10 great films based on Scottish literature

From Trainspotting to Poor Things, we tot up some of the best examples of Scottish novels going from page to screen.

Trainspotting (1996)Park Circus/Channel 4

Trainspotting is once again pulling in to British cinemas to remind established fans and new audiences how Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge translated Irvine Welsh’s bitter, uncompromised literary vision of a Scotland in crisis. Many films in the new millennium have emulated Boyle’s urgent style, and nearly every Scottish crime film since has owed its dark humour or bare-toothed edge to Welsh’s cult classic. Like other outstanding adaptations of Scottish novels, it has a mood and scope that suggests a private collaboration between author and filmmaker.

At one point in history, Edinburgh was considered a publishing capital, and a Scotsman was considered the most famous author in the world. But while Sir Walter Scott’s pioneering 19th-century historical novels, such as Waverley and Ivanhoe, still cast a 200-year-plus shadow over Scotland’s writers, every generation since has persistently met the challenges set by the innovative fiction that preceded them.

The pull in Scottish literature between the traditional canon and the sly, subversive instincts of radical authors – not to mention the European multiculturalism found in so many outstanding works – only adds to its global appeal to filmmakers. For every lauded and important text, there’s a curious and idiosyncratic outlier that’s fertile ground for imaginative artists.

The variety of directors who’ve adapted Scottish novels is dazzling; the brightest British stars, European masters and Hollywood’s most reliable workhorses. Since the silent age, directors have attempted to transpose the specific, sensory pleasures of Scottish novels to the silver screen – here’s a selection to herald Trainspotting’s 4K comeback.

Trainspotting 4K restoration is in cinemas from 24 May 2024.

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Director: Robert Wise

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Take it easy on the Hollywood actors poorly attempting a Scottish accent – especially Russell Wade’s lilting inflection, which makes him sound constantly worried. It may not feature any distinct Edinburghian details aside from stock footage of the city’s castle, but this chilling Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation from legendary producer Val Lewton nails the bitter societal divisions and violent opportunism that thrived in shadowy corners of the capital during early Victorian years. 

Due to strict laws on what bodies can be used for medical research, doctors rely on grave robbers to furnish them with cadavers for dissection – even after the conviction of Burke and Hare – but murderous cabman John Gray (the ever-commanding Boris Karloff) begins to pressure the wealthy doctors he provides bodies for with increasing intensity. Director Robert Wise shrewdly leans into the class dynamics that informed Stevenson’s writing: after all, William Burke was hanged for his part in the crimes, but anatomist Robert Knox could claim innocence.

Whisky Galore! (1949)

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Whisky Galore! (1949) poster

Both this Ealing Studios hit and the comic novel written by Compton Mackenzie that it adapted came out after the Second World War, and both are filled with post-war sensibilities of scarcity, local bonds and dwindling British power. On the Outer Hebridean isle of Todday (inspired by the real isle of Barra, where the film was shot), the Scots and Gaelic-speaking residents club together in hiding 50,000 cases of whisky after a freighter goes down in the turgid waters, as wartime rations have cut off all supplies of it to the island. 

Alexander Mackendrick, future director of The Ladykillers (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), made his debut with this film, which captures the warmth, eccentric humour and party-loving spirit of the remote Scottish peoples without ever falling into twee condescension or pastiche. That’s in no small part due to Mackenzie’s deep affection for Gaelic culture and his many years spent on Barra.

The Driver’s Seat (1974)

Director: Giuseppe Patroni Griffi

The Driver’s Seat (1974)

Best known for her acerbic coming-of-age novel about romantic narcissist Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark also penned the ambiguous and unsettling novella that this Italian psychothriller adapts. Although it’s often considered a misfire for its glamorous lead actor, Elizabeth Taylor commits herself to a breathless, jagged, but tightly controlled performance as Lise, a Danish spinster who lashes out at shop employees and hyper-fixates on the behaviour of strangers she brushes up against on a holiday to Rome – no matter how ordinary or bizarre the people she meets are. 

Lise is on the hunt for a rendezvous that doesn’t exist, or at least one that won’t exist until she manifests it in the taut, giallo-infused denouement. It’s a film about being compelled by fate without understanding the journey you’re on, with the disorientation and paranoia of Spark’s prose transposed into scenes that stress uncomfortable proximity and uncapped paranoia.

Trainspotting (1996)

Director: Danny Boyle

Trainspotting (1996)Park Circus/Channel 4

When Irvine Welsh shared with producer Andrew Macdonald his thoughts on Trainspotting’s screenplay, he critiqued the use of clear, accessible dialogue instead of the non-standard English and Scots in his novel. But what Welsh did appreciate, along with audiences all over the world, was how the book’s language was translated into a frenetic, surreal and provocative visual language. Pallid, gurning faces take us from overcrowded bars to desolate drug dens, accompanied by warped lenses, abrupt dolly shots and sudden bursts of bright colour to overpower the saturated browns and beiges – all to a classic jukebox soundtrack featuring the likes of Underworld, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno. 

The 1993 novel struck a nerve with its confronting, postmodern approach to Edinburgh scheme life, and the self-destructive and existential urgency coursing through it makes for a film that still stimulates the senses and makes the stomach drop nearly 30 years after it premiered.

