Compare and Contrast: Trainspotting

Trainspotting-Book-Covertrainspotting_ver3

Don’t know how I feel about the review on the book cover… even for the sake of exaggeration, that is quite an unruly statement to make, no?


Joe’s rating of film and novel5/5 (“Well, they’re perfect to me.”)


“We go fir a pish in the auld Central Station at the Fit ay the Walk, now a barren, desolate hangar, which is soon tae be demolished and replaced by a supermarket and swimming centre. Somehow, that makes us sad, even though ah wis eywis too young tae mind ay trains ever being there.

-Some size ay a station this wis. Git a train tae anywhair fae here, at one time, or so they sais, ah sais, watchin ma steaming pish splash oantae the cauld stane.

-If it still hud fuckin trains, ah’d be oan one oot ay this fuckin dive, Begbie said. It wis uncharacteristic for him tae talk aboot Leith in that way. He tended tae romanticise the place.”

From “Trainspotting at Leith Central Station”


The novel Trainspotting (1993) and its 1996 film adaptation certainly have their differences.

Lines are said by different characters, parts are combined, or omitted, or imagined in a different way, or changed significantly. I could meticulously go into every little boring similarity and difference if I wanted to; overall though, those differences are much less important as both prose and film stand strong on their own as different works based on the same characters in the same settings under the same circumstances. Plus, in general, the film does a good job of staying true to the book. More important than, specifically, the accuracy of the film in portraying the events of the novel are the language and dialects used in both works, the different ways that the novel and film structure this narrative, and how the manipulation of certain characters and stories in the film affects its relationship with the novel.

Upon watching the film Trainspotting, one of my all-time favorites, I was unable crack a good guess at the meaning of the film’s title, but upon recently reading the novel, published before the release of the film, I was able to come up with the following interpretation of the title based on the passage quoted above: the characters of Trainspotting all struggle from various problems, each of them, often lamenting the past, is attempting to find an escape from these problems, and some of them are waiting in an abandoned station for a train that will never arrive; their escape will never come.

I was fortunate enough to have a glossary of Scottish slang in the back of my edition of Trainspotting, enabling me to decipher the Edinburgh dialect unfamiliar to me in passages like the one above. Irvine Welsh writes in a style that gives his novel an authentic, Scottish feel to it, but more importantly, it gives the misanthropic and nihilistic diatribes of its main characters a unique flavor and zest. The film implements less of this Scottish dialect but still enough to make everything feel real. If you are not into vulgarity, this is not the novel or film for you.

Trainspotting is not your typical novel. Welsh structures his novel in a fragmented and disjointed manner, which could reasonably be categorized as a picaresque, or a collection of episodic yet interrelated stories starring the low-to-middle class Mark Renton (played by Ewan McGregor in the film version) and his mates as they live together in Leith, Edinburgh, using their cunning to exploit those around them, especially the welfare system in Scotland by seizing “giros” (government unemployment benefit checks), allowing them to make their livings without actually working. Through the first-person narration of the novel’s main characters interspersed with third-person omniscient narration, one is able to jump right into the profound and even convoluted thought processes that are encapsulated by the work.

The structure of Welsh’s novel is very different from the structure of Danny Boyle’s film adaptation of Trainspotting, which follows a linear plot sequence. Boyle recreates Welsh’s story, manipulating scenes from the novel by combining events, settings, characters and their respective traits while omitting others, helping the film’s plot to function in a way where the viewer feels that there is a distinct beginning and end to it. The visual and auditory sensation of film allows for additional clever dialogue and wordplay not featured in the novel. Boyle also gives his adaptation of the work its own distinctness and style by adding his own twist to certain scenes. The video switching scene, in addition to a few other scenes, were not featured in the novel and were created for the sake of the continuity of the film, much to its advantage; many film critics hail it as one of the best films of the 1990’s. Boyle adds Renton swimming to great depths past dangerous mines in an emetic and fecal yet lucid and placid ocean of toilet water in order to retrieve his accidentally excreted opium suppositories during “The Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene. Renton’s heroin withdrawal scene is adapted very uniquely and tastefully in Boyle’s version of Trainspotting; Welsh’s free form, stream-of-consciousness lines from the novel are reimagined by Boyle as an onslaught of distorting and disturbing images accompanied by heavy electronic music.

