Swimming in the Community Cesspool
Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting uses the combination of grotesque imagery within a narrative lacking clear progression to portray the nihilistic lifestyle of a heroin addict. Welsh creates distinct voices through the main characters in his novel, who all share the longing for a sense of brotherhood and community. The characters share a bond through their heroin addiction, and the reader gets pulled into this brotherhood through the use of first-person narration and other structural elements to create sympathy. John Hodge and Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Trainspotting uses mise-en-scène, tone, and various cinematic techniques to allow the viewers to sympathize with the characters and engulf themselves in the lifestyle of heroin addiction. The screenplay helps the viewer share a part in the dilemmas the characters in the film face. The adaptation enables the viewer to connect with the characters and share in their sense of community. The stylistic techniques Hodge and Boyle use in the film — such as coloration, camera angles, and supernatural elements — each play a part to convey the tone of the grotesque romanticism of these heroin addicts’ lives. The audience thus experiences the hyperbolic nature of a heroin addict’s perceived life within the realm of the realistic. The structure and language Welsh uses in his novel helps represent the themes of community and identity significant to the characters. Though the narrative tends to blur the lines between events, the four main characters — Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, and Begbie — all portray a distinct voice. Each of their identities remains noticeable through the haze of the narrative Welsh creates. One of the tools Welsh uses to create the differentiation between these main characters and the other characters in the novel is their nicknames. Most of the other characters, especially the females, have common names like Alison, Hazel, Kelly, Dianne, and Laura. Nicknames give the characters a bond. They allow the reader to understand their relationship as a brotherhood. The reader also gets a sense of the characters’ voices through verbal repetitions used by the characters. For example, Spud tends to say “ken” and “likesay” repeatedly. Sick Boy constantly refers to himself in the third person, and Begbie frequently uses the word “fuck” in any shape or form he can think of. Each of these elements gives the characters a sense of identity and individualization within a narrative that blurs together a haze of situations. Welsh also uses first-person narration to implement the sense of the individual within the reader. This allows the reader to understand each character’s internal emotional state. Throughout the book, the reader hears the thoughts and emotions lying within the characters’ minds. Renton explains his addiction to heroin when he says, “Ma problem is, whenever ah sense the possibility, or realise the actuality ay attaining something that ah thought ah wanted, be it girlfriend, flat job, education, money and so on, it jist seems so dull n sterile” (Welsh 90). Without the heroin, his life seems boring. Spud reiterates this when he says, “Life can be borin without skag” (122). In a way, the reader feels a sense of sympathy toward these characters and can understand their mindset. Welsh enables the reader to delve into the character’s minds in order to lose the judgment a person usually displays when thinking about heroin addicts. These humorous, likable characters facilitate the reader’s sympathy toward their situations. At the novel’s beginning, the characters seem to blend together. The reader becomes unaware of which character is speaking. However, as the novel progresses, the main characters’ voices become more evident. As the reader understands each individual character’s unique voice, the reader also becomes aware of the characters’ powerful sense of community. This brotherhood, the bond that friends have in this novel, is unbreakable. Renton explains this strong connection when he describes his relationship with Begbie: “He really is a cunt ay the first order. Nae doubt about that. The big problem is, he’s a mate n aw. Whit kin ye dae?” (84). The bond these friends have seems out of their control. The bored, lonely characters portrayed in this novel all lead a miserable life. They need each other because, “Alone was stressful” (77). Renton, Begbie, Spud, and Sick Boy make up “a quartet of fucked-up people thegither” (84). They need their community to establish their own identity. Their nihilistic lives have no meaning without each other. To further display this sense of community, Renton and other characters constantly use the “royal we” in their language. When Renton is talking to Tommy he thinks to himself, “Ah struggle to show concern through my self-centered smack apathy. The outside world means fuck all tae us” (87). The use of “us” instead of “me” sheds light on how these characters perceive themselves. Even though Renton says he has a “self-centered… apathy,” his language shows otherwise. The universality of the “royal we” connects people together. Subconsciously, Renton perceives himself as a part of a broader community, his band of “skag” brothers. Spud gives the reader a deeper insight when he says, “Funny scene, likesay, how