I was very much surprised, or rather dismayed, to read about Giórgos ‘Yorgos’ Lanthimos’s new film Poor Things, being a big fan of the novel but not at all of the director. Neither The Lobster (2015) nor The Favourite (2018) are films I have enjoyed and, to be honest, I fail to understand why they have been so admired. I was not particularly looking forward to seeing Poor Things, then, but a good friend insisted that we went together to the cinema. We had met as teacher and student 32 years ago and, as happens, became friends when we attended together a presentation in Barcelona by the author of Poor Things, the novel, Alasdair Gray (1934-2019). I feared that if we hated Lanthimos’s film, this would be an awkward moment in our long friendship, but my friend argued that we could always enjoy criticising the film. Well, we both loved it and had a great time enjoying the exciting 140 minutes it lasts. So, it is fully recommended.

            Most reviews I have read marvel at the eccentricity of the central Frankensteinian fable and the cast of characters, with Bella Baxter as the lead. For those of us who know Gray’s novel well (I finished reading it yesterday for the fourth time), there is no such surprise. Both Gray and Lanthimos tell the story of how genius surgeon Godwin Baxter loses control of the woman he manufactures by putting together the body of a 25-year-old woman, who commits suicide by drowning in the river, and the brain of her almost nine-months old female foetus. The poor thing survives her mother’s death and is born by Caesarean section, only to be killed when Baxter takes her brain. His explanation in the novel is that he desires the dead woman and is too impatient to raise the little girl. The premise, as you can see, is quite ugly and sexist, but Gray’s whole point is speculating on what might happen if an adult woman in 1880s Victorian Glasgow could be given the chance to live with a brain free from the appalling miseducation women received in those times. Baxter’s Frankensteinian bride feels no shame about her body and soon starts exploring sex with the young lawyer Duncan Wedderburn, a cad who thinks he is exploiting her but who ends up destroyed by Bella’s frank sexual needs. Bella ends up in a Parisian brothel accumulating more experiences before returning home to Baxter and to her fiancé, his assistant Archibald McCandless, ready to train as a doctor, to assist women and children.

            Lanthimos and his Australian screenwriter, Tony McNamara (co-author with Deborah Davis of the script for The Favourite), are mostly interested in Bella’s sexual awakening. Aided by actress Emma Stone’s wonderfully unabashed performance as Bella (also by a surprising Mark Ruffalo as Wedderburn), they present Baxter’s creation as an initially childish girl who can barely control her body but who gradually becomes a woman in full command of her expansive sexuality and no less expansive mind. I was satisfied enough when I saw the film with this version of Bella, though for whatever reason I had imagined her as a rather statuesque woman with red or blonde hair, and not as Stone’s waifish Bella. In fact, Gray describes Bella as both brown- and black-haired (which would agree with Stone’s look) and both golden- and blue-eyed. I believe this is part of his strategy to offer conflicting, contradictory images that should make the reader hesitate about which version of Bella (for there are at least three in the novel) is true.

            A matter that has irked many admirers of Gray’s novel (including yours truly) is that Lanthimos has completely ignored the Scottish setting, replacing Glasgow with London. Production designers Shona Heath and James Price have done a great job with their surreal, steampunkish sets, but the total absence of the Scottish background and accents (except for Willem Dafoe’s feeble efforts at suggesting his Godwin is Scottish) is quite irritating. To be specific, Bella speaks with a Mancunian accent (a mistake, since her brain has no recollection of her Manchester life, and she would have absorbed the Glaswegian lingo), but in Lanthimos’s film, all these nuances are lost. Bella is, well, American.

            Alasdair Gray was an iconic figure in his native Glasgow, both as a writer and as a painter (he illustrated all his books, which drew many comparisons between him and William Blake). He was always a big defender of his city and many have quoted the exchange in Chapter 22 of Lanark (1981) between Duncan Thaw and his friend McAlpin:

            “Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

            “Because nobody imagines living here… think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

This has inspired much comment, as you can imagine. I will add my own, based on personal experience. I used to think that my home city, Barcelona, was one of those places whose magnificence was missed because no artist had imagined living in it with sufficient persuasion (arguably with the exception of Eduardo Mendoza, above all in his novel La ciudad de los prodigios). Then a few things happened, which made the city so visible for the tourists that the citizens lost it: the absurd hype around Gaudí unleashed by the Japanese in the 1980s, the 1992 Olympic Games, low-cost flying, and Airbnb. Barcelona is now in that list of excellent cities although, this is significant, local artists have not generated any great films or novels of world-wide popularity set in it.

