© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

Released in 1996, Trainspotting quickly became one of the key events in British culture of the 1990s. For one thing, it proved that British film could still compete with Hollywood in term of hipness and broad appeal. Indeed, as Murray Smith notes, the film overtly draws upon a number of American cinematic traditions, from Orson Welles to Quentin Tarantino (9). Coming out of contexts that might have produced either high-brow art cinema or hard-boiled social realism, Trainspotting incorporates elements of both but ultimately projects a pop cultural sensibility that seems custom-designed to draw a large audience, suggesting important new hybrid directions for subsequent British films. Trainspotting was also a springboard for the careers of several participants who would go on to become major players in the British film industry. Its English director, Danny Boyle, had previously directed only one feature film, though that film, the crime comedy Shallow Grave, had been a substantial success, giving Boyle enough clout in the world of British film to be able get the much more controversial Trainspotting into production. Trainspotting would then propel Boyle into a major film career that would include an Academy Award for Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire (1998), a film that also won seven other Academy Awards, including for Best Picture. Shallow Grave also introduced the film-going public to a young Scottish actor by the name of Ewan McGregor, who would go on to become the star of Trainspotting and then to become a major Hollywood star in a wide variety of roles. But Trainspotting was perhaps most important for its groundbreaking subject matter, which called attention to a number of important social issues, while presenting its exploration of those issues in a highly amusing and entertaining package.

Some critics, in fact, felt that Trainspotting was a bit too entertaining and comical in its treatment of the important problem of heroin addiction among the disaffected youth of Edinburgh, Scotland, making heroin addiction seem a bit too much fun, if not downright romantic. But then similar complaints had been lodged against Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel of the same title, upon which the film was based. However, neither the film nor the novel come anywhere close to recommending heroin addiction, while both works are in fact about far broader issues, just using heroin addiction as a starting point from which to move into a commentary on these issues.

The film version of Trainspotting begins with a series of scenes from the lives of the circle of junkies who are the film’s major characters, narrated in voiceover by McGregor’s character, Mark Renton. Renton and his friends are shown running from police, playing soccer, and then shooting up, while he narrates by providing a sarcastic rendition of the empty, conformist bourgeois advice that has been foisted on them all their lives—but that had reached a crescendo in the late 1980s (when the film is set) during the latter years of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as Britain’s conservative Prime Minister. Renton’s voiceover, taken almost verbatim from the novel (though it appears slightly more than halfway through the novel, rather than at the beginning) makes his attitude clear:

“Choose life, Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on the couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all. Pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats that you’ve spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life.”[1]

Renton is then shown passed out on the dirty floor of a squalid room, while his narration continues with a declaration that he has decided not to choose these things. He has decided, instead, to choose heroin.

As this speech makes clear, Trainspotting is a highly verbal film, with much of its verbiage taken almost directly from Welsh’s novel. Renton remains the focal point of the film throughout, though other members of his group of heroin-users are important as well. Almost all are played by virtually unknown actors who would subsequently go on to stardom, making Trainspotting one of the greatest launching pads for acting careers in British film history. Peter Mullan—who would go on to great success as an actor, director, and leftist political activist—plays Swanney (aka “Mother Superior,” because of the length of his drug habit) the elder statesman among the junkies and a sometime dealer who supplies advice and drugs to the rest of the group. Jonny Lee Miller—who would achieve mainstream success as an actor in American television shows, especially as Sherlock Holmes in the series Elementary (2012– )—plays “Sick Boy,” so-called because of the general perversity of his attitudes. And Ewen Bremner—who had played Renton in the stage adaptation of Trainspotting—plays the good-natured, but hapless Spud. Also notable among their group of “mates” is Robert Carlyle, who plays the sadistic Francis Begbie, who seems almost like an escapee from A Clockwork Orange. Carlyle, who would achieve major success in The Full Monty in 1997, makes clear that Begbie (who refuses to put filth like heroin into his system, preferring alcohol and violence as his drugs of choice) is at least as far from being able to function normally in society as are any of the junkies. Finally, Trainspotting was also the debut film performance of the fine Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, who plays Renton’s underage (but not so innocent) schoolgirl love interest, Diane Coulston.

