Art of The Sequel: How T2 Trainspotting Builds On The Original

By April 18, 2017Main

The shenanigans of some Scottish lads who used to shoot heroin together is an unlikely foundation for a sequel, let alone one set twenty years after audiences first met these guys. You wouldn’t be blamed for wondering which of these blokes is still alive.

But T2 Trainspotting fires on all cylinders, replicating the wry humor and interplay among its clutch of miscreants as well as injecting layers of depth and pathos that only come with age. For writers curious about how to craft a sequel with those “same but different” elements, it’s an impressive case study.

The original Trainspotting in 1996 jolted audiences with its cocktail of youthful energy, devil-may-care attitude, brash humor, and magnetism, particularly from Ewan McGregor as Mark “Rent Boy” Renton, whose gangly build and buzzcut couldn’t hide the engaging, motor-mouthed wit behind his blue-eyed smile. McGregor might have been the breakout at the time, but the cast was uniformly fine. Jonny Lee Miller (TV’s Elementary), Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty, TV’s Once Upon A Time), and Ewen Bremner (Snatch, Snowpiercer) as Mark’s pals and Kelly Macdonald (No Country for Old Men, Brave) as Mark’s underage lover whose maturity ran circles around the boys all made indelible impressions. 

So did the stylistic touches of director Danny Boyle, fresh off his feature debut and first collaboration with screenwriter John Hodge (1994’s Shallow Grave). Hodge earned an Oscar nomination for adapting Irvine Welsh’s novel, brought to life through Boyle’s meld of sight and sound. Close-ups of spoons bubbling with heroin, trippy colors, a baby crawling on the ceiling, and a throbbing soundtrack anchored by Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” culminated in perhaps the film’s best-known sequence: Mark rummaging inside the filthiest toilet in Scotland for dope, segueing into a blissful dive in his imagination into crystalline blue water.

Boyle, the cast, and Hodge (loosely adapting Welsh’s 2002 novel Porno, which featured the same characters) all return for this go-round, but they’re smart enough not to pull the same stunts twice. That’s what makes T2 so satisfying. This is a sequel rooted in character, and how these characters have changed – or not. It includes a few nods at the previous film, but they feel organic to the story, not like fan service. As storytelling, it’s more in line with the trilogy of Before SunriseBefore Sunset, and Before Midnight than a sequel that takes the same characters and drops them into similar circumstances.

Whether he’s in a building, on a plane, or in New York City, rumpled Die Hard cop John McClane foils terrorists (or a heist disguised as a terrorist plot). The Fast & Furious crew drives gorgeous cars through impossible stunts. Granted, T2 Trainspotting isn’t an action film, but sequels of any genre can fall flat when what changes from film to film isn’t the character but the setting and other details. James Bond doesn’t have to evolve much over the years, but Hodge wisely honed in on the idea that the Trainspotting bunch should – and that it might be riveting for the now-older audience to see what happens when they don’t. 

The plot in T2 Trainspotting is beside the point, much like it was in the original, itself a riff on youth and friendship with a double-cross at the end. Mark returns to Edinburgh after more than a decade away to visit his dad after his mom’s death, his marriage and job on the skids. Simon, aka Sick Boy (Miller), still bleaching his hair with a toothbrush, is ready to beat him to a pulp for stiffing him out of his share of a drug deal years ago, as is Begbie (Carlyle), the high-on-violence pal cooling his heels in prison, but not for long.

Spud (Bremner), the sweet sad sack of the bunch, also wants to beat the crap out of Mark for being kind enough back then to give him a share of the drug money, which went right into his arm. Spud’s tried to be a good dad to his young son, but he’s lost his job after being an hour late because of the seasonal time change. He’d never noticed stuff like that before, he tells his support group, having been on smack for years.

Simon, now using cocaine, runs a blackmail scheme with a Bulgarian hooker named Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He aspires to something more respectable, like opening a massage parlor, after he rips off Mark – at least until he and Mark start taking selfies and finishing each other’s sentences about soccer. “You are so clearly in love with each other that I feel awkward in your company,” Veronika tells them. 

Even so, there are harsh words and unexpected poignancy, the kind that gets under your skin in the way that only those who knew you well when you were young and stupid can. Simon snaps at Mark for remembering Tommy, the friend who died in the first film after Mark hooked him on heroin, and Mark snaps that Simon’s neglect – all of theirs, really – killed Simon’s baby girl. Mark had a heart attack not long ago, but thanks to a stent, he can go another thirty years at least. One or two he could piss away, he says, but at age 46, the thought of thirty more is overwhelming. “I got no home and nowhere I think of as home,” he says.

These guys are all at sea, and the stellar cast makes them oddly relatable and endearing, finding a touching moment even for Begbie among the fisticuffs. Newcomers will miss the irony when Diane (Macdonald) observes that Veronika’s young, but there’s plenty more to digest as we watch these guys navigate uncertainty and regret.

“Choose life,” Mark said in the original, the start of a memorable bit about choosing all manner of things instead of heroin, which at the time he couldn’t do.

He has a similar monologue this time, trying to explain to Veronika what he and his friends once found so glibly amusing, and the emotions turn on a dime: “Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares. … Choose unfulfilled promise and wishing you’d done it all differently. Choose never learning from your own mistakes. Choose watching history repeat itself. Choose the slow reconciliation towards what you can get, rather than what you always hoped for….”

T2 Trainspotting chooses to let Mark and his pals work uncomfortably through the aftermath of their choices. That’s a brilliant place to start what could have been a daunting writing process – and a potent lesson for other writers wanting to emulate it.  

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned entertainment writer, screenwriter and emerging script consultant. A member of the Florida Film Network, she has written for The Guardian, Bright Wall Dark Room, The Script Lab, Signature Reads, and The Tampa Bay Times, among other publications. Find her at http://valeriekalfrin.com.