From Trainspotting to Porno

Features, FILM
img_trainspotting-1A speculation on Danny Boyle’s recently announced sequel to Trainspotting—an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel Porno—and what it means for the film’s legacy.

Danny Boyle confirmed at the Telluride Film Festival recently that his next project (after the Oscar tipped Steve Jobs biopic is out of the way) will be the sequel to 1996’s modern British classic Trainspotting. Everyone remembers where they were when they first saw the original (which was adapted from Irvine Welsh’s 1993 debut novel), and everyone remembers the iconic scene of Rents, Sick Boy, and Spud hurtling down Princes Street to the thundering of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’, Rents exclaiming how he chose not to choose life; because, he told us, “Who needs life, when you’ve got heroin?”

The film burst onto the big screen, and managed that nigh on impossible feat of somehow becoming both a cult classic and a popular award-grabbing audience pleaser. It was voted number 10 in the ‘BFI Top 100 British films’ list in 1999, made £48 million at the global box office from a budget of £1.5 million, cemented Boyle as a key British director, and made stars of its young cast, notably Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, and Kelly MacDonald. With all this in mind, it is understandable that Boyle has not wanted to tarnish its legend by making a lacklustre follow up. That is, until now. Porno is planned to be released to coincide with the original’s 20th anniversary, in August 2016.

So, what can we expect from the follow up? Firstly the story. Irvine Welsh’s sequel novel was released in 2002 and set some nine years after the events of the original. Although this in itself is not an accurate science because although Trainspotting was published in 1993, the events take place in the mid-late eighties. Told in both the first and third person narratives, the book follows an array of characters all of whom live in the small working class Edinburgh suburb of Leith, where Welsh himself grew up. The structure is composed more as a visceral attack on Thatcher’s Britain than following any kind of narrative, making notable use of the verging AIDS epidemic prevalent in the Edinburgh shooting galleries as its backdrop. It is important that this is its setting, because by 1993 more was known about the disease than during Thatcher’s reign of terror, and this was part of the reason for the success and attention it garnered on publication. Welsh’s broad colloquial voice, written phonetically in his own accent, had not been seen before, neither had the view point he was writing from.

img_trainspotting-3Not all of the characters take heroin, but the drug works as a metaphor for a lost generation. A despondent dejected group of society-free individuals who steal from, abuse, and defraud a welfare structure that is ripe for abuse because of its blind benevolence, but which also belligerently rejects and writes off whole groups of these same individuals. The factories and coal mines are long closed, there’s no work if the characters even wanted any, and the Thatcher government in all its wisdom thought that banning needles would stop people injecting heroin. It didn’t. They shared instead, and so the new disease that no-one knew much about spread like a plague. Welsh uses the dramatic irony as a foreboding backdrop to the world his eclectic cast of characters inhabit. Characters lose their limbs to drug abuse, lives are soon lost to the new disease, friends and family members not on heroin fall foul to alcoholism and domestic violence, and yet they all still resolutely refuse to choose life. Ignorance is bliss, and ignorance is nowhere more prevalent than in the use of heroin.

The plot of Trainspotting therefore hardly develops at all throughout its lengthy page count. That is until the final heist sequence tagged on the end where lead fuck-up Mark Renton steals the proceeds of a drug score from his friends and disappears off, leaving us with the message that you can only escape this world by screwing over your nearest and dearest and leaving for good. John Hodge’s screenplay follows this format, shifting the focus away from the political backdrop, which by 1996 was already a markedly different environment. He trims down the character list and tells the story solely from Renton’s point of view. The film begins with the gang all deciding to ditch their heroin habits, then realising that life is rubbish without it they take up the habit again with such ferocity that it quickly begins to destroy everything around them. A child dies from neglect and the subsequent crippling sequence of cold turkey drags Renton back to a reality he can no longer ignore. He flees to London but can’t escape so easily and is quickly joined by the two worst members of his former gang. The heist at the end not only gives him his means to start again, but also distance himself from his group of friends permanently. He can’t go back even if he wants to.

img_trainspotting-5Or so we thought. The novel of Porno is told again from various different viewpoints: Sick Boy, Spud, Begbie, Renton; as well as a character new to the series, the female English student Nicky, who manages to provide an objective eye on the group that their first person narrative misses out on. For most of the characters nothing much has changed in the time since Trainspotting ended: Spud is still struggling with heroin addiction, but now has a son and a pained relationship with the child’s mother, Alison; Begbie is bigger, nastier, and more unpredictable than before, characteristics exacerbated by his heavy cocaine use; but it is Sick Boy who provides the driving force of the novel. He has a similar cocaine problem, and runs a small Leith based local pub, which he chooses to use as the setting for the porn film that gives the novel its title. A chance encounter in Amsterdam brings Renton back into his life, who used the money he stole to set himself up as a club promoter in the Dutch capital, presented as a new bed of iniquity. Sick Boy involves Renton in the porn film, which student Nicky stars in, and he returns to Leith, spending the rest of the novel avoiding Begbie. The novel then ends in a markedly similar way to the original story—a fact that apparently put Ewan McGregor off from committing to a filmed version after its initial publication more than ten years ago.

