Calum Henderson: Trainspotting’s ‘choose life’ message endures

Ewan McGregor as Renton slips into a heroin-fuelled daze. Picture: PA
Ewan McGregor as Renton slips into a heroin-fuelled daze. Picture: PA
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In the original book of the now world-famous film, there is a short scene in which the four young anti-heroes, Spud, Sickboy, Renton and Begbie, clamber inside the ruins of an old railway station for a wander around. Inside they are confronted by a homeless alcoholic who stares at them, and then asks jokingly if they are “trainspotting”.

The film, released three years later, does not include this important scene, in which the young druggies realise their common affinity with the anoraks. They are pursuing something they love, however destructive it may be, and only they can understand it. Like trainspotting, injecting yourself with heroin seems daft to all those who have never done it.

Danny Boyle’s 1996 film is often referred to as the Scottish Star Wars, and not just because it stars Ewan McGregor as the main character, Renton. The phenomenally successful classic recently spawned a sequel, for which McGregor and the other original cast all returned, while another adaptation is supposedly in the works. Like any great films, its iconic scenes – the worst toilet in Scotland, the chase along Prince’s Street, the aborted Highland hike – adds up to more than the sum of its parts, using the grime and filth of a heroin addict’s life in an ironic way to remind everyone in society of an important principle.

Renton, having dropped out of school long before university, will have missed all the encouragements from teachers to discover and follow what they love as it may mean, if they are lucky enough, they will never have to work a day in their lives. It’s hardly an original idea and is no guarantee of everlasting joy, but the message is told in a highly original way and is still worth listening to, regardless.

The film is full of addictions, not just to other drugs, but to food, fighting, sex, friendships and movie stars. Some of them are much more dangerous than others, and it’s quite astonishing that in the 2017 sequel all the characters are in as good a condition as they are, and not completely alone and destitute like the old wino haunting Leith Central, who it transpires is Begbie’s father.

If the original film tells you to “choose life” and follow what you love, then the sequel adds that you must focus on your aim. In a moving scene, the now older and wiser Renton sits with Spud on Arthur’s Seat, and advises him to transfer his addiction from heroin to something more productive, like writing, which he soon does.

The Scottish Star Wars is a classic because, rather than moralising about the dangers of drugs, it encourages us to fuse our addictions on to something more practical and less dangerous. If we love it enough, we might even achieve a high as ecstatic as heroin once gave Rent Boy.

Calum Henderson is a student from Milngavie, near Glasgow.