Diane’s school-girl outfit reveals her young age.

Renton and his friends are not political. They are not educated or sophisticated. But they are smart enough to know that there is something missing in this litany of bourgeois dreams that they have been told to strive for all their lives. And herein lies the true message, the true heart, of Trainspotting. While the film presents graphic details concerning the lives of heroin addicts, making clear the many horrors and degradations to which addicts are driven to feed their desperate need for drugs, it also makes clear that the fault for their predicament cannot be laid entirely at their own feet. At least part of the fault, both the novel and the film make clear, lies with a society that gives its young people nothing more meaningful to strive for than the temporary pleasures of drugs—though the film also makes particularly clear that those pleasures can be considerable. In another of his monologues drawn almost directly from the novel, Renton explains the ways this pleasure motivates heroin users:

People think it’s about misery and desperation and death and all that shite, which is not to be ignored. But what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn’t do it. After all, we’re not fucking stupid. At least we’re not that fucking stupid. Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by a thousand, and you’re still nowhere near it.

Among other things, Renton goes on to point out, junkies have simplified lives because they are concerned with only one thing—scoring more junk. Sober people, on the other hand, have all sorts of responsibilities and concerns to worry about.

Sick Boy, Renton, Tommy, and Spud.

Of course, scoring drugs is not necessarily a simple matter, either, and the junkies work virtually full time on a variety of schemes to steal or otherwise acquire the money to buy heroin, or even to acquire substitute drugs by running a variety of scams to score gear (directly or indirectly) via the legitimate channels of the National Health Service. Almost any drug that gets them high at all will do in a pinch, though nothing, of course, ultimately substitutes for heroin, their true love. Renton is particularly dismissive of the methodone that he is given at one point as part of an official anti-addiction problem, feeling that it only makes his craving for heroin worse. Indeed, one of the strongest messages delivered by the film is the completely inadequate and ineffectual nature of such official programs—or of unofficial programs, such as the help provided by Renton’s well-meaning parents, who are clearly at a loss in attempting to help with the struggles of their wayward son.

One of the key elements that identifies Trainspotting as a postmodernist film is its engagement with contemporary popular culture. Some of this engagement occurs in its use (sometimes ironic) of contemporary popular music on the soundtrack, as when Iggy Pop’s well-known “Lust for Life” plays during the opening sequence. The lyrics of this upbeat song perfectly complement Renton’s opening narration about choosing life (or not), but the fact that the song is performed by a singer who has had his own problems with heroin addiction provides a subtle reminder that such addiction has been a far bigger part of recent Western culture that we sometimes like to admit. Lou Reed’s well-known 1972 song “Perfect Day” (which had been a hit on the British charts in 1995 when re-recorded by Duran Duran) also plays an important role in the soundtrack. Ostensibly a romantic ballad, “Perfect Day” has been widely interpreted as an ode to heroin, and it certainly functions that way in Trainspotting. Lou Reed and Iggy Pop[2] also play prominent roles in the discussions about popular music among the film’s characters, and together their presence in the film complicates our view of heroin and suggests the existence of a vibrant popular culture surrounding it and other drugs. At the same time, one could also argue that the presence of such figures suggests the way in which the characters of the film live in a world saturated by pop cultural images that glamorize and romanticize drug use and the film in this sense (despite criticisms in some circles that it does the same thing) would potentially seem to be highly critical of such images, which make the widespread use of drugs such as heroin almost inevitable.[3]

