As its big screen adaption shocks cinema-goers Robert Wood retrieves from his bookshelf Irvine Welsh’s Filth and finds an unbalanced work of fiction written in the wrong genre.
Trainspotting, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, is a classic ‘there’s a book?’ movie. With an adaptation of his novel Filth in cinemas now, wowing the critics, is it worth picking up the source material? Not really, no.
Bruce Robertson is the titular filth. A deplorable Scottish policeman not so much ‘bent’ as fastidiously loyal to his own set of rules. He’s a thief, a bigot, a rapist and an avid Sun reader. Bruce is a hypocrite, a genuinely ugly character who pictures his petty war on anyone in his way (or rather anyone he notices) as survival of the fittest. He sees women as a challenge and men as rivals or prey, attempting to sleep with his best friend’s wife as part of a growing campaign of terror that he calls ‘The Games’. As the book begins, a racially motivated attack has taken place on Bruce’s patch and he commits every ounce of his guile and cruelty to shirking the case, waiting out the days until his yearly booze and prostitute tour of Amsterdam and the assumed return of his errant wife. Bruce is the main voice in the book, written in an Edinburgh dialect that’s charming or irritating depending on your mood, joined by a tapeworm in his gut and the odd chapter narrated by his wife Carole, who sets up a twist late in the book that’ll shock you if you’ve never read fiction before.
The tapeworm is a brilliant device which, typical of Filth as a whole, is wasted. Its developing intelligence and pseudo-control of Bruce are fascinating and once Bruce excretes its ‘Other’ Welsh seems to be setting up a conflict that will rightly dominate the last quarter of the book. The relished conflict fails to appear and the tapeworm turns out to be a way of recounting Bruce’s childhood to the audience, fading into obscurity shortly afterwards along with every other plot point. The movie based on this novel purports to be the story of a corrupt policeman whose lies topple inwards as he undergoes a breakdown. That’s exactly what the novel seems to be until Bruce experiences his eventual fall and all the dangling story threads are masterfully… left to dangle. All of Bruce’s terrible games, all his sport, come to nothing in a sincere and accurate criticism of the little man’s sense of power. It’s not an engaging criticism though, and what we really want to see are all of Bruce’s chickens coming home to roost. Over the course of the book he crosses nearly every police officer in his station, a judge, a few prominent members of a masonic lodge, airport security, a madam, a plethora of different women and his best friend. I won’t spoil the book by saying how he crosses each person, but suffice to say everyone mentioned has the potential to bring Bruce down in an imaginative, fittingly dark, and most importantly satisfying manner.
Filth feels like Welsh wrote down every horrible thing he could imagine Bruce doing and then strung them together without bothering to cut out the superfluous. Perhaps this is why the book is hideously unbalanced, devoting 7/8 of its length to Bruce’s abstract cruelty and the last 1/8 to the tapeworm’s unprompted psychoanalysis of Bruce. Those 7/8 would be forgivable if they weren’t so totally abandoned before the last stretch. The problem may be that we never buy Bruce’s power; if the vast majority of the book were dedicated to establishing him as an ungraspable evil then his fall and the reasons behind it would be fascinating, but all Bruce’s victories are small. He cares about sex and settling grudges, and we never really believe he’s going to get the promotion he spends so long plotting for. He’s disgusting, yes, but his equally disgusting fall acts as a continuation of that rather than as a counterpoint. Likewise we can’t forgive Bruce, we’ve seen too much, and so the novel feels a lot like Welsh trotting a character around so we can get a good look. It’s not always a bad thing, Mad Men has done a lot with it, but Bruce isn’t relatable enough to carry an entire story on his shoulders.
As a horror novel Filth has a lot more going for it, and perhaps that’s how it should have been marketed. Horror doesn’t come with the same narrative expectations; the comfort of closure is never on the menu. It’s moral horror, making you feel greasy and upset after a few chapters, but horror nonetheless. There are certainly moments that will stick with you afterwards and if you can think your way into the heads of Bruce’s victims, a genuine challenge when his unsympathetic account is all we’re given, then there’s some disturbing escapism to be had. Bruce certainly taps into the ugly side of masculinity, and Welsh phrases his worst excesses in such a way that you’ll be reluctantly agreeing with the first half of a sentence before gasping at the second. The animalistic part of us is acknowledged in a way that few authors dare, but in the end the reader can’t see themselves in Bruce. He’s too much of a caricature to act as either mirror or warning.
Filth is badly plotted and wasteful. It was published in 1998, already rooted in dated political grudges, and has aged badly since. If you enjoy emotionally disturbing horror then it might be for you, but there’s nothing here that Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted doesn’t do fifty times better and more often. All of this seems to bode badly for the Filth movie but novels have never been any indication of a movie’s quality, instead offering a buffet from which cinema can snatch the best bits. There are a lot of best bits to be had in Filth and with some slight rearrangement they could, and probably will, make an excellent movie. It’s cheating really, taking a second stab at a story with the benefit of hindsight, but hopefully Jon S. Baird’s script will include some of the satisfaction that Welsh needed to make this book a success.
When not writing reviews Robert makes terrible life choices and then writes about them for the entertainment of others – http://absentapologies.blogspot.co.uk