It therefore becomes difficult to see how a screen adaptation could be as strongly allied with time and place as its predecessor was. If the film of Trainspotting missed out on being set during Thatcher’s years of dogmatic dictatorship, then it still managed to cling to the 18 years of Tory rule, appearing just before the beacon of hope that was Blair’s Britain began in May 1997. At the time heroin was still shrouded in a cloak of mystery and villainy, with school children told little about it other than it was an evil substance taken by baddies, and therefore the film worked as an enlightening visual metaphor, drawing together both the reasons that people chose to use the substance, with the perils associated with living one’s life on these tracks. The message being that you can’t not choose life. The film was villainised by right wing stalwarts who thought that its visceral depiction of the drug’s use glamorised it, and thus it sparked a much publicised debate in the public forum. Porno just doesn’t have the same kind of social significance. There are efforts made in the text to draw out themes of the continued over sexualisation and promiscuity of the youth, and the ease with which class A recreational drugs such as Ecstasy and Cocaine can now be obtained, but the advancements made in health care, as well as in drug and sex education, highlight how different the Britain of 2002 and 2015 is to that of 1985 and 1993. It is hard to see what the film’s angle will be, other than the initial undeniable thrill of returning to the world populated by these characters.

img_trainspotting-2By the time Welsh’s book hit the shelves, he had already produced four other novels and two short story collections, nearly all of which were set in Leith, with returning characters cross populated amongst them. ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson, one of the protagonists of 2001’s Glue, features heavily in Porno, as do Rab Birrell and ‘Uncle’ Alec, whilst many of the Trainspotting cast pop up in cameos throughout the previous books. This means that by this time Welsh had created his own alternative Edinburgh with its own set of familiar characters, rules and settings, and so Porno became something more than just the sequel to Trainspotting. It was the next instalment in a soap-opera like collection of books, that had the added bonus of drawing the focus back to the set of characters that started it all off.

Other than 1998’s oft overlooked film of The Acid House (for which Welsh also wrote the screenplay), and 2011’s ill thought out and badly received screen adaptation of his 1996 short story collection Ecstasy, there are no other screen versions of Welsh’s novels. And certainly nothing that was received on the scale and the continuing legacy of Trainspotting. Just with its announcement, Porno is already burdened with a huge weight of expectation. It is therefore likely that Hodge’s screenplay will only loosely follow the plot of Welsh’s book, rather he and Boyle will be looking for some kind of specific angle on which to filter the events of the film in and around, if it is to have anywhere near the same impact as its predecessor. The events that spring to mind are the recent (and somewhat unexpected) gentrification of Leith, and its subsequent loss of both character and the inability of those born there to continue to afford living there; the global financial crisis (which Sick-Boy, one can predict, will look laughably upon); and of course, the recent mad vacillation of the Scots people, who have seen themselves reject independence before uniformly voting in a near totally dominant SNP government in the May 2015 UK general election.

img_trainspotting-4It is probably also important to mention the soundtrack. Much of the original film’s identity came from its incredibly distinctive musical accompaniment, which became a bestselling album in its own right, and even spawned a follow up. It was released at the height of Britain’s last great musical movement, Britpop, and the ever-zeitgeist conscious Boyle filled his playlist with the likes of Blur, Pulp, Primal Scream, Elastica, and Sleeper, all set amongst the mostly New York based seventies counter-points Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (renowned for their own drug use), as well as the best of the day’s dance music, notably Leftfield and Underworld. What will be the modern day equivalent? The Artic Monkeys? Boyle’s pick for Olympic Games opening ceremony, Frank Turner? The newly reformed Libertines? It’s anyone’s guess, but although there is still new British music being produced to rival that of the nineties, it is not working on the same scale, such is the impact of iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube, and their subsequent homogenisation of the musical world.

There are many other things to remember about Trainspotting that position it as such an iconic film: Renton’s toilet scene, the football match (left out of the original cut), the revelation of Diane’s school-girl status, Spud’s little bedroom accident, not to mention the confidence of filmmaking, which makes it easy to forget that this is only Boyle’s second feature. The film presents a very specific world with its own character and set of rules, and aside from all of the above the other thing that managed to impress its identity was its poster. It has long been a rule of thumb in the film world that there are no good films with either bad titles or bad posters. The image of Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Begbie, and Diane stood against the white background, complete with the orange banner, became ubiquitous to teenage bedroom walls in the late nineties, and it stands as testament for the importance of the film’s iconography, not only to popular culture, but to the continuing relevance of British film and its positioning on the world stage. It is certainly no small undertaking that Boyle and Hodge have accepted here. Let’s hope the nine features (plus the endeavour of the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony) that Boyle has made in the 20 years since Trainspotting have taught him a lesson or two, without dulling his senses. Choose life, Danny.

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Tom Webb is a recent arrival from the UK who has worked in Programming at the BFI, where he also wrote for Sight and Sound magazine. He has an MA in Film, TV and Screen Media, and a Script Development diploma from the National Film and Television School. As well as writing on film and television, he has also produced, written, and script-edited short films that have been shown internationally.