Another running motif in the film is Sick Boy’s fascination with James Bond films (a motif missing from the novel, though Bond is mentioned in passing there), especially those featuring Edinburgh native Sean Connery, probably the biggest Scottish film star of all time. Sick Boy frequently lectures the other junkies on the relative merits of various Bond films (and Bond girls), as well as on the particular greatness of Connery as an actor. He describes Connery as a “muscular actor” with as much screen presence as Hollywood legends such as Gary Cooper or Burt Lancaster, “but combined with a sly wit to make him a formidable romantic lead—and closer, in that respect, to Cary Grant.” Connery’s Scottishness is certainly key to his role in the film, but in many ways the referent here is the oh-so-British Bond, fantasy image of British capability and sophistication in the post-imperial age of decline in global British power. While one might think that Connery would be an excellent role model for young Scottish men hoping to succeed in life, the film subtly suggests that he is just the opposite. Because of his identification with Bond, a figure of impossible and unattainable skill and savoir faire, Connery actually serves as an example of what the young junkies in Trainspotting can never hope to become, leaving them with no recourse but to fall back on drug-related heroes like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Thus, Sick Boy at one point describes actress Ursula Andress, “the quintessential Bond girl,” as “the embodiment, right, of his superiority to us: beautiful, exotic, highly sexual—yet totally unavailable to anyone apart from him.” Sick Boy then goes on to suggest that if such a woman would “shag one punter from Edinburgh, she’d shag the while fucking lot of us.” But, of course, she wouldn’t. Connery might be from Edinburgh, but Bond is a cosmopolitan figure, a citizen of the world and a nostalgic icon of British imperial power.[4]

One of the greatest drawbacks of the drug life, Renton notes, is having to endure the sanctimonious lectures of all the non-junkies one meets on the evils (and stupidity) of shooting heroin. However, occasionally, even Renton swears off drugs and declares that he will never do them again. Early in the film, he barricades himself in a room with an array of supplies, preparing to ride out his withdrawal from heroin. The supplies include a bottle of valium stolen from his mother, who is “in her own domestic and socially acceptable way, also a drug addict.” The suggestion here of the hypocrisy of a society that would express such horror at heroin addiction, while implicitly endorsing a variety of other addictions (to drugs or otherwise) is quite clear.[5]

Of course, Renton’s dedication to going straight is somewhat called into question by the fact that he begins his withdrawal by trying to score one last hit. Unfortunately, his emergency dealer, Mikey Forrester (played by Welsh), is in short supply, and can only offer him a couple of opium suppositories. This begins one of the sequences in the film that most effectively makes clear the depths to which addicts are willing to sink to feed their habits. Though not thrilled, Renton accepts the suppositories, inserting them immediately. Unfortunately, before the casing of the suppositories can melt to allow the drug to enter his system, Renton has a violent attack of diarrhea due to coming down off of his last hit of heroin. Desperate, he flees to the first bathroom he can find, which turns out to be the “worst toilet in Scotland,” or perhaps anywhere. He staggers through the disgusting room, stepping through pools of filthy liquid, and then makes it to a shockingly filthy clogged toilet, of which he frantically makes use, only to realize that he has jettisoned the suppositories into the filth. Gagging, but not willing to relinquish the drugs, he digs into the toilet, feeling around for the suppositories in the murk within. Then, in a surreal scene that suggests the uneasy hold that addicts have on reality, we see Renton literally plunge into the foul toilet, emerging into an underground world of clean, pure water, where he is able to locate the suppositories, nestled on the bottom. Triumphant, he retrieves them and swims back to the surface, climbing from the toilet and re-entering the real world, drugs safely in hand.[6]

Renton emerges from the worst toilet in Scotland.

