Considered "unfilmable" thanks to the unsavory subject matter (and for basically being a short story collection that commits to a plot only near the very end), Irvine Welsh's debut novel highlighted the low-lives of late 1980s-early 1990s Scotland. Desultory tales are told by several narrators of varying reliability and dialect, with the most prominent voice belonging to ginger-haired heroin addict Mark Renton. He is, apparently, relatively attractive and comes off rather intelligent. Regardless, life is one long insalubrious trolley ride of drug abuse, petty theft, and dole-dependency.
Most of his friends are also smackheads. "Sick Boy" Simon is the nominal "best" of the bunch, a charismatic, amoral con artist who thinks with the entire lower half of his body. He and Renton actually don't like each other much. Likewise he and Frank Begbie, who goes primarily by his last name. A swedge-happy thug, the chapters told from his POV are a cavalcade of "fucks" and "cunts" and "fuckin cunts." The only gentle, goodhearted one in the bunch is "Spud." You can tell this since he holds animals in higher regard than people, who would be more tolerable if they would stop putting excess stock into the material possessions he steals from them to keep high and alive.
This is an ugly microworld, the drudgery and blight broken up by flashes of enrapturing debauchery, and the reader will visit it at their own peril. The infamous phonetic transcription is undeniably jarring--who knows how many readers threw up hands and flipped on the tube? (Or left it on the unoccupied seat next to them on the tube?) Imagine waking up to a world where your primary language no longer exists. It has not been eliminated, merely modified by madmen. But Welsh did not indulge in a trick that treats only itself.
Trainspotting isn't another useless cautionary tale re: drug addiction populated by scruffy freaks of unnatural selection; it's a fascinating look through sheet after sheet of mottled glass. It is also a stark reminder that the demands of our bodies will almost always best the commands. Read this book and understand that class warfare would be raging in streets the world over if all of the combatants weren't narcotized.
Yeah, "unfilmable," but some stories are too good to not at least give a go.
Grim and grimy as the novel was, most prospective directors didn't share Welsh's vision of an adaptation. Trainspotting should not be a heavy-handed morality play, but a vibrant celebration of youth's defiance and independence, with appeal far beyond the art house.
Danny Boyle was not most directors. Trainspotting in his hands is essentially a makeover, a wig on a pig.
Reading the book is by turns invigorating and disheartening. I was frequently electrified by the courage, frequently nauseated by the carnage, but I was never once envious of anyone in Trainspotting. Onscreen, that changed--somewhat. The flash and smash didn't suddenly make me less fearful of hypodermic needles or JMT me into believing that casual sex with scabby no-go's was the round trip ticket to self-fulfillment that the square world could never punch, but maybe, hmm, just a dabble?
The Trainspotting team created pop art (bold that "pop"). Actors and action, saturated and speedy, none more than Scotland's own Ewan MacGregor in the lead role of Mark Renton. Screenwriter Hodge wisely retained the ginger prick as the narrator/central force, and sifted the misshapen bits of the book through his sieve. The future Obi-Wan went all of the hog in order to bring the riveting rascal to sneering life: losing weight and hair, attending recovery meetings, reading a goddamn book for once.
That book, incidentally, kicks off with Renton and Sick Boy sweating like whores in a southwest Texas brothel in mid-August. Ain't a thing sexy about brittle-bones, clammy skin or Jean-Claude Van Damme, so we get striking, bright and wide, clean and energetic. The movie significantly ratchets up the allure of one no-win situation after another even as establishing shot after establishing shot reminds that these fellas are itty-bitty scumbags jammed inside a much larger scumbag, and it's toilet time for everyone sooner or later.
For all the praise due MacGregor, Renton is a plum role. Audiences never once doubt there's a decent guy beneath all that cynicism and self-abuse. Sure he betrays his so-called "mates," but they would have done the same to him, no? There is nothing redeeming about the barely-comprehensible hurricane of lunacy christened Francis Begbie, and it takes an actor of uncommon abilities to keep audiences from wishing such a character dead every single second he's on the screen. I won't say Robert Carlyle should have won an Oscar, but he should have won a BAFTA.
The soundtrack is pretty fucking unstoppable. If "Heroin" made injecting skag seem a no-brainer, "Perfect Day" does likewise for OD'ing on the stuff. "Born Slippy" ruined the words lager and slippy forever.
The UK holds their nuts good and tight for Trainspotting (and understandably so, it's a dynamic rendering of a static story), but their idea of what constitutes proper bacon is literally fucking illegal in my country. Sooo….go ahead and give one final squeeze, then sit down and stop acting like you're too good to swallow pig gut.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Both Welsh and Boyle produced works of undeniable power and rhythm. (Almost unbearably so.) Both dart into my brain at moments both opportune and not. Both left an uptight portion of the populace aghast at the misadventures of the young, restless and reckless. Both caused me to utter aloud: "Well isn't that fucking cheerful."
Although the movie left out nothing essential, it excised enough that there is no way I can consider it better than the source. I mean, the first chapter of the book is titled "The Skag Boys, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mother Superior." Let us go, eh?
No "Second Prize." My favorite second-tier player. Did he have a promising football career derailed by drink? Probably not. He did piss on Begbie's curtains at a New Year's party though. (Better to be classic than classy, I've always said.) Really his presence is only truly missed during the bus ride. What a sight that would've been: my dude drunk and sprawled out, drool leaking from a mouth stretched open so side that an opossum could nestle inside for a nap.
Two Kelly-centric chapters are cut. In one, she bonds with a vacationing lesbian couple over the pernicious nature of that other gender, deciding that males are tolerable "when they're in the minority." In the other, readers get a glimpse of how intolerable they can be when in the majority.
Again, none of these are essential to the actual story. Not even Renton doggy-dooring the massively-pregnant girlfriend of his dead older brother on the day of the funeral...well see, just typing that sentence makes me want to re-read that chapter.
Few false notes are struck. The cot death scene is one. Film Sick Boy ugly cries. Book Sick Boy makes the tragedy about him, big gestures as he vows to kick the nasty habit once and for all! It's the sociopath at his slimiest, and the movie needed a smidge more of that.
Sick Boy's pit bull session had to be altered, however, lest people who were cool with banging underage girls get really offended.
MIND THE GAP
Artistically, the sheen makes sense. Trainspotting would not have found the audience it did, and perhaps not much of an audience whatsoever, had it stayed more than it strayed. Boyle and crew took a punctured lung and turned it into a mere peptic ulcer.