Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things catching the eye in Glasgow Central Station I’m standing in Glasgow Central Station at the New Year and two giant screens are showing the trailer for Poor Things on a loop. This new adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel is setting the heather alight and bringing Gray’s literary pyrotechnics to a global audience three years after it was first announced as being in the works. Poor Things, published in 1992, is a brilliant book, and like all of Alasdair’s fiction it is much more than a novel. On the surface the narrative is a patchwork quilt, riffing on nineteenth-century novels from Frankenstein to The Master of Ballantrae, but deep down it offers a rich exploration of social class, education, empire, equality, feminism and independence, both personal and political, issues that fired Gray’s imagination and remain pressingly relevant. In form it is a gothic time machine, a typographical feast, with its graphic devices, maps and illustrations, clearly a fertile seedbed for a storyboard. Gray’s work with its stunning visual artistry has long been an open invitation to filmmakers. Yet until recently this novel received relatively little critical attention compared to Lanark (1981), Gray’s best-known work. Poor Things is equally remarkable, and its surreal qualities were always likely to lend themselves to the screen. In fact, twenty-odd years ago there was talk of an adaptation based on a script by Gray himself. The major roles were cast, a director was in place, and a date set for production, but that adaptation never materialized. On 21 February 2004 an editorial in The Herald newspaper bemoaned the state of cinema in Scotland and asked about a raft of creative projects that had withered on the vine:
“What happened, for instance, to the Robert Burns biopic that’s been whispered about for years, often in close conjunction with words such as Johnny and Depp? Where’s that long-mooted remake of Greyfriars Bobby? Things have also gone quiet on Craig Ferguson’s proposed ‘‘socialist musical’’ about Clydeside shipbuilders. And what about the film adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel Poor Things, which went so far as declaring principal cast members (Helena Bonham Carter, Robert Carlyle, Jim Broadbent) and a director (Sandy Johnson) before vanishing off the radar? No-one ever rose to the not inconsiderable challenge of putting Gray’s magnum opus Lanark on the big screen, either; and while we’re on the subject of great novels, isn’t it possible that there’s a Confessions of a Justified Sinner-shaped hole in the period-thriller market?”
Now, twenty years later, the challenge has finally been taken up by award-winning Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose experimental style matches Gray’s creative vision. When asked what drew him to Gray’s novel, Lanthimos has said, “I have a Scottish friend who’s a big fan of his, […] so I read quite a bit of his stuff. When I read Poor Things, I was immediately taken by it. I went to Scotland to meet Gray, actually. He was very, very generous and energetic. He showed me all the places in Scotland he imagined the story taking place. When we got back home, he gave me his blessing.” And the rest is cinematic history. Poor Things is now on general release, starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe, in an adaptation that is garnering awards and generating massive critical attention. The reviews have been exceptional.
With its fantastic female figure, a mannequin-turned-independent woman Poor Things is very much of the moment. Gray’s gothic heroine, Bella Baxter, is Barbie meets Barbarella. The story of a woman who refuses to be moulded by her alleged male creator – Godwin “God” Baxter – is a tale for our times. Emma Stone won a Golden Globe for her performance as Bella, and in her acceptance speech she said, “Bella falls in love with life itself”, and that the character “made her look at life differently”. That’s a big statement but entirely understandable given Gray’s imaginative powers and Stone’s performance.
Alasdair may have given his blessing for the film to be made but having showed Lanthimos “all the places in Scotland he imagined the story taking place”, many people feel he would surely have been dismayed at the exclusion of those places from the finished film. The fact that the adaptation has transplanted the beating heart of the novel – Glasgow, Gray’s great civic muse – to London, has not been well received, particularly by Scots. A recent documentary, “Poor Things & Alasdair Gray’s Legacy”, produced by filmmakers Gavin Lundy and Jack O’Neil, responds to these concerns about Scotland’s omission from the film. It stresses Gray’s rootedness in Glasgow, but also acknowledges that his art transcends the city and country of his birth. In his contribution to this documentary Rodge Glass speaks of Gray’s fusion of the local and the universal. You can take Gray out of Glasgow but can you take Glasgow out of Gray? The question persists: why was the film adaptation of Poor Things not set in the city that gave birth to it? Glasgow has after all been used to excellent effect as a film location in recent years. If it was photogenic enough for The Batman and for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny then why not for Poor Things, which has the city hard-wired into its system?
A reflective piece by Elspeth King added weight to the criticisms by pointing out that Gray’s novel was a response to cultural neglect and official disdain for the poor things of the city: “In future, there will be many film productions of Poor Things and other works by Alasdair Gray. Like Robert Burns, Gray was always confident that his work would be appreciated by later generations. Whether that will be in Scotland and by Scots is in doubt, for Gray’s talent has had less than lip-service here. It is no accident that he characterized the city of Glasgow as Unthank in his novel Lanark and twice refused the ‘honour’ of the St. Mungo Prize.”
Alasdair was a passionate advocate of Scottish independence and was always dismayed by the patronizing attitude that refused to see the rich cultural potential of Scotland. From this perspective, he too would have lamented the relocation of this film adaptation. But Gray is a writer of global significance, and if this adaptation brings new readers to his writing and his art, and to the myriad ways in which he represents and celebrates Scotland, it will have been worth it.
I’ve had a strong interest in Poor Things since its publication over thirty years ago. What has struck me whenever I’ve taught the novel or written about it is that Alasdair’s appeal really is universal. His work is eminently adaptable, like that of all great writers. The charge of parochialism sometimes aimed at Scottish writers – a charge that usually masks class snobbery – can never be leveled at the fruits of his capacious imagination. If this film version of Poor Things leads to a dramatic uplift in the novel’s readership and generates the interest in Gray’s creative art that it so richly deserves then it will have done its work, and who knows, perhaps some enterprising production company will see the potential for a serial adaptation.
Poor Things – the novel itself – is certainly worth revisiting. A new edition of the novel bearing the legend “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE” is already in bookshops, although it’s bittersweet to see Emma Stone on the cover rather than Alasdair’s own distinctive artwork.
Asked by Mark Axelrod in 1995 what we can expect in the future, Gray answered that he hoped the financing would be secured to make the film version of Lanark. That hope is strengthened by the success of Poor Things and Lanark now awaits its film adaptation. I wonder who’ll play Duncan Thaw …