If this moment is the comic height of the film’s exploration of the squalor of junkie life, the tragic height surely occurs in the moment a bit later in the film when one of the junkies, Allison (Susan Vidler), in the midst of a heroin-induced stupor along with her friends, discovers that her infant daughter, who has been living with the group in the squalid house where they shoot up together, is dead in her crib. The film does not make clear whether the death was due to a common crib death or due to neglect because no one was caring for the infant, but the gruesome sight of the dead baby is a chilling one indeed—for us and for the junkies, especially Allison and Sick Boy, who is (we now learn) the baby’s father. Granted, Renton seems relatively unaffected, though later, when his parents lock him in his room to try to force him into sobriety, his consequent hallucinations are dominated by horrifying images of the baby, crawling about on the ceiling, its head spinning on its neck like the young girl’s in The Exorcist. In any case, the junkies (including Allison and Sick Boy) predictably respond to the baby’s death by doing more heroin.

During one of Renton’s periodic attempts at withdrawal, Sick Boy also decides to go off of heroin, just to show how easily he can do it—thereby diminishing the heroism of Renton’s own struggle. Meanwhile, he lectures Renton on his (not very profound) unified theory of human life, in which everyone, no matter how great, eventually enters a period of decline in which they lose any greatness they once had. His central example, of course, is Sean Connery, whose post-Bond career is, for Sick Boy, one that is primarily a sad postscript to his formerly great achievements. Thus, he points out, “The Name of the Rose is merely a blip on an otherwise uninterrupted downward trajectory.” When Renton suggests that The Untouchables was also a notable late Connery film, Sick Boy scoffs, declaring that “that means fuck-all” and that Connery’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for that film was “a sympathy vote,” based on memories of earlier achievements and not on Connery’s performance in this particular film.

Heroin does, in the film, promote a certain sense of community among its users, who have a common focus in the drug that dominates their lives. Indeed, the film’s junkies clearly constitute a sort of subculture of the kind discussed by Dick Hebdige, in which disaffected youth, feeling excluded from the mainstream culture, express their identities by developing a distinct cultural style of their own. On the other hand, Hebdige, focusing especially on British punk culture, argues that even the most radical subcultures have a tendency to be appropriated by the mainstream, becoming simply another sort of commodity: “Youth cultural styles may begin by offering symbolic challenges, but they must inevitably end by establishing new sets of conventions; by creating new commodities, new industries, or rejuvenating old ones” (96). In short, the very countercultural forces that were originally meant to oppose the dehumanizing and spiritually impoverishing power of the system of capitalist commodification themselves tend to be co-opted by that system and to become a part of it.

The drug-based subculture of Trainspotting seems almost designed to resist this sort of appropriation by building itself on a basis so far outside the Thatcherite mainstream that it cannot possibly be incorporated within the capitalist mainstream. Thatcher was fond of saying that there was no alternative to her conservative, austerity-driven policies, but these junkies have produced something that is clearly other to Thatcherite society, however self-destructive it might be. This alternative, though, is not meant to present itself as a direct challenge to the status quo; it is merely an announcement, on the part of its members that they choose opt out on the status quo, rejecting mainstream society and depending on their own internal camaraderie for social support.

This camaraderie is, at times, one of the more interesting features of the film, though the film also ultimately suggests that the junkies are more devoted to the drug itself than they are to their fellow users. As a result, being a member of their community has some serious drawbacks, especially for those who are not fully members of the community or who are trying to break free of it. Thus, junkies who are trying to give up the drug tend to get drawn back in by their association with other junkies. And those who are not users, but fraternize with users, have a tendency ultimately to become users themselves. Through the first part of the film, the group of junkies includes as a marginal member the clean-cut, athletic, non-drug-taking Tommy MacKenzie (Kevin McKidd). But Tommy and the other members of the group have very different interests. At one point, Tommy takes his junky mates on an outing into the Scottish moors, to enjoy the healthy air and natural beauty—and to feel proud of being citizens of a country as beautiful as Scotland. The others aren’t impressed, though, as Renton makes abundantly clear in a bitter speech that is actually part of the scene, rather than a voiceover:[7]

“It’s shite being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking earth. The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some people hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers! Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonized by. We’re ruled by effete arseholes!”