Mark struggles with a heavy heroin addiction that is as much chemical as it is psychological, turning to drugs as a vehicle for his escape from a life of boredom and worries. In addition to getting away from his unpleasant feelings however, Mark also struggles to escape from the negative influence of his long-time friends, who all also seem to suffer from some sort of addiction or vice. Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, and Tommy all suffer from their heroin addictions, but the comparatively clean Begbie suffers from an inclination toward violence, Rab “Second Prize” McLaughlin (not in the film), who is a Manchester United footballer turned drunk, suffers from severe alcoholism, and Sick Boy is nefariously lustful, objectifying women, seducing them, and pimping them out.

It is in this sense that the novel presents the characters in a different light. You gain less insight into the problems of the other characters and more into Renton’s in the film, around whom the story revolves, but the novel allows you to enter into the minds of Renton’s friends—who are also suffering from problems of their own—by ways of first-person narration, giving them more depth. Renton, in the novel, is also given more depth as a character who turns to heroin as a result of emotional hardship due to the inclusion of characters not present in the film, such as his abusive older brother Billy and his catatonic younger brother. In the film, you learn nothing about Renton’s incestuous feelings toward his cousin Nina nor his conflicting feelings toward his sexuality. You also learn less about Renton’s sympathy, or lack thereof, toward other living beings, as scenes from the novel such as the animal abuse scene are excluded from the film, portraying him as possessing more morality in the film than he did in the novel. Upon reading the novel, I actually sympathized less with Renton than I did with Spud, who is depicted in the novel and in the film as having a higher level of morality than the rest of their friends.

Tommy is also a very different character in the novel than he is in the film. Whereas in the film he is presented as a figure of moral superiority, or more specifically, as someone distinct from his friend group who never did drugs before he eventually succumbed to HIV after presumably sharing needles, in the novel he enjoys doing speed. As a result, in the novel, he blends in more with his friends as a decadent figure, while in the film, his character comes to represent innocence and morality. His eventual downfall at the hands of heroin abuse and HIV in both versions is very harrowing, as it demonstrates the drug’s power to transform ordinary people and even the most astute and virtuous into a mindless zombie. The film version of Tommy seems to possess qualities of the character Davie Mitchell from the novel (not included in the film), who seems to lead the straightest life of all of Trainspotting’s main characters.

The film also does not cover the racism in the UK or the cons of Scottish nationalism that are depicted in the book either, secondary yet important issues pertinent to Trainspotting and the society in which it takes place.

In both versions of Trainspotting, a lot of great music is mentioned. Rents is a huge Bowie fan. Tommy loves Iggy Pop. The film features a great soundtrack too. One of the lines I’ll probably remember most from the novel is in the first chapter of Trainspotting called “The Skag Boys”, where Renton, from a junkie’s perspective, had nothing good to say about John Cale’s cacophonic viola sequence in The Velvet Underground song “Heroin” from The Velvet Underground & Nico, of which I am a big fan; though, it is great to see that one of my favorite characters of all time shares a lot of common interests and opinions with me, making him all the more relatable and worthwhile to me.



-J.S.T.

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2 Comments on “Compare and Contrast: Trainspotting”

  1. Helen says:

    It was interesting that you noticed the differences in the structure of the novel vs. the movie. I’m curious if you prefer the fragmented story line which may better represent the mind of a drug addict or the linear story line, which allows a larger audience to follow along and may allow more insight into smaller details rather than focusing on piecing together the story line?

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    • Hi Helen,

      It’s hard to say that I prefer one over the other, as I think that both were executed well. However, I appreciate the novel for exploring the minds of other characters who aren’t as afflicted by drug addiction as Renton, as well as other “addictions,” through first-person narration. For example, from the mind of Begbie, you start to understand that he’s someone who’s always looking for an excuse to hurt somebody; he’s addicted to displacing his anger on others, or at least senseless violence. Another character who isn’t mentioned in the film is “addicted” to exacting revenge on somebody who has wronged him (you’ll have to read the novel to see how). The film seems to emphasize drug use as the main source of trouble for its characters, whereas the novel broadens the scope of their problems to other possible causes: their childhoods and upbringings, their families, and more. So, I appreciate the novel for making it more than a story that’s mainly about Renton and his drug use, which seems to be the approach that the film takes. In the novel, although Renton is still the main focus, the other characters get a little more “play time.” And since I saw the film before I read the novel, it made the novel all the more interesting for me to explore the minds of these other characters and get to know them all a little better as well.

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