-person narration amongst a variety of characters. Mark Renton, Spud Murphy, Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson and Francis Begbie form this central core of characters. It’s Renton, however, that most frequently narrates events. Because of this, and also because he is the most articulate and arguably acts as the moral locus of the novel, Hodge has fashioned a narrative for the film adaptation that centres around Renton’s development, a somewhat perverse coming-of-age story in which he repeatedly attempts and finally succeeds in giving up not only drugs, but more crucially, his friends. The opening narration is emblematic of the film’s concern with Renton’s development, the ‘choose life, choose a job, choose a career’ monologue is taken almost word-for-word from early on in the novel, and delivered sarcastically, juxtaposed against images of Renton and Spud fleeing from store detectives. In a nice symmetry, his closing monologue returns to the opening in an optimistic refrain, ‘I'm going to change. This is the last of this sort of thing. I'm cleaning up and I'm moving on, going straight and choosing life’.
However, although the film is a bildungsroman of sorts about Renton, part of its success as an adaptation is that it isn’t strictly tied to following a plot, like most mainstream films. Especially in the first half, the film preserves the loose, episodic, observational nature of the novel. Renton says at one point about his addiction: ‘It looks easy, but it's not. It looks like a doss, like a soft option, but living like this, it's a full-time business.’ The first hour of the film essentially riffs on the statement, providing a series of episodes on the various tribulations and day-to-day realities of heroin-addiction, with our narrator, Renton, as tour-guide. Both the film and the novel chart Renton’s failed attempt to quit, cold-turkey, using the Sick-Boy method, early on. Many of the memorable events of the novel are retained in the film, the discovery of the dead baby Dawn, Spud, under the influence of speed, and his hyperactive job interview, Renton’s rendez-vous with the underage Diane. The fact that in the film, these various episodes are unified through Renton’s perspective, in contrast to the more heteroglossic novel, is perhaps part of the film’s success as an adaptation. In contrast, The Acid House, a 1998 film adaptation of another set of Irvine Welsh stories consisted of three short, unrelated films – and, unlike Trainspotting, has largely been forgotten.
The events of the first two acts of the film gain cumulative significance by the time the third and final act kicks in. The ‘dodgiest scam in a lifetime of dodgy scams,’ as Renton describes it, fairly closely mirrors that in the novel. However, since the viewer has come to identify, if not empathise, with Renton, who seems to have managed to further and further escape the damaging influence of his friends, the fact that he tests out Mikey Forrester’s heroin comes as a disheartening shock.
In paring down a novel that takes seven or eight hours to read into a film that takes 90 minutes to watch, naturally, characters need to be elided or combined. Perhaps one of the most significant reconstructions of a variety of characters in the novel is the film’s Tommy. Renton describes him early on: ‘Tommy never told lies, never took drugs, and never cheated on anyone.’ Tommy eventually suffers the fate of Matty in the novel, a junkie with AIDS, who dies of Toxoplasmosis. Tommy’s decline parallels Renton’s growth, and the irony is that it was caused by Renton, who not only steals Tommy’s video tape, inadvertently causing his break-up with Lizzy, but gives him heroin in the first place.
In terms of the other characters, it is interesting to note that Diane’s character has been expanded, perhaps to broaden the appeal of the film to a female audience and providing the central protagonist with a ‘love interest’. Spud is more of a caricature in the film than in the novel, and takes on some of the characteristics of Second Prize, who, sketchy at best in the novel, has been profitably eliminated.
The fact that the characters are being portrayed
by actors rather than constructed in the reader’s imagination is naturally going to
evoke different responses - Ewan McGregor is more photogenic than I visualised the Renton
of the novel, but retains the caustic intelligence and eloquence of his literary
counterpart. Likewise, Robert Carlyle seems older than the Begbie of the novel, but does
an excellent job at incarnating his manic ferocity.