25 June 2013

Prose vs Pictures #1 | Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting vs Danny Boyle's Trainspotting


When I decided to embark upon this Prose vs Pictures journey, I had a number of contests in mind that were foregone conclusions – books that I feel are inviolate, largely, but also movies that embellish and enlarge some already magnificent texts. But with Trainspotting, which my recent enjoyment of its prequel had made an obligatory series opener, I honestly had no idea which way my gavel would fall. I’d read Irvine Welsh’s game-changing novel just once, many years ago, and thought that it was one of the most brutal and thought-provoking digests of human nature that I’d ever come across – yet extraordinarily funny too. On the other hand, I must’ve watched Danny Boyle’s movie five or six times since its theatrical release, and have always seen it as being as pivotal a part of the 1990s’ fabric as Eric Cantona’s kung-fu kicks; ill-fated England / Germany penalty-shootouts; or even the blazing Britpop battle between Blur and Oasis.

Reading Trainspotting again in 2013, I was first struck by how fresh it all felt, even twenty years into publication. As much of it was originally published in piecemeal form across various publications, its chapters are more akin to short stories than they are segments of an overarching narrative. Each episode has a clear beginning, middle and punchline. Each episode is told by a different voice, often in a different tense, offering insights that range from omniscient to violently constricted. This makes the book easier to dip in and out of than most fiction, though its accessibility is of course hindered by its brazen eschewing of… well, English. Welsh caused quite the literary stir by presenting most of the book in phonetically-transcribed Scottish with scant punctuation and unconventional (but far from unprecedented) hyphens preceding its dialogue, as opposed to mainstream literature’s encapsulating quote marks. However, this unusual approach is in some respects the book’s making, as it makes the text instantly stand out to the reader as being something unique and, perhaps, illicit; qualities that follow in abundance as Welsh wastes no time at all in launching into rapturous accounts of heroin use that, inevitably, saw both the book and film slammed for being pro-drugs by those who didn’t make it past the first few chapters / opening scenes. Read up to the amputations and brain abscesses, and tell me who’s pro-skag then.


It was to Danny Boyle’s credit that his film adaptation looked to transfer Trainspotting’s most extraordinary qualities onto the silver screen without any attempt to dilute them for a wider audience. If Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is a broken-up jigsaw that its readers have to piece together, John Hodge’s screenplay assembles the centre of the picture for everyone to see, omitting only the fine detail on the outermost pieces. Make no mistake, there is a broadly linear and progressive narrative in the book, and ninety percent of the film’s storyline has been cut and pasted from it, but the movie holds the audience’s hands between A and B and C in a way that the novel never did, occasionally reshuffling events for the sake of sense or sensation. Clever contrivances such as Renton’s theft of the Tommy / Lizzie sex tape, the Beggar’s Boy’s blag gone wrong and jailbait Diane’s correspondence enable Hodge to link discrete episodes – discrete eras, really – in the book without the viewer even batting an eye.


The content itself is frighteningly faithful to the book too; Hodge even goes so far as to use after-the-event voiceovers on present events so as to preserve Welsh’s phraseology almost exactly, as he does, for instance, in the nightclub scene that sees Renton narrate his first encounter with Diane. Inevitably though, great swathes of material doesn’t make it to the screen. The tale of Tommy and Second Prize’s disastrous public house chivalry; Davie Mitchell’s retribution against infectious rapist Alan Venters; even feminist Kelly’s rat poison restaurant revenge, duly framed by her looming and strikingly-pertinent essay on morality, were just a few of the cuts that I found hard to bear. I must concede though that these, and indeed almost all of the tales not used for the film, are too remote from Renton and Sick Boy et al to have warranted inclusion, and for the most part Hodge and Boyle got it exactly right; they even passed stool-spilling sheets from one character to another in an attempt to mitigate the losses.

The only omissions that I could complain about are those that do adversely affect the film’s highlighted quartet, Renton in particular. His once-abused and now-frigid paramour, Hazel, is absent throughout (her occasional incidental appearances are usurped on screen by Spud’s inherited-from-Davie Mitchell girlfriend, Gail, played by Welsh stalwart Shirley Henderson), as is any mention of his deceased, disabled brother. Even something as crucial as his other brother’s death whilst serving with the military in Ireland, and its political ramifications for his half-Weedgie / Orange clan, not to mention his surviving missus, is completely left out. Particularly when combined with Rents inheriting some of Sick Boy’s crueller scenes, such as the notorious “dug shooting” escapade and giving Tommy his first shot of junk, one’s perception of Renton becomes slightly less sympathetic on screen.


Oddly, the film’s most obvious departure from Welsh’s work makes the easiest transition across the media. In the novel, it isn’t Tommy but Matty who dies so horribly, and whose funeral serves as a palpable memento mori to his surviving junky friends. What the film cleverly latches onto is the idea that Tommy – especially when he’s played so genuinely by future Rome star Kevin McKidd – is the instantly-recognisable straight, easygoing presence that you’ll find in even the most lawless parcel of rogues, whereas the novel’s Matty was a whining and obnoxious dickhead. In the book, Tommy does split from Lizzie, get on heroin and contract HIV, leading to the superlatively grim “Winter in West Granton”, but the film deftly ties this to the novel’s “Memories of Matty” / “After the Burning” chapter, taking Matty’s attempts to win back his daughter’s love with the reckless gift of a kitten and substituting Tommy for Matty and the little girl for lost-love Lizzie. This is far more affecting an angle, in my view, especially when capped by Spud’s funereal rendition of “Two Little Boys”, which leaves the 1969 number one hit in the shade.