Renton here captures much of the complex historico-political relationship between England and Scotland, one that has typically found Scotland in a subaltern position, subdued by wars with England into what has in many ways resembled a colonial relationship. Indeed, while Scotland has been a part of the United Kingdom since the Act of Union of 1706–1707, the participation of Scotland in that union was essentially forced upon them as the result of military defeats at the hands of English armies.[8] As John Robertson has noted, “The experience of defeat, followed by enforced union, changed forever the relationship of each country to England . . . never again could the Scots deceive themselves that the English lacked the will or the means to conquer them” (qtd. in Nairn, 198).

Thus, while Scotland’s history is littered with boasting pronouncements of heroic Scottish resistance to British rule—the ludicrous 1995 American film Braveheart, which tells (in distorted, anachronistic, and hyper-romantic form) the story of medieval Scottish hero William Wallace, captures the spirit of these pronouncements—Trainspotting is little interested in such pronouncements. Indeed, coming out just a year after Braveheart, Trainspotting might be seen as a sort of rejoinder to that bit of inflated cinematic rhetoric, except that the film version of Trainspotting doesn’t really seem much interested in engaging with such issues. The novel, however, is concerned with issues such as nationalism and postcolonialism, a fact to which I will return later in this essay.

Meanwhile, it is fairly predictable that hanging out with the junkies will lead to no good for Tommy. After his girlfriend breaks up with him when he loses possession of the sex tape they made (because Renton stole it), Tommy is so forlorn that he himself takes to heroin, leading directly to his infection with HIV via a contaminated needle. In fact, the junkies in general seem rather cavalier about such things as sanitary needles, and it comes rather as a surprise when Renton has an HIV test and comes up clear of the virus. He himself is clearly surprised, and the dodging of this bullet helps to inspire another of his attempts to get off of heroin—in this case by getting away from the environment that got him onto heroin in the first place and moving to London, hoping that the hustle and bustle of the big city will help him to get off to a fresh start.

For a time, Renton seems to be succeeding in London, where he works as an agent helping to rent out posh flats to affluent customers. It’s a whole different world, but London is only 400 miles from Edinburgh, so perhaps it is no surprise that his old life soon comes crashing in on him. Just as things seem to be going well for Renton, Begbie shows up in London on the run from the law in Edinburgh, where he is wanted for armed robbery. So he crashes with Renton and generally makes Renton’s life miserable. As if that weren’t bad enough, Sick Boy, now operating as a pimp and pusher, shows up to stay with Renton as well, while he is working on some “business” connections in London.

Just as things are becoming unbearable, word comes that Tommy has died back in Edinburgh, and the three head back there for his funeral. Trainspotting being what it is, even Tommy’s death has a comically tragic side to it, as we learn that, with his immune system wrecked by AIDS, he contracted a fatal case of toxoplasmosis from catshit deposited in his apartment by a neglected kitten he had bought for Lizzy, only to have her reject the gift. In the world of Trainspotting, if anything bad can happen, it probably will—which might be why Renton is initially so skeptical when Begbie, Sick Boy, and Spud try, while back in Edinburgh, to convince him to join them in a deal to buy two kilos of heroin from Forrester and then resell it at a huge profit.

Surprisingly, given the participants, this plan succeeds, and the four end up with £16,000 (roughly $20,000) in an athletic bag—which Renton promptly steals, making off with it while the others sleep. He deposits £4,000 in a station locker for Spud but feels no remorse where Begbie and Sick Boy are concerned. Then he makes off for parts unknown, resolved to start a new, respectable life. As the film ends, he essentially repeats his opening monologue, providing even more details concerning the new life, which he now resolves to choose instead of his former life with heroin:

“I’m gonna be just like you. The job, the family, the fucking big television, the washing machine, the compact disc, and electrical tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisure wear, luggage, three-piece suite, DIY, game shows, junk food children, walks in the park, nine-to-five, good at golf, washing the car, choice of sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, cleaning the gutters, getting by, looking ahead, the day you die.”

