Never judge a book by its film, they say—loyal readers are notorious for refusing to meekly accept the role of grateful viewers. However, the much-anticipated adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, which has just been released in UK cinemas, has already provoked controversy in Scotland thanks to the decision by director Yorgos Lanthimos to uproot Gray’s tale of morbid medical fantasy from its hometown of Glasgow.
The film excises not just Glasgow but also large chunks of the plot, though the fundamentals remain. Like the novel, the film follows Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), who is the product of an experiment by her Frankenstein-like “God”, Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who has implanted the brain of a pregnant woman’s foetus into the mother’s skull. Bella then embarks on a series of sensuous adventures, egged on by the cad Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) much to the frustration of Godwin’s assistant, and rival suitor, the medical student Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef).
The status of Lanthimos as the preeminent auteur of his generation makes it likely that any Glaswegian complaints will be obscured by critical applause. The failure to feature Scotland’s only metropolis can be added to all the other gripes about poor representation that we Scots hold dear and have spent decades nurturing into a national pastime.
The truth is, Lanthimos’s Poor Things offers up plenty of other, juicier controversies to feast upon. Bella presents the troubling combination of an infant’s brain within a sexually mature body. Her prodigious sexual appetite, her stint as a Parisian sex worker and role as a canvas for male fantasy are all likely to obscure more mundane questions of setting.
But does Glasgow have a legitimate complaint? In the strictest sense, no. The novel Poor Things emerged out a series of short stories that Gray read weekly to his friend and fellow novelist Bernard MacLaverty. Many years later, the two sat down together to watch Lanthimos’s 2009 film Dogtooth. Afterwards, MacLaverty encouraged Gray to allow Lanthimos maximal freedom with his Poor Things adaptation, such was the Greek director’s evident talent.
Lanthimos met Gray at his home in Glasgow in 2011 and even toured many of the locations that feature in the novel. In the end, however, he felt unable to include references to the various real times, places and people.
Gray, who died in 2019, enjoyed taking his own creative liberties. His magnum opus, Lanark, with its Index of Plagiarisms and even a cameo by the author himself, might even suggest that Gray anticipated his own work would travel out into the world and enter a common imaginative space.
The main thrust of Gray’s Poor Things revolves around the basic unreliability of narrative; perhaps the only faithful means of rendering this on screen would have been to have the author’s corpse preserved and then resurrected for a post-credit epilogue about the film’s essential silliness. These caveats aside, however, there is still a case that the film, like Bella herself, is a curiously orphaned creature. (Though as Bella is both mother and daughter at once, that’s debateable.)
The novel is in no small measure a fable of Victorian Glasgow’s quixotic moment as the “second city of the British empire”, the Silicon Valley of its day even as it was filled with the worst slums in Europe. Published in 1992, Poor Things was written under the shadow of a Thatcherite politics that openly leveraged the nostalgia for that imperial heyday in a bid to reanimate a River Clyde that had only recently been deindustrialised. Culture was supposed to be central to that process of so-called “regeneration”.
However, the hubris and hype surrounding Glasgow’s designation as European City of Culture in 1990 has brought with it a long hangover: the city’s expectations that global cultural industries will pay it great heed have often been disappointed over the past three decades. On screen, Glasgow has increasingly come to serve as a stand-in for Hollywood blockbusters set in urban America: its grid-pattern streets and the council’s willingness to close down large swathes of an economically declining city centre make it an easy cipher for other places.
But fidelity to its source material aside, the doughy steam-punk aesthetic that Lanthimos has created serves as a rather weak backdrop for a film about the taboos and hypocrisies of polite society. It’s not so much that he went for the wrong city—yes, it is set in London, not Glasgow, but even then only in the vaguest rendering. The real problem is that the story’s whole universe is just a bit thin.
This is where Lanthimos overlooks the novelist’s rarest offering. Gray, the polymath and obsessive creative force, was a builder of worlds: dystopian, realist, surrealist, inverted. The confines of Glasgow served as Gray’s window to the cosmic. From his point of view, Glasgow was only as parochial as Joyce’s Dublin.
Gargantuan and deformed beyond all reason by the industrial revolution, later utopian projects sought to revive Glasgow through the means of large-scale demolition. But the place is still decked out with piles of late-Victorian wealth rendered in red sandstone. There are few better places to consider the obscene and hilarious hypocrisies of polite society.
“Do you think people improvable?” asks Bella at the opening of the final act of Poor Things. Up to this point, Stone has played Bella with an astonishing physicality: jerking through the cycle of bodily possibilities from evacuation to orgasm at a rate of knots.
What is so striking about Bella’s question—one that underpins the whole film—is that, for those familiar with its original author, it can still be heard in the wheezing, oscillating voice of a small, portly Glaswegian scratching at his wiry hair and staring into his next dram; a universe away from the delivery of Oscar-winning Stone.
Are stories improvable? The question is equally imponderable. This is not a faithful adaptation. The novel’s central conceit—its presentation as a series of found manuscripts, written from varying points of view—is nowhere to be seen. The manuscripts have been burned by Lanthimos, with only the smallest caskets within its Chinese box structure saved from the flames.
And yet, still, the revelation of the third act succeeds precisely because Gray’s premise sees Bella’s self-discovery finally intertwine with self-expression.
Fundamentally, Poor Things is a story about the deep strangeness of other people, of the weird human condition of not actually being able to inhabit the head, heart or soul of another. It is about the sad acknowledgement that, although we can love each other, the other’s improvement requires autonomy: no conception can be immaculate, no project of nurture free of the desire to constrain.
This is a weird, horny, disturbing film that rewards those who stick with it through the strangeness. In that respect the film is, like Bella, loyal to its parent in the end.