Addiction in books, films and TV

Drugs, and therefore addiction, have been a part of global culture for centuries, so it is hardly surprising that they often become the focus of storytelling

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 film maker to show us enough of the pleasures of drug use to understand our heroes’ fatal attraction, without becoming an outright advertisement for those pleasures themselves.

TV series: Breaking Bad

Created by Vince Gilligan, 2008–13 | With Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn | Cert 12

The show follows Walter White, a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with stage III cancer. To provide his family with a stable future, he decides to produce crystal meth (methamphetamine). This leads him into a life of crime and he becomes a major player in the drugs trade.

The show also explores the effect of a fatal diagnosis on a once hard-working man. You see the lengths he has to go to to cover up his criminal life, and the effects it has on his relationship with his family.

IMDB summary | YouTube trailer 

Film: Limitless

Directed by Neil Burger, 2011 | With Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish and Robert De Niro | Cert 15

Not your classic drug tale, ‘Limitless’ explores the effect of a cognitive-enhancing drug, NZT, which allows Eddie Morra to access 100 per cent of his brain’s ability. Amazed by his new potential, Morra rises to the top of the financial world, only to be hit be side-effects that jeopardise his new life.

As well as focusing on Morra’s addiction to this wonder drug, the film explores the modern approach to so many of life’s problems – ‘there must be a pill for that’ – and raises questions around the ethics of increasingly popular cognitive enhancers.

IMDB summary | YouTube trailer

TV Series: Elementary

Created by Robert Doherty, 2012– | With Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu | Cert 15

Holmes and Watson as you’ve never seen them before. Set in New York, Holmes is a recovering heroin addict who meets Watson as his ‘sober companion’. The first season follows Holmes as he starts his post-rehab life, joining the NYPD as a consulting detective and adjusting to life without drugs. Through his work and the support of Watson, he not only learns how to cope with sobriety, but also comes to acknowledge his flaws.

Holmes comes into close contact with drugs through his work, and loses a close friend who, after 30 years of sobriety, overdoses on heroin. Both Watson and Holmes are aware that addiction is never cured, only managed.

IMDB summary | YouTube trailer

Film: Leaving Las Vegas

Directed by Mike Figgis, 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 Sanderson 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. 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.

IMDB summary | YouTube trailer

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 on to 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.

Wikipedia article (includes plot summary) | Amazon summary and reviews | Irvine Welsh official website

Book: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Thomas de Quincey, 1821

‘Confessions’ is de Quincey’s autobiographical account of his own use of 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 it would educate others. 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.

Amazon summary and reviews | Project Gutenberg complete text of the book | Wellcome Images scan of first edition of ‘Confessions’

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Addiction’ in June 2010 and reviewed and updated in September 2015.

Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development