Irvine Welsh: The 'unfilmable' Filth finally makes it to the big screen

It's been 15 years in development, but Irvine Welsh's Filth is finally here. It's 'ultra-dark', the Trainspotting creator tells Matt Ford with glee

When Trainspotting arrived 17 years ago, it changed the face of British cinema, giving birth to the Cool Britannia era of film-making. Director Danny Boyle and his cast received their share of the credit, but it was Irvine Welsh's unmistakable voice that proved the true revelation. Though still early in his career, Welsh had established himself as a challenging literary figure, the unrelenting mediator of Britain's cultural underbelly.

Now, at 54 years old, Welsh is one of our most revered writers. And putting aside the relatively unremarkable adaptations of his novella The Undefeated and the short story anthology The Acid House, it's almost unbelievable that it's taken this long for another of his full-length novels to make it to the big screen. It's not for the want of trying, though: Filth, adapted from Welsh's 1998 novel, languished in development hell for the best part of 15 years, with the project passing through the hands of numerous producers. As far as Welsh is concerned, it was worth the wait.

"People who are interested in cinema will be arguing this point for years to come." he says. "What's better, Trainspotting or Filth?"

Welsh might not be asking this question if Filth had been successfully rushed into production back in 1998. The film would likely have been resembled Trainspotting, both aesthetically and tonally, in an effort to strike gold twice in as many years.

Fortunately, the 2013 version of Filth has the freedom to do things on its own terms, which is does to the extreme; it's a surreal and vivid journey into the corruptible mind of its lead character, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy), the Edinburgh copper whose personal and professional problems find him losing his grip on reality.

It's what Welsh correctly describes as "an ultra-dark, head-fucking film". And though Filth is a very different beast to Trainspotting, they remain equally credible and faithful interpretations of the Welsh's writing.

"I can smell the books on both films," says Welsh. "They've kept the essence and respect for the material, but they've got a very different cinematic structure. The first 20 minutes of Filth are like Trainspotting's style… then it completely moves into this area of a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy."

It is, of course, the "essence" that's key to a successful novel-to-film adaptation, not complete fidelity to the original story (no matter how much the purists cry heresy). To make Filth work, it needed a film-maker who understood what was at the core of the book. It also needed Welsh to step away and allow the adaptation process to develop on its own. Enter director-screenwriter Jon S Baird, who impressed Welsh with his inventive script and passion for the project.

"I adapted my own book The Acid House and it wasn't very good," Welsh says. "You've got to have a bit of distance. I could tear apart anybody else's book but it's hard to do it to my own. You need to get somebody in who's really going to try and find the cinematic heart to it. Sometimes you have to throw away stuff… sometimes really good stuff. I remember [Trainspotting screenwriter] John Hodge telling me he had to throw away some of his favourite scenes because the narrative thread just wasn't working. But on this movie Jon has made some good choices."

There was little chance of Filth arriving on-screen completely intact. This is mostly thanks to the book's defining feature: a tapeworm that grows inside of DS Robertson and occasionally interrupts the story, posing existential questions and acting as Robertson's conscience. It's the kind of sinister but strangely comic element that Welsh's stories are known for; it's also something that works perfectly for a novel but is near impossible to replicate in live action. It's this kind of thing that gives a novel a reputation as "un-filmable". But Baird's cinematic vision for the book succeeds in reinventing the material, adopting an alternative means of peering into Robertson's damaged psyche. Forget the details, what's important is that both versions share something deeper. And whatever that is, it's very disturbing indeed.

Though Filth may be way out there – needless to say, Welsh is a writer who has enormous fun exploring the darkest recesses of human capability – there's also something frighteningly familiar and real about the story. And 15 years after its publication, Filth's political edge still rings very true.

"At Edinburgh council there a lot of guys like Bruce that were the system," says Welsh. "The council had changed from being this old bureaucracy into this big equal opportunities 'right on' place, but they were working with these dinosaurs who were still wandering around in this kind of culture. I thought it would be great to do something about that, but then the council's kind of boring – if you've got a fucked-up council official, you might not get your rubbish taken away on time. But if you've got a corrupt cop it's much more interesting."

Indeed, Bruce is one of the most fascinating police officers to appear on film, in a different league to scores of bent coppers we've seen before. Though undeniably abhorrent, like those around him Robertson is a victim of his own psychological deterioration, made all the more human by James McAvoy's inspired performance.

"I made him totally dissident," says Welsh. "His beliefs and actions are out of synch, and he has a full mental breakdown as a result of all that. What's interesting about Bruce Robertson is that he's in a strict bureaucracy and functions on certain rules, but he's this fucked-up, transgressive guy. He has more enemies inside the police force than he has outside of it… He wants to destroy them all. The people he's got his sights on are the people in the office. He doesn't care about the people selling drugs in the street. That sense of the enemy within, the whole sabotage thing, that transgression is always appealing."

It won't be another 15 years before an Irvine Welsh is adapted. Porno, the long anticipated sequel to Trainspotting, has already been announced for production. It's also likely that Filth will spark something of a resurgence of interest in Welsh's back catalogue. So what else can we expect to see on the big screen?

"We'll see what happens," he says. "The way it is these days, you can't just have a book or film or TV series, you've got to have the lot."

'Filth' is released on 4 October

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice