The following liner notes were written exclusively for the Criterion
Collection by Irvine Welsh, author of the novel on which Trainspotting is based.
I wrote Trainspotting between 1988 and 1990, though some of it had earlier genesis in notes and irregular diary entries going back to the early Eighties. I think I submitted it for publication in 1992, and it came out in 1993. It instantly became a "cult" book and was dramatized for the stage in 1994. The following year it was filmed and on its release became probably not just "the" cinematic event of 1996, but "the" cultural event, with references to it in the media all but omnipresent in the UK and beyond.
It's not the sort of thing you would have expected, at the time, to hit the commercial base: a group of working-class junkies from Edinburgh doing little more than getting by and winding each other up. Almost everyone I spoke to about the sale of the film rights wanted to make a po-faced piece of social realism like Christiane F. or The Basketball Diaries; in other words, a piece of mind-numbing tedium which nobody outside of a few broadsheet bores wanted to watch. Refreshingly, Andrew Macdonald, Danny Boyle, and John Hodge shared my vision of Trainspotting. As Renton says in the film, times were changing, drugs were changing, people were changing.
Nowadays, younger working-class people grow up in a society where the main institutions of socialization, where kids learn morality--the family, the community, the trade unions and the churches--have been emasculated by the promotion of consumerism and the market economy. Nowadays young people grow up exploring a psychoactive terrain, stimulated by computer technology and advertising. For the rampant consumerism of the Eighties had other outcomes: Certain drugs, once the preserve of a bohemian elite, found their way into mass culture.
Danny, Andrew, John, and myself were all determined that the characters in Trainspotting were not victims, but ordinary punters functioning within this social reality. To portray them as victims, à la Sixties and Seventies "political art," may have been useful in a welfarist society, such the postwar set-up in Britain. Here the (usually middle- or upper-class) artist could wallow in showing clichéd; representations of misery and the adverse social conditions of working-class life, in order to try and shame the powers-that-be into dedicating resources to make things better. Now all this approach provides is a smug affirmation for the bourgeoisie that it's better to be on the monied side of the divide. So tell us something we didn't know.
An important picture nobody wants to see is ultimately just a self-important picture that nobody wants to see. To make one that is highly watchable as well as challenging is the best kind of filmmaking. That was what impressed me about Andrew, Danny, and John; they wanted everyone, not just the art house audience, to come and see this movie.
Screenwriter John Hodge, to his great credit, managed to tease the embers of a plot from the book into a reasonable flame, but this film is still largely fueled by its characters and there are some amazing performances in Trainspotting. Ewan McGregor's Renton, to my mind, stands right up there alongside Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. It's probably the only time that we'll ever see Misters McGregor, Bremner, Carlyle, and Miller on screen together, and the, movie will go down in cinema history for that alone. My own bit-part appearance as a small-time dealer was perhaps a bit less memorable, but it gave me a great deal of personal satisfaction to be up there in "the" British film of this generation.
There's at least one other reason why the film was so popular. Renton
is a modern-day antihero. Forget your James Deans and your Sid
Viciouses; too many youths from bad homes have bought into that "hope
I die before I get old" bullshit. The only people who think that's
cool are the sniggering posh kids with their typewriters, doing the
social commentary thing--iconizing losers to encourage their peers to
wannabe. A "good-looking corpse" is one of the best forms of
social control ever invented. For all his nihilism, Renton's far too
clued-up and not nearly enough of a suffering bore to take that
predictable route. He's in the tradition of modern British
working-class antiheroes; from John Lydon to Shaun Ryder to Noel
Gallagher, the boys who had their cake and ate it. The big challenge
for us as we move into the next millennium is to learn how to share
that cake out a bit more equitably.