Trainspotting Vs Filth
With the recent release of Jon S. Baird’s film version of Irvine Welsh’s Filth thus far failing to reach the same dizzying heights as Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation Trainspotting, this raises the question: why not?
Both feature similar themes; drugs, desperation, degrading sex… So what did Boyle do right that Baird has not quite grasped?
The films both feature a subversive main character who delights and disgusts in equal measure. Edinburgh based Mark Renton or ‘Rent Boy’ is played by Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, a heroin addict who steals, lies, and is eventually weaned off of the drug by his parents. He narrates the story to us in a thick Scottish accent in a manner that is almost proud of how repellent and vile he and his friends are as they lay in their heroin den.
Initially, Filth has a much less disgusting lead man. PC Bruce Robertson, who also resides in Edinburgh, is admittedly a coke addict and sexual deviant- but at least he has a job. Portrayed by the always compelling James McAvoy, Robertson’s character can be funny, but is often just an arsehole.
So how can we compare the two? Robertson, in my opinion, is the far more interesting character; due to his position of power and the fact that we find out he has various mental illness problems to go with the drug abuse simply make him more fascinating than Renton. Renton is basically just a heroin addict who wants to get clean, this may be an unusual and interesting plight to some viewers, but to others it can seem a bit trite. Both characters have highly thought provoking hallucinations (Renton when he goes cold turkey and Robertson… for no reason) it is true, which are expertly played by both actors to the point where they can be quite terrifying.
However, Trainspotting does feature a more fully fleshed out team of supporting characters with clear and strong personalities. Begbie (Robert Carlyle), for example, is infinitely more memorable for his violent ways than the comparably tame Lennox in Filth (Jamie Bell). Or the tragic manner in which clean-cut Tommy (Kevin McKidd) turns to heroin and contracts HIV is far more heart-wrenching than anything that happens to one of Filth’s minor characters.
First person narration from the point of view of the central character is a method deployed equally in the two films, but with subtle differences in the effect caused. Robertson appears to be in control at the beginning of the film, cockily telling the audience how he can manipulate his colleagues, removing them from the picture to win the coveted promotion they all desire. This level of narration from McAvoy is also occasionally intertwined with surreal cut-ins from his wife; as the plot progresses and it is revealed they are the same person, the audience feels tricked and realises that Robertson is a highly unreliable narrator. Causing us to question whether he was lying the whole time and is simply the suicidal madmen we come to see by the end.
Renton’s narration in comparison is far more straightforward, we get the impression that he is telling the story from a point in the future and is therefore omniscient and fully in control of events. This method is more traditional and may be the one favoured by most members of an audience, who like to get the full picture. A more avid film-goer however will possibly enjoy the complex and thought-provoking discourse in Filth. This may explain why Trainspotting is more commercially successful.
The plot used in Trainspotting is perhaps more eventful than in Filth, which it could be argued is a more character driven piece that is focused on the inner workings of one character- much like a modernist novel. Whereas, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting is more of a realist piece, where ‘what’ happens is more important than ‘why’ it happens. Not to say that the plot is bland. It is non-linear, starting with Renton and Spud running from security guards and then bringing the audience up to that point before continuing the story. It is interesting to see how Renton manages to get himself clean and escape to London before being followed and ultimately conning the evil Begbie out of lots of money. Giving the viewer the oft-desired Hollywood ending where the ‘good guy’ wins in the end.
The opposite could be said for Filth, where our main character not only misses out on his promotion, but gets demoted and ultimately kills himself when he can’t face the demons in his own head. Not a happy ending by any stretch- but an engaging psychological journey.
On the whole, both films are riveting, and although they may appear similar in synopsis they are far from it once stretched out over the length of a feature film. Filth, it could be argued, is a story which has more finesse as it was written by Welsh five years later than Trainspotting which in 1993 was his first novel. However, the fact that Boyle made the film version in 1996 and that the subject matter is so dark and controversial is probably what makes it more famous.
Drugs and their use on screen was just more shocking 18 years ago than it is now. If the films had been made the opposite way around then Filth would more than likely be a cult classic. It is quite possible that society has merely changed and it is now a sad indictment of modern life that severe drug taking and death do not hold the same cache that they once did, and probably still should.
So in short, the answer to the initial question posed at this article’s opening is the zeitgeist. People now just don’t shock as easy.
What do you think? Leave a comment.