This ending speech, of course, is entirely satirical, and it leaves little room to interpret this ending as a happy one. By deciding to join mainstream society, Renton is committing himself to a lifetime of mind-numbing conformity and senseless accumulation of empty material pleasures. He will be just like “you,” just like everybody.

Renton’s opening and closing monologues combine to make clear that Trainspotting is far more than an account of the lives of Edinburgh drug users. It is, in fact, a sweeping indictment of the capitalist society that drives the central characters to drug use by offering them so little in the way of meaningful alternatives. There is certainly some concern with the fact that the characters are specifically Scottish and with the depressed economic conditions in Scotland at the time (they have since improved somewhat), but the film’s satire is aimed more at capitalism in general than at England as Scotland’s oppressor and the source of Scotland’s depressed condition—a fact that might partly account for the critical and commercial success of the film in England itself.

This might be the place to comment on the title of the film, which refers to an old English middle-class hobby that involved jotting down and collecting locomotive numbers by observing the British Railway System—just as bored American kids sometimes collect license-plate numbers while on road trips. However, the English hobby can sometimes become quite an elaborate undertaking involving the detailed collection and exchange of information about the movement and distribution of trains—suggesting that it is particularly suited to those who have a great deal of time on their hands. Of course, in England, this sort of avocation might be undertaken by the idle rich; in this film, it is undertaken by the ideal poor, though here “trainspotting” is not so much a literal description of the activities of the characters as it is a metaphorical suggestion of the way they are just sitting back and doing nothing while the world passes them by.

Trains, of course, are a crucial symbol of modernization, an emblem of the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent growth of the capitalist system, dependent in nineteenth-century England on the developing railway system to move it goods and raw materials. The trainspotting metaphor in the film can thus be taken as a sign of the way the young characters of the film are merely bystanders, watching the capitalist system go through its motions without their participation. Renton’s resolution to “go straight” at the end of the film can thus be taken as a sign that he has decided to stop watching and to actually get on the train. The problem is that it is essentially a train to nowhere.

This same title symbol, however, functions somewhat differently in the original novel. At the literal level of the stories of the characters, the film version of Trainspotting tracks the original novel fairly closely. But the film delivers a somewhat different political message than does the novel, which is much more avowedly Scottish and concentrates much more on specifically Scottish concerns—particularly with concerns involving postcolonialism and globalization. Like the film, the novel is not much concerned with presenting glowing images of Scottish national greatness. But the novel is much more insistent in this sense, rejecting Scottish nationalist pride in no uncertain terms. While the title metaphor of the film can to an extent be taken as a critique of the English capitalist system for passing Scotland by, the criticism of the novel is aimed more at the Scottish themselves for sitting back and boasting about their greatness, while the world, in fact, passes them by. For Welsh, the Scottish have attempted (ineffectually) to deal with this situation by what he sees as outmoded declarations of Scottish national pride. As Farred puts it,

“Trainspotting is the voice of the disaffected, the postmodern, postindustrial Scottish junkie-as-critic who rejects the romance of his nation’s history in favor of a scathing attack on Scotland’s historic anti-Englishness. No contemporary commentator has ridiculed his people’s desire to maintain their difference as much as Trainspotting’s chief protagonist, the heroin-using Mark Renton.”(217).

For Frantz Fanon, nationalism was a problematic (but potentially useful) step through which most colonies would need to pass before gaining independence and then (hopefully) moving on to a post-nationalist phase. But, even at the beginning of the 1960s, Fanon was aware, in The Wretched of the Earth, that nationalist appeals to the past might impede the progressive movement into a better future. For Welsh, writing in the 1990s, when capitalist globalization is well underway and the older colonial system is essentially a thing of the past, Braveheart-style appeals to past Scottish glories are even more dangerous. For Farred, then,  the political message of Trainspotting is that Scotland should skip the nationalist phase altogether and go straight to an internationalist participation in the European Union and the global capitalist system as a whole: “Welsh’s novel can be read as an implicit rejection of the postcolonial in favor of the transnational—or Europe as the much-desired cosmopolitan, the European ‘‘global’’ (Farred 225).

