Trainspotting at 20

What made Trainspotting so special? We take a look back at Danny Boyle's classic, as it heads towards its 20th birthday...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh, was first published in 1993. The novel grew from a series of short stories into a collection of non-linear connected vignettes based around a group of heroin addicts from Leith and their acquaintances. Parts of the novel – which grew from Welsh’s diaries after being inspired by the early Nineties rave scene – were published in a variety of journals and pamphlets across Scotland, including New Writing Scotland and Rebel Inc. One of these publishers passed on the work to Secker & Warburg, who published it despite not feeling it had much commercial value (though they had previously put out works by Orwell, Kafka, and Simone de Beauvoir).

Written from multiple characters’ perspectives in a variety of accents, it was longlisted for the Booker Prize but failed to make the shortlist after apparently offending two members of the judging panel. Like Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory before it, Trainspotting succeeded in delighting as many critics as it appalled. The stellar reviews and stark depictions of Eighties Edinburgh made it attractive enough to be zeitgeisty, but Trainspotting has stood the test of time.

As, of course, has the 1996 movie adaptation, now 20 years old.

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The book was growing in popularity, but the film brought it further into the public consciousness (much like A Song Of Ice And Fire became an even bigger seller when Game Of Thrones was broadcast). After completing their debut feature Shallow Grave, the team of Andrew McDonald, John Hodge, and Danny Boyle (producer/writer/director respectively) were looking for their next project. Industry buzz about Shallow Grave meant they were being offered plenty of projects, but McDonald had read Trainspotting on a plane, and showed it to Boyle and Hodge. Both were enthused by the prospect of making it into a film.

Watch Trainspotting on Amazon Prime

While McDonald haggled for the rights to the film, Hodge, as a screenwriter, found the task of turning the book into a three act, ninety minute movie a challenge. Having had free reign on the original storyline for Shallow Grave, adaptation proved difficult. There was no way to include all of the book, and the three agreed some chapters were unfilmable.

While publicizing the recently released Shallow Grave, Hodge’s task was to make a screenplay that had mass appeal, a beginning, middle and end, and incorporated aspects or suggestions of the missing material. This results in the scene where Sick Boy and Renton fire an air gun at a skinhead’s dog in the park while doing Sean Connery impressions.

It’s a moment that combines Sick Boy’s internal conversations between himself and Connery, a chapter where he shoots a dog from his flat to make it attack its skinhead owner, then runs downstairs and kills the animal, and another chapter where Spud protests at Sick Boy and Renton wanting to kill squirrels in the Meadows. Thus, three chapters of the book make it into one short scene. John Hodge everyone.

There’s an Amazon review of the book which states that the reviewer had found the film to be fun, but the book too grim to rate higher than one star. It’s silly, yet not totally wrong. The book is longer, more brutally realistic. Begbie is certainly more monstrous, but then so is everyone. Yet this is an important part of the film’s appeal. It portrays a hyper-real version of reality with euphoric fantasy sequences (we go from the worst toilet in Scotland to a triumphant sunlit lagoon with clean waters) and a playfulness with its visual metaphors. These are then undercut with both horror and an increased realism as Renton approaches choosing life.

Hodge’s script sensibly focussed on Renton, the main character in the novel, and those who interact with him, resulting in characters from the novel not making it into the film. This gives the movie a clearer storyline with the novel’s subplots, vignettes, and aspects specific to Scotland, Edinburgh and Leith removed (allowing the film to travel well). Ewan McGregor, having impressed the production team in Shallow Grave, was given the role of a lifetime early in his career, and sailed through it with aplomb. There’s a swagger and a confidence with hints of self-loathing, and enough charisma to make you root for him even as he starts his friend off on the downward spiral that will eventually cause his death.

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Casting directors Gail Stevens and Andy Pryor should also be lauded for their work. Not one of the main cast has gone on to obscurity, with the fresh faces of Kevin McKidd, Johnny Lee Miller, and Kelly McDonald going on to success in film and TV. Of the more established actors, the producers were worried that Robert Carlyle and Ewen Bremner’s parts were beneath the actors. Carlyle was already a household name through his TV work, including Sunday night drama Hamish Macbeth, and Bremner was playing the lead role of Renton in a stage adaptation of Trainspotting in London at the time. Begbie and Spud went on to be amongst their best-remembered roles.

A lot of what makes Trainspotting work is the time it was made. Set in the late ’80s and early ’90s and made post-rave culture in the midst of Britpop and the advent of Cool Britannia, it shows the viewer elements of all these time periods through its music and fashion choices. McDonald wanted the soundtrack to be alluring, and once the music was secured made sure the list of bands was included in the trailer. The time periods depicted in the film were recent in 1996, and the choice of music rather than dialogue saves valuable screentime from potentially boring exposition.

This seems as good a time as any to mention how good Danny Boyle is at cinema.

Trainspotting is a film that uses sound and vision in a way that’s just as cool as Tarantino, but with a better grounding in storytelling and character. The Perfect Day sequence where Renton sinks into the floor and is then dragged into a taxi and into hospital combines visual metaphors – but not obtuse, hard to follow ones – with black comedy from both the lyrics and visuals, ending with Renton shrunk guiltily between his parents, both of whom look like they’ve given up on him.

It summarises Trainspotting‘s appeal quickly: it’s funny, inventive, dark, and sad, but also it’s got a veneer of cool due to the Lou Reed soundtrack. This is what gives the impression of glamor, the sly humour, kinetic scene changes and era-defining soundtrack, combined with McDonald and Rutter’s iconic marketing campaign (which cost around £800,000 compared to the production’s £1.5 million budget). The balance between unflinching portrayals of the death, crime and the jail and the sheer vibrant filmic exuberance means Trainspotting is open to interpretation as a laugh-out-loud black comedy and a none-more-grim look at addiction. Different people get very different things from it but it succeeds in deliberately being many things.

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Hodge’s script wisely excised a lot of the book focusing on the group of addicts, and the film was further reduced in the edit suite to a lean 93 minutes, but nonetheless there’s a lot of the book’s other concerns on the screen. If you want subtext, Trainspotting has plenty to say on the subject of class, masculinity and relationships, but on the surface it’s a tremendously entertaining film. The choice to exaggerate reality means it can be both outlandish and grounded, fantastical and shocking.

For example, I once saw Trainspotting at the NPH Cinema in St Andrews at a late night showing with a bunch of American students sitting behind me. They laughed through the first day of the Edinburgh Festival, didn’t bat an eyelid at the scenes of hard drug use, chocolate-covered toilets, and death. However, when Renton moved to London and let Begbie and Sick Boy stay in the show flat, I heard someone behind me say with genuine confusion in their voice:

“Is he subletting?”

Outlandish.Grounded.Fantastical.

Shocking.

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