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Addiction in books and films

Film reel

Addiction is a powerful theme in film and literature. Danny Birchall takes us through a selection of books and films - both classic and more modern titles - in which addiction plays a major part.

Few stories are as gripping as those that show us how someone can lose everything that is precious to them when in the grip of a stronger master than their own will. Tales of addiction are usually tragedies in which the protagonist's battle to win back control of their own fate is the core of the story. The hero doesn't always win: sometimes these stories end in death or despair.

Not every book or film about addiction is a morality tale or lesson from which we should learn. Most are more complex and nuanced. Nevertheless, it takes some skill on the part of an author or filmmaker to show us enough of the pleasures of addiction to understand our heroes' fatal attraction, without becoming an outright advertisement for those pleasures themselves.

Book: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
Thomas de Quincey, 1821

'Confessions' is De Quincey's autobiographical account of his own use of the drug opium, the powerfully addictive narcotic from which morphine and heroin are made. He first used opium at the age of 19, to relieve the pain of facial neuralgia, and continued to use the drug intermittently for the rest of his life. The book describes the dreamy pleasures as well as the physical agonies of opium, and De Quincey hoped that the book would educate others about it. In his introduction he says he hopes that his work will be "not merely an interesting record, but in a considerable degree useful and instructive". The rich, descriptive language with which he described his personal experiences are associated with the language of his near-contemporaries, the Romantic poets, and the book became an inspiration for many to try the drug.

See also:
Amazon summary and reviews
Project Gutenberg complete text of the book
Wellcome Images scan of first edition of 'Confessions'

Book: Hangover Square
Patrick Hamilton, 1941

George Harvey Bone, the protagonist of Patrick Hamilton's novel about disillusionment and murder, has a form of schizophrenia in which he experiences 'dead moods', periods of disconnection from the rest of his life. In these 'dead moods' he plots the death of a failed actress, Netta Longdon, with whom he is infatuated. For Bone, however, alcohol is at least as great a danger to his well being as mental illness. 'Hangover Square' is subtitled 'a tale of darkest Earl's Court'. It is in the back streets and dingy pubs of this part of London that the novel's action takes place, among lunchtime drinkers and those who have abandoned themselves entirely to alcohol. Much of Hamilton's writing involves alcohol and uses pubs as settings. His early trilogy of novels, 'Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky', is based around a Euston pub, The Midnight Bell. An alcoholic himself, Hamilton died in 1962 of cirrhosis of the liver.

See also:
Wikipedia biography of Patrick Hamilton
Amazon summary and reviews

Book: Trainspotting
Irvine Welsh, 1994

Heroin addiction runs through Irvine Welsh's debut novel like a poisoned river. Mark Renton and his friends do repeated battle with the drug, kicking it only to flirt with it again and eventually succumb to the addiction. Some survive; others don't; the only major character to steer clear of heroin in favour of alcohol is the brutal Begbie, a one-man social problem in his own right. 'Trainspotting' isn't just about addiction, but also about post-industrial working class life in 1980s Edinburgh. During this period unemployment and neglect let heroin flourish and HIV run rampage. 'Trainspotting' was a massively popular film in 1996, but the film's narrative lost something of the novel's experimental, episodic structure and large cast of characters. Welsh soon moved onto other drugs. 'Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance' (1996) detailed the emotional and social effects of the rave drug that replaced heroin for many in the 1990s.

See also:
Wikipedia article (includes plot summary)
Amazon summary and reviews
Irvine Welsh official website

Film: Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children)
Dir. Louis J Gasnier, US 1936
With Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig, Lillian Miles
Cert 15

Marijuana (cannabis) was gradually criminalised in the United States between the beginning of the twentieth century and the 1930s. 'Reefer Madness' was made in the 1930s as a morality tale and warning of the dangers of using the drug. Young students exposed to marijuana by unscrupulous dealers run amok and end up attempting rape and committing murder. After its original release it was re-edited as an 'exploitation' film, emphasising the extraordinary behaviour of its characters and playing the moral message for laughs. With its exaggerated scenes of lunacy and mayhem the film is hard to take seriously as any kind of portrayal of the effects of marijuana. Interest in the film revived in the 1970s, when marijuana use had become popular once again in the United States. 'Reefer Madness' has since become a cult classic among users of marijuana and people familiar with the drug.

See also:
Internet Movie Database summary, cast and crew
Google Video entire film
YouTube clip

Film: The Man with the Golden Arm
Dir. Otto Preminger, US 1955
With Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker
Cert 15

Otto Preminger's feature was controversial on its release, even denied a certificate by the US film authorities, because of the way it dealt with drug abuse and addiction realistically, as serious subjects. Nevertheless, it paved the way for further Hollywood films dealing with uncomfortable social issues. Frank Sinatra stars as Frankie Machine, a heroin addict freshly out of jail and trying to stay clean. He wants to make a career as a drummer, but his former associates and their criminal lifestyle soon lead him back into the path of addiction. Sinatra was widely praised for his performance as Frankie, particularly in the scenes where he portrays the agonies of withdrawal from heroin.

See also:
Internet Movie Database summary, cast and crew
YouTube trailer

Film: Drugstore Cowboy
Dir. Gus van Sant, US 1989
With Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch, Heather Graham
Cert 18

Heartthrob actor Matt Dillon is the 'drugstore cowboy' of the film's title. He leads a small gang in America's northwest in the early 1970s that robs pharmacies and hospitals of prescription pills. He battles with his addiction, but discovers that the ties of friendship and lifestyle are just as strong as the pull of the drugs themselves. The film features an appearance by William S Burroughs, a former heroin addict whose autobiographical 'Junky' deals with his own personal history of drug addiction. In the film he discusses the government's increasing opposition to the personal use of narcotics, and predicts the zero-tolerance policy that would become known as the 'war on drugs'.

See also:
Internet Movie Database summary, cast and crew
YouTube trailer
YouTube clip with William Burroughs

Film: Leaving Las Vegas
Dir Mike Figgis, US 1995
With Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands
Cert 18

Fatal alcoholism might seem an unlikely subject for a romantic drama, but this film by British director Mike Figgis became a critical and commercial success. Nicolas Cage plays Ben Sanderson, a failed screenwriter and Elisabeth Shue plays Sera, a prostitute. They meet in Las Vegas when Cage moves there with the intention of drinking himself to death in a city where alcohol flows freely and no one will interfere with his plan. They form an attachment, but even love can't stop the progress of Sanderson's addiction, which ultimately ends in his death. Cage reportedly researched the role with bouts of heavy drinking, asking a friend to videotape him while drunk in order to analyse his speech patterns.

See also:
Internet Movie Database summary, cast and crew
YouTube trailer

 

This article is part of the exclusive online content for 'Big Picture: Addiction'. Published twice a year, 'Big Picture' is a free post-16 resource for teachers that explores issues around biology and medicine. Find out more about the 'Big Picture' series.

 

Image: Entangled reel, yellow world. Credit: Far0_RC1 on Flickr.

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