The ending of the novel, which differs substantially from the ending of the film, makes this point quite clearly. As in the film, Renton has just ripped off his mates and his headed out to use his lucre to finance the beginning of a new life. Here, however, instead of merely imagining a life of English-style suburban material comforts, he thinks more internationally. In the novel, he is, in fact, on his way to Amsterdam to seek a new beginning in the larger world of the continent, transcending the English-Scottish opposition altogether. Renton’s transformation at the end of the film is a rather cynical one: it’s a loss, a surrender of pleasure in favor of comfort.[9] Renton’s escape at the end of the novel is a hopeful one, by no means guaranteed to succeed, but at least offering more possibilities than he is left with at the end of the film.

In terms of these differing endings, it might be noted that both the novel and the film have sequels—in the form of Welsh’s 2002 novel Porno and Boyle’s 2017 film T2 Trainspotting. Porno is set ten years after the original novel and shows the characters still involved in subcultural activities, this time surrounding the underground pornography industry. T2, which draws some of its inspiration from Porno, is set twenty years after the original Trainspotting and features a return by Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, and Begbie, all still played by the original actors. T2 was, in general, positively received by critics, though some felt that it was largely a nostalgia piece that depended too heavily on fond memories of the original film.

In any case, T2 portrays an Edinburgh seemingly in the beginnings of an economic revival. Renton returns from a failed life in Edinburgh to rejoin Sick Boy and Spud to continue their adventures. The stakes are a bit higher, and at one point the principals manage to secure an EU Small Business Development Loan of £100,000 for an urban renewal project—which is really the conversion of Sick Boy’s inherited family pub into an upscale bordello. However, Veronika Kovach (Anjela Nedyalkova), a young Bulgarian prostitute who is Sick Boy’s girlfriend and partner in the bordello scheme, makes off with the cash and returns to Bulgaria and her young son. Oddly, though, Veronika is one of the more positively portrayed characters, and the fact that she winds up with the money seems a good thing. After all, the Scottish characters are still too self-destructive to take advantage of their new opportunities, which in any case come with most of the same soul-destroying strings attached as their old opportunities.

T2 is a clever film, with a number of twists, including the suggestion that Spud is writing their story in what will become the original novel of Trainspotting. Perhaps its central moment, however—one that literally occurs halfway through the film—is a simple reference back to the previous film, as Veronika asks Renton to explain the “Choose Life” slogan she has heard Sick Boy repeat numerous times. A quick cut to the 1984 music video of WHAM’s song “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” with George Michael wearing his famous white “CHOOSE LIFE” T-shirt, helps to contextualize his answer. For Michael, the slogan was intended as support for the fight against AIDS, though it has been used for a variety of purposes.[10] Renton describes it to Veronika as “a well-meaning slogan from a 1980s anti-drug campaign,” that he and his mates used to add phrases to in order to satirize the mainstream values of bourgeois society. He then gives her examples, including contemporary ones that he assumes she might better understand, but that also update the film to include a critique of the world of the twenty-first century, and especially of social media:

“Choose an iPhone made in China by a woman who jumped out of a window and stick it in the pocket of your jacket fresh from a South Asian fire trap. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and a thousand other ways to spew your bile across people you’ve never met. Choose updating your profile; tell the world what you had for breakfast and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, desperate to believe that you don’t look as bad as they do. Choose live-blogging from your first wank to your last breath. Human interaction reduced to nothing more than data.”

