There are certain films in the canon that deserve a place amongst the stars. These movies simultaneously humor us, heart break us and teach us all at once. In the world of drug culture, it’s hard to find examples of cinema that doesn’t simplify and demonize the use of recreational substances. But when Trainspotting, written by the incredible Irvin Welsh and directed by the equally wonderful Danny Boyle, was released in 1996, people knew that they had a nuanced and well-thought out film about heroin addiction on their hands.
Trainspotting forced its way into many viewer’s ‘best films of all time’ list and rightfully so. But why did it hit so differently? Why did a movie about a group of Scottish friends dealing with drug and life issues become such a cult classic? Perhaps it simply told the truth.
Trainspotting is a cultural phenomenon that has had a lasting impact on popular culture and public discourse. Originally a novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting was later adapted into a critically acclaimed film directed by Danny Boyle. Set in Edinburgh, Scotland in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Trainspotting follows a group of heroin addicts as they navigate the trials and tribulations of their drug-fueled lives. The film was a major commercial and critical success, earning awards and accolades for its unflinching portrayal of drug use and addiction.
It also has an 8.1 IMDB rating and 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. But beyond its entertainment value, Trainspotting was also notable for shining a light on the heroin problem in Scotland, a problem that was particularly acute in the period in which the film was set. We’re going to take a look into Trainspotting’s role in bringing the issue of heroin abuse to the forefront of public discourse, and its lasting impact on society’s perception of drug addiction. Although, let’s be honest, does a film have the power to change the world?
Heroin in Scotland
Scotland – one of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom – has a very specific identity and character. If you watch Trainspotting, you’ll see that clearly. In the 1990s, Scotland was facing a growing heroin epidemic that was having a devastating impact on individuals, families, and communities across the country. With heroin use on the rise, and a growing number of people struggling with addiction, the Scottish government was grappling with how to respond to the crisis. CNN writes:
In the early 1980s there was a “wave of Afghan and Iranian heroin that came into western Europe, which was very pure by anybody’s standards,”… Even today, older drug users “still wax eloquent about how lovely it was, that heroin that was 50% purity. It didn’t need to be mixed with anything else.”
According to government statistics, the number of heroin users in Scotland rose dramatically in the 1990s, from around 1,000 in 1989 to more than 10,000 by the end of the decade. This rise in drug use was accompanied by a sharp increase in the number of overdose deaths, with heroin being responsible for a significant proportion of the country’s drug-related fatalities.
However, despite the increasing urgency of the problem, public discourse around heroin was limited, with many people unsure of the true extent of the problem and the best ways to address it. In this context, Trainspotting emerged as a powerful voice that shed light on the reality of heroin addiction, and helped to raise awareness of the problem among the wider public. Through its graphic and often shocking portrayal of drug use, Trainspotting challenged prevailing attitudes towards heroin and those who were addicted to it, and opened up a much-needed conversation about the issue.
Trainspotting had a significant impact on the public perception of heroin addiction, with many praising the film for its honesty and authenticity. Although the film and book contains many great moments, one of the most memorable is from Ewan Mcgregor’s character. He says, and Irvine Welsh wrote, this:
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“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself”
The ‘choose life’ campaign was a anti-drug concept that aimed to give substance abusers the confidence to say no to drugs. However, what Trainspotting perfectly captures here is that the choice doesn’t seem to be a difficult one. The ‘life’ that they speak of, well, it isn’t so great anyway, is it? It was this truthfulness that highlighted, on a rare occasion, that substance abusers don’t believe life is worth the hassle. For many people in Scotland and the world, their miserable lives are somewhat improved by drugs. Maybe only temporarily, but still improved. Danny Boyle, the director, says:
“It was presenting these voices who are normally marginalized. Drug addicts from the fringe “sinker estates” around Edinburgh — they were on the outskirts of Edinburgh — were regarded as being, at best, victims. At worst, evil. And all stupid; to get involved with this drug and let their lives decay in the way they did. But actually, the book celebrates their energy.”
Highlighting the energy of the user is something that not many did, and still avoid doing. To show an addict as anything other than miserable, ill and unemployed is rare in the media. Trainspotting, whilst horrific and graphic, does show some glimpse of joy in these character’s lives. If you want to portray truth and nuance in a film, you cannot ignore this. Trainspotting wasn’t treating the public like children, it was treating them like adults. It helped to spark a much-needed conversation about the issue.
Scotland, like many other nations, still suffers greatly from drug issues. Whilst not much changed in the laws around heroin at the time, the zeitgeist shift was undoubtable. It is this that often causes long-lasting change eventually. After the film came out, the heroin problem continued of course. In 2000 there was a peak of 706 deaths due to this substance in Scotland. Even now, the Scottish death rate due to drug use is the highest in Europe. It’s three and half times that of the UK. Despite this, it is films like Trainspotting that had the guts to shine a light on the truth.
A truth that may not be pretty – although sometimes it can be the prettiest thing in the world – but a truth that must be acknowledged. Art cannot fix a problem, but it can give us the courage and the information to try. Danny Boyle joins a list of many other filmmakers – including the likes of Seth Rogen – who have made it their mission to destigmatize substance use. The war on drugs has not worked and will never work. It is films like Trainspotting that blatantly underlines why a new approach is so desperately needed.
Whilst Trainspotting did not fix the heroin situation in Scotland, for the first time it highlighted the nuance of it. Millions of people did not understand or even want to understand why people turned to heroin in the 90s. This film, written by Irvin Welsh and directed by Danny Boyle, gave a platform to those individuals. Why would anyone want to choose life when life is full of misery? It left people with this deeply meaningful question. The more films like Trainspotting exist, the closer we as a population can get to treating addicts as people, and not criminals.
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