aw the psychos seem tae ken each other, ken what ah means, likes?” (120). When people have something in common, it almost always enables them to become closer and feel connected. In addition to the sense of community apparent in Welsh’s novel, he creates a narrative lacking of a clear progression. This circular narrative enlightens the reader into the mindset of these apathetic characters. Renton explains his nihilistic mindset when he says, “Still, failure, success, what is it? Whae gies a fuck. We aw live, then we die, in quite a short space ay time n aw. That’s it; end ay fuckin story” (208). These characters live only in the present tense. The lack of progression is evident even by the section titles in the book. The novel starts off with “Kicking,” then “Relapsing,” and then “Kicking Again.” Within the first three sections, the characters end up in the same place where they begin. This narrative does not show the progression of the characters or events; rather it shows the mindset of characters in different situations. Just as Renton always goes back to using one more hit of heroin, his character moves in a circular motion throughout the story. The scenarios and characters constantly change without explanation. The events that take place in the narrative do not link with one another. The juxtaposition of certain scenes and lines contradict in tone. For example, the description of Sick Boy before and after Alison’s hit is immensely different. Before her hit, “Sick Boy’s face looks ugly, leering and reptilian,” then as the heroin enters her body, “Sick boy’s eyes are now innocent and full ay wonder” (9). Additionally, Renton explains at that moment that both Sick Boy and Alison “look strangely beautiful and pure in the flickering candlelight,” but then Alison disrupts this idyllic tone with her vulgar language, “That beats any meat injection… that beats any fuckin cock in the world” (9). This mixture of the romantic fantasy with the vulgar and grotesque appears constantly throughout the novel. Welsh uses this exaggerated grotesque imagery to create a lifestyle resembling heroin use. He creates a romanticized image of the feelings present in the characters during their high. When Renton inserts his opium suppositories he receives from Mike Forrester, they immediately give him the runs. He makes his way to the closest bathroom, and while on the toilet Renton explains, “Ah empty ma guts, feeling as if everything; bowel, stomach, intestines, spleen, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and fucking brains are aw falling through ma arsehole intae the bowl” (25). This immense exaggeration of his feelings on the toilet, while repulsive to the reader, sheds light on the intense feelings eminent in Renton. When his suppositories fall into the toilet bowl, Renton must pick them out with his own hands. As he grabs one he says, “Ah gag once, but get ma white nugget ay gold” (26). While this scenario leaves the reader with a sense of disgust, Renton romanticizes his opium suppository as a nugget of gold. This shows the hyperbolic effect heroin has on Renton. Welsh repeatedly implements scenes full of gross bodily fluids. He emphasizes bodily orifices constantly throughout his novel. He mixes this repulsive imagery with humor during the scene where Davie wakes up in his own fecal mess. He gathers it up in the sheets, but as Gail’s mother tries to take them from him, “The sheets flew open and a pungent shower of skitter shite, thin alcohol sick, and vile pish splashed out across the floor” (94). This pervasive humor repulses the reader, yet gives insight to the lives of these vile characters. During Renton’s house arrest, the reader understands the hyperbolic effect heroin has on him. While Renton withdraws from heroin use, his hallucinations are extreme with a postmodern structure. Renton’s feelings are displayed through random assortments of words. There is no real structure during his hallucinations. During one point in his withdrawal Welsh stops using spaces between words, and at another point he lengthens his words when he writes, “Is this sssllllleeeeeeeppppp” (196). This enables the reader to understand the extent to which Renton is suffering. The reader also gets a sense of the exaggeration heroin induces in a person. He starts seeing Wee Dawn crawling on the ceiling. His serious situations are exaggerated negatively during his withdrawal. In order to fully adapt the essence of this novel into a feature film, the theme of community and the grotesque romantic imagery must be eminent. John Hodge and Danny Boyle both try to incorporate this theme of community into their adaptation of Trainspotting. They keep the essence of Welsh’s structure and language alive in their film through the voice-over narration and by cutting down the characters. Throughout the film’s screenplay, Renton consistently narrates to the audience using his voice-over: “I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life. I’m looking forward to it already. I’m going to be just like you: the job, the family, the fucking big television” (Hodge 78). Using a voice-over always breaks the reality of watching a movie. In real life, we do not get to hear what people are thinking. Thoughts are usually displayed through actions and facial expressions. In this film, however, Renton speaks directly to the viewer. This intimacy