Then, however, Renton’s diatribe takes a turn toward self-critique, as he bitterly begins to enumerate the choices he himself has made in his life:

“Sit back and smother the pain with an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s fucking kitchen. Choose unfulfilled promise and wishing you’d done it all differently. Choose never learning from your own mistakes. Choose watching history repeat itself. Choose the slow reconciliation towards what you can get rather than what you always hoped for. Settle for less and keep a brave face on it. Choose disappointment. And choose losing the ones you loved. And as they fall from you a piece of you dies with them. Until you can see that, one day in the future, piece by piece, they will all be gone, and there’ll be nothing left of you to call alive or dead.”

T2 ends on what seem to be a number of upbeat moments, most of them are really just repetitions of the past, suggesting that the characters will continue going in circles. The most chilling of these is Renton’s return to his childhood home, where he is greeted by his now-widowed father. As the film ends, we see him dancing to “Lust for Life” in his old bedroom, still wallpapered with locomotives, as in his childhood. After all that has happened, he is a middle-aged man who has gotten nowhere. At one point in the film, Veronika complains to Sick Boy and Renton that they live too much in the past, while later Sick Boy himself accuses Renton of being a “tourist in your own youth.” They’re both probably right, though their criticisms of Renton’s nostalgia might well be aimed not just as these him (or Sick Boy) but at anyone (Scottish or otherwise) who prefers reliving past glories to undertaking the hard work of adapting to the present and building a future.


[1] The novel’s version is as follows: “Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yerself in a home, a total fucking embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose Life” (187).

[2] Murray Smith notes that both of these figures are American, rather than British or Scottish, and suggests that American culture in general exerts a powerful influence on the film (18–20). “For all its ‘Scottishness,’” notes Smith, “the impact and appeal of America—its glamour and vitality—is [sic] everywhere in Trainspotting” (19).

[3] Then again, one could read the soundtrack of Trainspotting as having a more subversive function, it’s use of “underground” music expressing an opposition to mainstream bourgeois values and providing a sort of glue that hold together the subculture of the film’s youthful Scottish heroin-users. For an extended discussion of the role of music (and sound in general) in the film, see Totah.

[4] In some accounts, Bond is identified as having a Scottish father and a Swiss mother, but he grows up in various locations in Britain and on the continent and becoming a globe-hopping secret agent at a relatively young age. He has little in common with the working-class Edinburghers of the film.

[5] One might compare here Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 American film Requiem for a Dream, another successful postmodernist exploration of the topic of heroin addiction. Arnofsky’s film, however, is much darker in tone than is Trainspotting—though it does feature a number of clever postmodernist stylistic flourishes. It is also more overtly bitter in its denunciationof the hypocrisies of mainstream capitalist society and its own addictions to such things as diet pills and television game shows. See Booker (Postmodern Hollywood 42–46).

[6] This scene appears in the novel (p. 26), but there it is narrated in a more straightforwardly realistic fashion, as Renton merely feels about in the horrific toilet for the suppositories. The surreal addition of Renton diving down the drain appears to have been adapted from a scene in Thomas Pynchon’s key postmodernist novel Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), in which Tyrone Slothrop drops his harmonica down a toilet and then dives in to retrieve it.

[7] In the novel the speech is part of Renton’s first-person narration, delivered thusly, referring to his fellows, especially Begbie, whom he clearly despises: “Fuckin failures in a country ay failures. It’s nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the fuckin low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wi the shite thuv goat. Ah hate the Scots” (Welsh 78).

[8] Since the 1706–1707 Act of Union, Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom with semi-autonomous status in many areas, though the UK has always been dominated by England and many in Scotland have continued to resent the Union. This resentment eventually led to a 2014 referendum on independence; however, 55% of Scottish voters voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom in the referendum.

[9] See Nagypal for a discussion of this ending as a surrender to the demands of neo-liberalism. Nagypal, interestingly, views the ending of Boyle’s seemingly much more upbeat Slumdog Millionaire in much the same terms, to the point that he describes Slumdog Millionaire as an “unofficial remake” of Trainspotting (84).

[10] See Davison for a concise review of these uses.