Adapting a beloved text into a film or television series is a daunting task. In addition to pleasing die-hard fans, producers must also take into consideration those who have never encountered the property before. Some adaptations are good, some are better than the source material, and some are so god-awful that fans try to forget they ever existed. (Looking at you there, Tank Girl.) Let’s take a look at what works, what doesn’t, and just how one adaptation made it from page to screen. This time, we’re looking at Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (Last time: Stardust) Warning: Filth is one nasty piece of literature/film, so this one’s for mature readers only.
The Source Material
Irvine Welsh, author of the beloved heroin junkie novel Trainspotting, really outdid himself with Filth. The novel centers around Scottish police officer Bruce Robertson. Bruce is a misanthropic maniac who slowly goes mad throughout the course of the novel, his downward spiral into psychosis explained by a tapeworm that lives inside of him. That’s right, the tapeworm is the narrator in several chapters, written in a tube-like structure and pushing its hateful host into an existential meltdown. Several chapters are also narrated by Bruce’s ex-wife, Carole, though she never seems to have interaction with her husband.
Welsh wrote Filth in a stream-of-consciousness style, following Bruce as he tries to get a promotion, plays psychological games with his co-workers, and occasionally does actual police work. Bruce reveals himself to be a genuinely villainous anti-hero. He is racist, amoral, psychopathic, and a schemer. Despite being almost irredeemable, Welsh manages to make the reader care about Bruce. He’s a monster, but a monster people can identify with. He is the guy we’d all become if we just stopped caring about other people entirely.
Filth, like Welsh’s other novels, uses a great deal of Edinburgh-style slang and dialect. It can occasionally be difficult to read for non-Scottish readers. The unique plot devices used to detail Bruce’s state of mental decay make the book a fascinating read. Unfortunately, those same devices convinced many that a film version would be impossible.
Director Jon S. Baird wanted to tackle Filth because he saw it as a challenge. Where other filmmakers had tried and failed, he wanted to succeed. By writing a screenplay that all but eliminated the tapeworm element and using cinematic tricks instead of literary ones, Baird created his own version of Filth. James McAvoy stars as Bruce, and he does one hell of a job bringing the character to life. Most fans know him as Professor X from the newer X-Men films, but here McAvoy is an unleashed, R-rated hate machine. He’s also ridiculously charming. While Bruce isn’t exactly a likable character, he’s too much fun to look away from.
Filth received mixed reviews, though they leaned toward the positive. As the film starts off rather humorous and gets progressively darker, many filmgoers were turned off by just how vile things get. Filth is a pitch-black comedy with a heart full of spite. The essence of the book remains intact, as does the message.
Obviously, the tapeworm can’t have the same starring role as it did in the book. Instead, Bruce sees a psychiatrist (played with demented glee by Jim Broadbent) who takes the tapeworm’s place. Whether the shrink is real or just a figment of Bruce’s imagination is never revealed, though the scenes with him get more and more surreal as the film progresses. (Fans who look closely will also notice a painting of a tapeworm on the good doctor’s office wall.)
Carole still features heavily, portrayed by Scottish actress Shauna MacDonald. Carole appears in dream-like sequences where she talks about and to Bruce. The two never appear onscreen together. In the film, Bruce believes that if he gets a promotion, Carole will come back to him and they can fix their broken marriage. This doesn’t stop him from sleeping with a vast number of women, however.
The film adaptation of Filth is magnificent, featuring a number of surreal scenes that seem borderline cartoonish but work within the film’s world. With a completely unreliable narrator at its core, viewers can’t tell how much of what they see on screen is real or a work of fiction created by the psychotic Bruce. It’s bloody brilliant.
There were a few other, minor changes made due to the content of the book being too filthy. The film is a very hard R, and certain scenes from the book had to be cut to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating.
Both the novel and film are well-written with a deeply disturbed central character whose struggles manage to mirror our own. The film is more easily digestible, but for those who want a bit more depth (and nastiness), the book is also highly enjoyable. The ending’s a bit of a downer, but that’s to be expected from something this brutally dark.
Read more in our From Page to Screen series here.