            On the other hand, Alasdair Gray’s depiction of Godwin Baxter’s 1880s Glasgow was certainly one of the reasons why I chose to spend a year in Scotland as a PhD student. Or, perhaps, the other way round: when during my year in Scotland, formally registered at the University of Stirling, I ended up sharing a flat in the same Glaswegian neighbourhood where Poor Things is set, I realized that I was seeing Glasgow through Alasdair Gray’s perspective: as a magnificent place. This was back in 1994-95, and then in May 1999 I returned for a brief Erasmus stay of one week at the University of Glasgow. Luckily, I could attend a lecture by Gray himself, which ended with the author and his admirers in a pub. I was extremely happy to be able to tell him ‘Mr. Gray, I am here because of your books and love Glasgow’ to which he, quite flustered, kindly replied ‘what would you like to drink?’ A Brazilian admirer confirmed he had gone through a similar experience which made Gray’s formidable wife Morag quip ‘We should talk with the Tourist Office, Alasdair’. This brought much laughter. I don’t know if Mrs. Gray ever spoke to the Tourist Office but it is absolutely true that her husband put Glasgow on the map of local and international narrative imagination.

            This is why I was so disappointed with Lanthimos’s choices. It appears that the replacement of Glasgow with London was decided by Dublin-based producers Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe. Lanthimos has noted that “Once we decided that the point of view of the film was going to be Bella’s, and it was going to be her story and her journey, and working with an American cast, it just made more sense to contract things.” This does not make much sense, since the film has episodes set in Lisbon, Alexandria and Paris. These are fewer locations than the ones featured in the novel, but, still, excluding Glasgow from Poor Things is like excluding Berlin from Cabaret. Gray’s son Andrew has also downplayed the exclusion by asserting that his father was happy enough that someone was making the film. When he met Lanthimos in 2011, a year before the rights were purchased, Gray took the director on a tour of the novel’s locations, which means that Lanthimos knew well how significant Glasgow is in the novel. The controversy unleashed in Scotland also considers, of course, whether the local cultural industry has failed Gray. Just two years after the publication of Poor Things, there was an attempt to adapt it, using a screenplay by Gray himself and Sandy Johnson, with Robert Carlisle and Helena Bonham Carter in the cast; the project, however, was dropped. This is why, writing in Glasgow’s The Herald, Dereck McArthur concludes that “It’s not the film that failed Gray, it’s Scotland’s tenuous relationship with the arts. It took a Greek director with a trusted track record to find Gray’s novel and be inspired enough that we even find ourselves talking about such things.”

            The other controversy attached to the film is whether the many explicit sexual scenes should be rejected because, after all, Bella is a child in a woman’s body. I am much more interested in how little attention is paid to her mind in comparison to her body in the film. Re-reading Poor Things this week, I realised that Gray offers a veritable torrent of sociopolitical comment totally missing from McNamara’s script (except for Harry Astley’s brief intervention). The director has explained that he decided to discard “the part of the novel which is like a philosophical political essay about Scotland and its relationship to England and the world. I thought that couldn’t be part of the film, both in terms of just practically making that kind of philosophical essay into a film, but also me being a Greek person, making a film about Scotland. It would have been totally disingenuous of me.” What is totally disingenuous is this explanation. To begin with, Lanthimos discussed the English monarchy in The Favourite with no qualms. Next, Gray’s political discourse is not focused on Scotland but on class. Bella’s climactic discovery of extreme poverty in Alexandria is so stylized in the film that it hardly makes sense. In contrast, although she soon tires of working in the Parisian brothel in the novel, the film devotes a very long segment to this episode as, I insist, Bella’s sexuality matters far more than her mental development and her acquisition of a social conscience. The film is still great fun, and I am very happy that it bring the novel to many new readers, but Bella Baxter is much more than her body and her sexuality, as Gray’s readers can see.

            Adaptations are particular readings of their original sources and not the last word about them. It is unlikely that the Scots finally make another version of Poor Things set in Glasgow and spoken with the right accents, but now they might find the energy to film other works by Gray, such as Lanark. All in all I take Lanthimos’s Poor Things as a brilliant film that will work well for many spectators, but I would recommend them to read Gray’s novel for a much deeper perspective on Bella Baxter’s unique story and characterization. The lesson to be learned, too, is that if a culture loves its writers, it should do more so publicize them worldwide, before persons from other cultures feel free to do as they wish with the texts they so lovingly dedicated to their home land.