Morvern Callar (2002)

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Morvern Callar (2002)

Author Alan Warner debuted in 1995 with this experimental and existential Scots-language novel written from the perspective of a young Scottish woman who passes off her boyfriend’s manuscript as her own after he commits suicide. Lynne Ramsay made it her follow-up to her feature debut Ratcatcher (1999), setting the tone for the intense, morbid character studies she’d direct in the 2010s. 

There’s connective tissue between the intense subjectivity of Warner’s prose and Ramsay’s developing style, where sickly colour grading and precarious handheld camerawork double down on the lack of stability central to Warner’s text. In Morvern Callar (which was made three years after Ramsay’s previous film, an uncharacteristically short gap for the filmmaker), Morton’s wide eyes and pale face absorbs and repels the shock of her boyfriend’s death, letting her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) deal with her increasingly reactive behaviour and linger in the doubt that now defines their friendship.

Young Adam (2003)

Director: David Mackenzie

Young Adam (2003)

It’s difficult to think of a more typical post-war Scottish novel than the one adapted for David Mackenzie’s Young Adam. Author Alexander Trocchi’s novel ruminates on the fractured relationships and damaged psyche found in a 1950s Scotland, creating a distorted world that offers no prospects or social mobility, just marital strife and vile abuse. Trocchi rejected his status as a Scottish artist, spending most of his writing life in international political organisations, but that didn’t rob his books of their distinctly Scottish flavour. 

Ewan McGregor plays a sexually aberrant and fruitless writer skulking around the River Clyde on a barge similar in condition to the one in Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante (1934) but featuring significantly less poetic adventures. With its heavy blue tint and severely disordered narrative, Mackenzie’s film transforms Trocchi’s story into a film unwilling to be immediately deciphered, plunging you into absurd cruelty and making you doubt your own memory with each successive scene.

The Dreamers (2003)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

The Dreamers (2003)

Edinburgh-born Gilbert Adair had substantial French connections. He moved to Paris for 12 years in 1968, translated George Perec’s famous lipogram A Void from French without ever using the letter ‘e’, and he penned The Holy Innocents, a story of adolescent cinephilia and debauchery in a lavish Parisian apartment during the ‘68 student riots, inspired by Jean Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants terrible and its subsequent film adaptation by Jean-Pierre Melville. 

Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation, written by Adair, was a breakout film for its three young leads: Michael Pitt as Matthew, an American studying overseas, and Eva Green and Louis Garrel as siblings Isabelle and Théo, whose taboo urges engulf the trio in an insular and unstable sexual tryst as they’re increasingly beckoned by the struggle around them. It’s a rich and volatile film about the hunger for political and erotic satisfaction felt among the Parisian youth of the time.

Under the Skin (2013)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Under the Skin (2013)

It’s perhaps fitting for the only film on this list to be originally penned by a non-Scots born author to be a tale of an outsider’s view into a fluid and beguiling country. Dutchman Michel Faber moved to Scotland in the early 1990s with his wife and family, and was deemed “Scottish by formation” by the prestigious Macallan Short Story Competition three years after he immigrated. 

Jonathan Glazer, a master of visual interpretation, only loosely adapted Faber’s story for his third feature film, but mined the author’s eerie prose for a foreboding and asphyxiating sense of unease that Scarlett Johansson, playing an alien predator roaming Glasgow’s streets, confidently projects. Featuring one of the best horror scores of the century, courtesy of Mica Levi, and an out-of-body exploration of the contradictions of human empathy and identity, Under the Skin was nearly instantly accepted into the Weird Scottish canon.

Sunset Song (2015)

Director: Terence Davies

Sunset Song (2015)

Few Scottish novels are held in as high esteem in Scotland’s literary history as Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s agrarian saga Sunset Song, which caused controversy when published in 1932 for its frank portrayal of rural home life. For the young Chris Guthrie growing up in Kinraddie at the turn of the 20th century, this involves waves of violent abuse as both a daughter and later a housewife and mother. 

Domestic dramas that are unafraid of the dark sides of private life are the forte of the late, great and equally esteemed Terence Davies, who adapted Gibbon’s novel with his usual patience and serenity, keenly observing Chris’s persistent conviction to hold on to a stable, comforting home life and staying close to her when her mistreatment feels too punishing to bear. In warm, crowded interiors and wide open landscapes, Davies approaches the classic novel with a surety and skill that makes for a definitive adaptation.

Poor Things (2023)

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in Poor Things (2023)

Alasdair Gray’s brand of postmodernism blends detailed historical satire with strokes of fantasy and old-fashioned (think Frankenstein-era) science fiction. From the 1981 publication of Lanark, his status as one of the most central and seismic voices in contemporary Scottish fiction has been unchallenged. 

It would take someone as iconoclastic as Greek Weird Wave pioneer Yorgos Lanthimos to bring to cinematic life his satirical fantasia Poor Things, written in 1992, which features a grown woman with a rapidly accelerating child’s brain who embarks on a voyage of discovery, hampered only by intrusive and controlling men. Gone is Gray’s own visual style, shown throughout the book in eye-catching illustrations. Gone is Gray’s satire of Britain’s colonial and capitalist antics. But through Gray’s text, Lanthimos’s trademark cynical view of the systemic control of human behaviour blossoms into a weird but sincere joy at being able to carve out your own world.