between Renton and the audience bears resemblance to the intimacy between the reader and the characters in Welsh’s novel. The viewers sympathize with Renton because of their ability to understand his thoughts and emotions.Hodge decides to cut down all the superfluous characters from the novel. This, in turn, creates a more tight-knit group of people in the film. The characters are now easy to follow and easy to recognize. He uses a unique tool to distinguish and label each character at the beginning of the film. Hodge writes in his scene description, “As each performs a characteristic bit of play, the play freezes and their name is visible, printed or written on some item of clothing” (2). Instead of the verbal distinctions between the characters that Welsh uses, Hodge uses this labeling tool to enable the viewer to easily recognize the characters. This exemplifies the importance of community in Renton’s life. His life revolves around two things, his friends and heroin. The exaggeration of heroin displayed in the book is evident through the supernatural elements Hodge adds to the screenplay. He takes the fantastical elements in the novel and pushes them one step further into the supernatural realm. When Renton reaches into the toilet in the beginning of the film and dives into a deep underwater world beyond the toilet to retrieve his opium suppositories, the scene description reads, “Renton, dressed as before, swims through murky depths until he reaches the bottom, where he picks up the suppositories, which glow like luminous pearls, before heading up towards the surface again” (8). The comparison of the suppositories to “nuggets of gold” in the novel inspires Hodge to recreate this scene with fantastical elements. He views the suppositories as “luminous pearls” instead of what they truly are in reality: fecal-stained pills. This romanticism of heroin through Renton’s eyes comes directly from the tone Welsh presents in his novel. The exaggeration ever-present throughout the novel gets visualized in the film. Another scene in the film that is inspired by the novel’s exaggerated style is when Renton overdoses at Mother Superior’s apartment and sinks into the deep red floor. “He hands Renton the syringe. Renton injects, then lies back on the dirty, red, carpeted floor. He lies completely still. His pupils shrink. His breathing becomes slow, shallow and intermittent. He sinks into the floor until he is lying in a coffin-shaped and coffin-sized pit, lined by the red carpet. Swanney stands over him” (45). The color red consistently becomes an indication of heroin’s effect on a person in the film. Mother Superior’s apartment is painted red, and whenever someone is shooting up heroin, the intense color of red can be seen. This vibrant color conjures up images of blood, violence, and passion. These supernatural additions contribute to the overall tone of the movie. This movie shows us the lifestyle of a heroin addict, and many of the key incidents in a heroin addict’s life are in fact unrealistic. Heroin takes one into a different world. This movie shows this complete escape from the real world into a fantastic, supernatural world full of hallucinations, dead babies crawling on the ceiling, and an underwater sewage abyss. In conclusion, Trainspotting creates a world full of characters with a need to escape reality. With a first-person look into their lives, the reader understands and sympathizes with Renton, Spud, Begbie, and Sick Boy. The novel portrays themes of brotherhood and community and creates characters that depend on one another and need a sense of friendship in their lives. The loneliness and boredom cause their addiction, and through that they share an everlasting bond. The film takes the novel’s essence and visualizes it with cinematic techniques in order to gain insight into the life of a heroin addict and to create sympathy for them within the reader. There is no right or wrong within Renton, Spud, Begbie, or Sick Boy; there is only living, a clearly existential lifestyle. The tone of the film borrows from the novel to give the reader a sense of detachment from reality and a chance to escape into the characters’ lives, just like Renton and the others use heroin to escape from their dull reality.Life’s boring and futile. We start oaf wi high hopes, then we bottle it. We realize that we’re aw gaunnae die, withoot really findin oot the big answers. We develop aw they long-winded ideas which jist interpret the reality ay oor lives in different weys, withoot really extending oor body ay worthwhile knowledge, about the big things, the real things. Basically, we live a short, disappointing life; and then we die (Welsh 89).The characters’ solution to this disappointing reality is to escape it through the use of heroin and other drugs. Renton explains it clearly at the beginning of the film after his “choose life” speech: “I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” (Hodge 3). Irvine Welsh and John Hodge neither glorify nor debase heroin use. They simply illustrate it for a reader to understand. Although Renton says at the end of film that he chooses life instead of heroin, one cannot be so sure. If his life continues the way the narrative progresses in the novel and film, he will most likely be back to taking one last hit, “one fucking hit to get us over this long, hard day” (Hodge 44).