Trainspotting, the 1996 film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s cult novel about Edinburgh heroin addicts, is a movie that, no less than Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction two years earlier, defined its era. This is due in part to stylish direction from future Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, star-making performances by Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle, and an excellent wall-to-wall pop-music soundtrack that mixed Iggy Pop and Lou Reed classics with cuts from the likes of Blur and Pulp. Welsh will appear alongside music critics and Sound Opinions hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis to introduce a 20th anniversary screening of the film at the Music Box Theatre on Wednesday, February 17. I recently spoke to Welsh about the enduring legacy of both the book and the film.
Why do you think Trainspotting became such a cultural phenomenon?
I think what Trainspotting tapped into, and the reason it’s still resonant now, is this whole idea that we’re a society in transition. We’re moving from capitalism into conceptualism. We’re in an environment now which is basically post-paid work. We’re not making physical things now. That whole generation, the Trainspotting crowd, were adjusting to a world without work. Every time you have a major shift in a society, you have an epidemic. And this epidemic was drugs. Drugs fill the gap. Not only the economic gap, something to make money from, but also that whole thing that young people need—the need for compelling drama, which people used to get from the relationships they had at work. Now it’s from the streets and it’s from hustling and dealing. So it captured this society that was [just] starting to predominate in the West.
Like a lot of people, I came to the novel through the movie. I was surprised that there was no element of magical realism in the novel because the visuals in the film are so stylized. The novel is much grittier.
I had a book out at roughly the same time called The Acid House, which was a collection of stories. It’s funny, Danny [Boyle] always said that he wanted to make a film that combined the two: he wanted to have the realism of Trainspotting but also the hyper-reality and the fantasy of The Acid House, which I think was a bold thing to do. That’s why I was interested in working with these guys. They realized that so much of our world happens in imaginative space. You had all these things like the baby running across the ceiling. There is no real division between reality and fantasy. It's part of the same landscape. We give more dominion now to our imaginative space than we ever used to.
What are the best drug movies?
The problem with drug movies is that if they’re good, you always want to go and take drugs! If they’re bad, you’re carping and criticizing. Something that’s so experiential is about being there rather than watching other people be there. So you have to establish very strong characters and you have to imbue it with some sort of deeper social significance. The best of the bunch, I think, would be Drugstore Cowboy.
Advance tickets to the Music Box's Trainspotting screening on February 17 are available via Sound Opinions.