If you could travel back in time to 1996, and if you had enough money to spend your weekends at the cinema, you’d probably find yourself watching a lot of blockbusters, modern classics, and influential stories. After all, 1996 was the year of The English Patient, Mission: Impossible (which kicked off the long-running film series), Jerry Maguire, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Rock, and of course big blockbusters such as Twister and Independence Day. It was also the year of Fargo, Shine, Evita (the film of the musical), Basquiat, Matilda, Romeo + Juliet, and Hamlet (brought to the big screen by Kenneth Branagh).
Hollywood didn’t hold a monopoly on the great films of that year, though. 1996 also saw the release of Kids Return by Takeshi Kitano, The God of Cookery by Stephen Chow, Temptress Moon starring Gong Li, and Comrades: Almost a Love Story, starring Maggie Cheung. Czech drama Kolya and French period film Ridicule made waves on the international film festival circuit, joined by Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Jaco Van Dormael’s Le huitième jour.
Oh, and we can’t, mustn’t, shouldn’t forget the British black comedy that took the world by storm: Trainspotting.
Kinetically scored and directed by Danny Boyle from a script by John Hodge, Trainspotting was a take-no-prisoners look at late-1980s Scotland, depicted through the struggles of four strung-out characters: Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (played by Ewan McGregor), Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (played by Jonny Lee Miller), Daniel “Spud” Murphy (played by Ewen Bremner), and Francis “Franco” Begbie (played by Robert Carlyle).
And make no mistake: they may be the main characters, but it’s just not right to describe them as the “heroes” of the story.
Sure, there’s a little humor here and there, even though much of it is used in order to wound and in order to maim. Sure, there’s a great soundtrack to go along with the quirky camera angles and the nearly impenetrable Glaswegian accents. But the movie never flinches from the violence, prejudices, and self-destructive behavior that nearly every character in the movie exhibits. It is a hard-hitting look at down-on-their-luck characters in a struggling city during a time of economic and cultural difficulty, who further compound their difficulties by giving in to their many addictions.
Trainspotting was critically acclaimed in its home country – and then it went to that year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it became the film that everyone wanted to see, reaping praise from the critics, the press, and the moviegoers in general.
Twenty years on, it’s still easy to remember the set pieces of the movie: Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie, and Spud send up the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album by crossing the street to go to the pub. The arguably iconic scene of Renton diving into a filthy public toilet after a drug-laced suppository, with solid and liquid excrement smeared everywhere. The terrifying hallucinations that dog Renton’s heels when his parents forced him to quit heroin cold turkey, from other characters sitting on his bed to sing to him and give him advice, to a TV game show where the host asks uncomfortable questions about HIV, to a dead baby who comes back to life to taunt him about the choices that he has made in life.
Trainspotting the movie has since become, in addition to a cult classic that continues to collect new fans every year, a chronicle of Scotland when it was gripped in the years of Thatcherism and the beginning of the worldwide AIDS epidemic. At the time of its release, it was also a source of controversy and attacks; most infamously, then-US Senator Bob Dole said that it would promote moral depravity and drug use. However, he later walked back his comments and claimed that he hadn’t even seen the film.
In Australia and elsewhere, the question of whether the film promoted drug use, or was an accurate depiction of the negative consequences of the same, was a hotly debated topic.
As for the source material?
After spending time as a punk musician and as a petty criminal, Irvine Welsh decided he’d rather choose life (as he made Renton say it in both the book and the film), and tried to straighten himself out. He worked for the Edinburgh city council, and studied for an MBA.
Sometime prior to 1993, he decided to try his hand at writing; he found his voice in the genre of the short story, and he began to write about people who were drifting, aimless and hopelessly addicted to all manner of self-destructive behavior.
It’s easy to see the novel Trainspotting as a loose collection of short stories, which are connected to each other through the use of common characters and a universally shared setting. In the case of this particular book, the characters are linked to each other by the idea of addiction. Renton and Sick Boy, just to name two of the major characters, spend a lot of time thinking and talking about their next hit of heroin – and they also spend a lot of time trying to work through the consequences of their addiction, from getting themselves locked up to the difficulties of trying to get clean. Spud is both addicted to heroin and in thrall to kleptomania; his compulsive tendency to steal things eventually gets him a stint in prison. Begbie, the fourth of the major POV characters, is not on heroin – but he is addicted to alcohol and to amphetamine-based drugs, which can only fuel his extreme need for violence.
The success of the original novel led to a stage adaptation, which was received well enough by critics and the viewing public alike that it went on tour around the UK, playing at different venues throughout the rest of the 1990s. Ewen Bremner originated the role of Renton on the stage, and if you think that name sounds familiar, that’s because the same actor played Spud in the movie version.
The stage version also made it to the United States, doing a run in Los Angeles under the direction of Roger Mathey; and more recently, the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow has staged a revival production, which has likewise received good reviews.
Both the novel and its adaptations became so popular that Welsh has written more novels starring the same characters. In 2002, he published the novel Porno, the first sequel to Trainspotting; it talks about what happens after Renton goes back to Scotland and encounters his erstwhile friends once again. In particular, it helps to flesh out the character of Sick Boy, portraying the actual sickness that seems to infest his psyche.
The prequel to Trainspotting, on the other hand, was published in 2012, and was called Skagboys. It shows the major characters as they gradually fall into becoming out-and-out heroin junkies. Just to show the extent to which they change, near the beginning of the novel Renton expresses disgust at being offered a hit.
And now there’s a new story in the Trainspotting universe: Welsh’s 2016 novel The Blade Artist. Released in April, it focuses on Begbie, who has not exactly been telling the truth about his past to his American wife and daughters; he must make his way back to Scotland with them in tow, and it’s a fair guess that he’ll have to face his old demons once again.
Twenty years have passed since the movie adaptation of Trainspotting hit the silver screens – and so it was quite the surprise for fans when it was announced that a sequel film was in production. Even better, the film reunites the original director and many members of the original cast, including all four of the main characters. On its release in November 2016, the trailer for the new film, which is to be called T2: Trainspotting, became a viral hit.
What can we expect from the film?
The very first sequence of the trailer features Renton walking into what looks like an empty pub, only to encounter Sick Boy at the pool table, who says, “Hello, Mark. So what you been up to, for twenty years?”
And that seems to be one of the major issues that the film will be tackling; Robert Carlyle, who plays Begbie, said that it will make viewers ask, “What have I done with my life?”
For a while, it seemed that the sequel would never get made. Though the director, Boyle, had already expressed his hopes of making a sequel in 2009, he then changed his tune in 2013 by saying that he wanted to make a loose movie adaptation of the novel Porno. Then, rumors of difficulties between the cast and the director began to emerge, but by 2014 all of those problems seemed to have been put to rest. Welsh went so far as to declare that they were all so protective of its legacy and its continuing impact on viewers, and that this was the idea that guided them through the difficulties of the pre-production period.
T2: Trainspotting will be incorporating elements from Porno, but will be more of an original screenplay. A sequel script had been written in the late 2000s, but got scrapped so that the original cast would be given a chance to star in the sequel.
After the release of the trailer, it was announced that T2: Trainspotting would be released in the United Kingdom in January of 2017, followed by a worldwide release in February and then a run in US theaters.