Choose Life: Book vs. Movie


I’ve always been fascinated by reinterpretations of books, whether through literary reimaginings, such as Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, or movie adaptations, such as Danny Boyle’s take on Trainspotting. Last month I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Trainspotting as part of TIFF’s Books on Film series. Irvine Welsh, author of said book (Trainspotting is his debut novel, which always blows my mind), was in attendance and did a Q&A afterward (as well as a book signing).

While the Q&A touched on the social and cultural influences that informed his writing, Welsh also talked about the differences in approach in writing for a film versus writing a novel. While Welsh didn’t write the screenplay for Trainspotting, that was John Hodge, who earned an Oscar nomination for his efforts, he has written for the screen and said the experience of working with Boyle was highly collaborative.

One point that stuck out to me addressed the narrative structure of a novel compared to a movie. Welsh put it in the context of pitching the story. For the novel you can get into the multiple perspectives and the personalities of the characters that make Trainspotting such a great read. As a movie, Trainspotting is one guy’s struggle with heroin addiction.

I read the novel and saw the movie for the first time when I was sixteen. I reread the novel before I went the screening, and, I must say, I missed a lot as a teenager. I mostly remember being completely taken by the use of Scots’ dialects (which I, of course, tried to read out loud – yet another reason I’m glad I grew up in a pre-selfie/Instagram/upload era) and by the lives so different from my own. I didn’t remember how the experience and fear of the HIV epidemic cut through the story or the context of economic and social structures in relation increased drug use in Edinburgh. I didn’t remember the horrifying rape and murder of six-year-old Kevin, which is revealed to be faked, but perhaps I just blocked that part out. The novel is harder and richer than I remembered; not so for the movie, though it does hold up 19 years later.

In rewatching the film, I was reminded of the amazing talent at work, names still around today – Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle – and I was reminded of how ’90s that film is too. Renton’s hallucinations while detoxing, with characters sliding in and out of frame and the baby crawling on the ceiling, is a great example of ’90s film style.



Don’t get me wrong, it is still a great movie. The soundtrack is killer, the story is full of energy, and the characters are engaging as much as they are repulsive. But the points I’m praising are also the reasons why, at the time of its release, the movie received backlash for potentially glamourizing an addict’s life. (A Washington Post article published just before Trainspotting’s North American release has an excellent discussion of this critique.)

I don’t know if it is my aging or the film’s but looking at it now, that cool factor, that edge, has dulled, and the bargain every junkie makes, the high for the lows, is revealed more clearly. The viewer cringes and laughs at Renton diving into the worst toilet in Scotland, but the treatment of the scene, as he slips down the toilet, is no longer (technologically) cool. Why Renton takes drugs is clearer, but so is the unbalance between the debt and payoff of being an addict. The humour is no longer just a joke but is used as a coping mechanism. In this way, time has brought the movie closer to the novel, which has the space to suss out the interior struggles and external pressures that contribute to an addict’s behaviour.

I am glad that TIFF gave me an excuse to revisit these two great narratives and for the chance to hear Welsh discuss the behind the scenes experiences of writing the novel and creating the movie. Trainspotting is a different story to me in my 30s than in my teens, which is one of the great pleasures of rereading, and the characters Welsh created are worth revisiting in either form.