Another big victory for the movie is its cast, and the harrowing yet hilarious performances that they each provide. It’s one thing to read about a character, and see him slowly take shape in your mind’s eye, but it’s quite another to have an actor the calibre of Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle or Ewen Bremner serve one up to you on a plate, his essence encapsulated in Danny Boyle’s perfectly-selected introductory anecdote and freeze-frame. The young McGregor gives a performance that I’ve never seen him top. Indeed, in the Blu-ray’s bonus material he admits that he took the role so seriously that he even toyed with the idea of trying heroin, which surely would have taken method acting to ad absurdum lengths. For all Renton’s obvious selfishness, apparently motiveless alienation and crippling apathy, McGregor forces you to like him. He makes you see his point of view. And not once do you think “That’s Obi-Wan Kenobi” (not a problem when the film was released, I’ll grant you, but it’s a hell of one now).


For his part, Carlyle gives a performance so compelling that I can’t point to a better one on his CV, and his efforts are all the more remarkable as he is physically nothing like the Franco Begbie conjured up by Welsh’s writing. To me though, it doesn’t matter that the film’s Begbie is short and lithe, moustachioed and lank-haired, instead of buff and buzz-cut, as even in the book “the myth of Begbie” perpetuated by his associates (the word ‘friends’ is too strong) far outstrips the man. It’s explicit in the text that he’s not the hard man that he claims to be – ├╝ber-fit Tommy’s given him a panelling inside a boxing ring, as many of the book’s characters often recall with fondness – but he is a fucking psychopath, and Carlyle’s casting emphasises this. The coldness of that gaze couldn’t ever be captured in prose.


The finest performance though is Bremner’s. Having accepted the role of Danny ‘Spud’ Murphy a little uneasily, having played the more prestigious main protagonist in the book’s stage play adaptation, he creates a ‘catboy’ that’s impossible to forget. Irrespective of what’s going on elsewhere, Spud is an endearing, vulnerable presence throughout, which is incredible when you consider that he’s not only a smack-head, but one who turns over people’s houses and robs record stores for a living (or living death, at least).

However, the film’s greatest triumph is its tranformation of the metaphorical to the literal. Despite its schemie world being painted in ubiquitous council grey, “colourful” is one of the most common adjectives that you’ll see thrown about in reviews of Welsh’s stories, and with a widescreen canvas to transfer those tales onto, Boyle decide to show every shade of that glorious colour visually. His film is alive with vivid greens, reds and burnt oranges that are only outdone by the pulsating, scene-setting soundtrack, which provides not only a fierce pulse for the scream-if-you-want-to-go-faster plotline, but also a temporal anchor for the audience, as it is through music alone that the characters’ progression through time is felt (though the events of both the book and film remain as hard to accurately date as a UNIT-era Doctor Who story). In the same vein, Boyle doesn’t always present events as they are, but as they’re perceived by those experiencing them. His film walks a thin line between the thorny doldrums of reality and the surreal dreamscapes of smack and “cauld turkey”, though it isn’t afraid to push the envelope even in the character’s soberest moments. Just look at Renton’s on-screen misadventures on the first day of the Edinburgh Festival, which see him squeeze down a toilet into an underwater wonderland populated by everything from shat-out suppositories to undetonated mines. The squalor of the novel is certainly there, but there’s something disconcertingly wondrous too.


But for every terrifying turn, stunning shot and stirring sound, there’s a heavy price to pay. Jonny Lee Miller’s “jazz purist” Sick Boy fails to live up to his literary counterpart as, save for in his dark moment over “perr wee Dawn”’s cot, he’s pushed to the periphery. All of his key traits are there to be seen, only understated, and overshadowed. You just don’t get the same sense of obsession from him, be it with getting his hole or getting that next fix. By extension, Renton’s anger at his parents’ incessant extolling of his pimping junky friend’s virtues, all of which are borne of his “most serpently” silver tongue in the book, is nowhere to be seen on screen; all we have in its place are pleas to listen to the advice of the deranged Franco, who’s elevated to a moral pedestal by Mr and Mrs Renton just because he doesn’t touch the same “shite” as his the rest of his motley crew. This might sound like such a small thing, but when considered alongside the heavy issues touched on above, that in the book are constantly threatening to drag young Mark down into the Renton family quagmire of misery, it often feels like the final stone or last straw.


Worst of all though, Johnny Swan’s speech about having lost his leg in the Falklands (when in fact he damaged one of its main arteries when shooting up) was excluded, and even Renton’s trip to hospital to see him (see image, above) was left on the cutting room floor. “I was one of the lucky yins,” Johnny muses as he begs in the streets, his eyes glazing over as if he believes his own press. And when you think about it, he should. He was “one ay the lucky yins”…


What yis up tae lads? Trainspottin, eh?”

Danny Boyle’s movie did for motion pictures what Irvine Welsh’s novel did for literature, but I still have to give this one to the book. Not because it came first, or has more weight, or is even ‘better’ as a piece of entertainment. The novel is raw. It’s real; horrifyingly real. Why have a convention-adhering narrative? Life seldom does. It’s a mass of half-muddled anecdotes, myths and maybes; wanton digressions and capricious quirks. Why have a Matty and a Tommy, when just a Tommy would be more effective? Because that’s the sort of thing that happens. It’s not neat and it’s not tidy - it’s a pished old jakey staggering about in a decommissioned railway station, ironically labelling his estranged, sociopathic son and his skagboy mate a pair of trainspotters. Comical and random, but with a deep and terrifying lesson buried in it somewhere.

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting novel is currently available in paperback (best price online today: £5.19 on Amazon) and digital formats (£3.99 from Amazon's Kindle Store or £5.49 from iTunes).

Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting movie is available from iTunes in 1080p HD for just £4.99, albeit without any extras. If you’re after bonus material too, the Ultimate Edition Blu-ray is available (best price online today: £6.75 on Amazon).