Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures
by Theo Rollason Essays Feature Articles Featured Film

Not the Other Way Around: Poor Things, from Novel to Screen

January 2, 2024

“Considered mechanically, a duck is not an efficient machine.” So observes Vague McMenamy, an amateur inventor living in pre-industrial Glasgow who resolves to improve the inhabitants of his grandmother’s pond with the help of his latest invention, the crankshaft. After McMenamy succeeds in creating an impressively speedy “duckboat,” drowning the poor ducks in the process, he turns his attention to his grandmother, harnessing the energy she expends rocking her chair to power a knitting machine. His improved version is powered by a see-saw, and as Granny’s productivity goes up, the prosperity of other local knitters comes sharply down. The aggrieved workers burn down the McMenamy cottage, and Vague is dead by thirty, eventually overcome by see-saw-induced vertigo.

“The Crank that Made the Revolution,” the story summarized above, is as good an introduction as any to the idiosyncratic fictional worlds of Alasdair Gray. Aside from its obvious wit, Gray’s writing is characterized by a playful approach to history and a rootedness in Scotland, especially his native Glasgow. Gray, who died in 2019, was a proud Scot and perhaps an even prouder socialist who often deployed absurd comedy in service of pointed anti-capitalist critique; in the case of “The Crank,” he takes aim at the industrial revolution and the repercussions faced by those cast aside in its relentless pursuit of progress.

It’s not hard to imagine what in Gray’s work attracted the filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, known for his own darkly eccentric satires — films like Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015), and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). Despite the persistent centering of Scotland across Gray’s writing, there’s an allegorical, fable-like quality to the social critique present in both men’s work. And like Lanthimos, Gray doesn’t shy away from tackling sex and the erotic, from the sexual frustrations of the protagonist in the sci-fi bildungsroman Lanark (1981), his first and best-known novel, to the sadomasochistic antics of 1982, Janine (1984) and Something Leather (1990). The latter work was undertaken at the suggestion of Gray’s friend Kathy Acker, who felt he should try writing a novel about a woman, and the follow-up to that novel — 1992’s Poor Things — again foregrounded female sexuality. It’s this novel that Lanthimos has now adapted for the big screen.

The film is, it should be said, a delight. Tony McNamara’s screenplay is often wickedly funny, and is complemented by loopy, maximalist production design that magnifies the quasi-steampunk qualities of Gray’s work, adding a touch of Terry Gilliam. Jerskin Fendrix’s dissonant soundtrack is a creative twist on the archetypal horror score as played by a collection of wind-up toys — delivering sonic pleasures matched only by Mark Ruffalo’s terrible English accent, a thing of astonishing beauty. Above all else, the film serves as a showcase for a virtuoso comic performance from Emma Stone as a fully-grown woman experiencing the wonders and horrors of the world for the first time.

It also only reflects half the book — and potentially the less interesting half. Like “The Crank,” Gray’s Poor Things uses Victorian pastiche as a vehicle for serious critique: of the social inequalities brought about by capitalism and patriarchy, of the gendered history of medicine, of Scotland’s relationship with British imperialism, of the repression of the labor movement in the early part of the twentieth century, and of the literary construction of history itself. The film retains these only as traces, opting to hone in on the novel’s sexual politics and amplify its feminist leanings. But by removing the novel’s various frame narratives, it drastically simplifies its exploration of gender, no longer implicating its author and audiences in the various cruelties exacted on its protagonist.

Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

In Lanthimos’ Poor Things, the brilliant, eccentric scientist Godwin Bysshe Baxter (Willem Dafoe) recovers the body of a drowned woman (Stone) and brings it back to life by replacing her brain with that of the living fetus she was carrying when she died. By the time medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) meets her, the newly-christened Bella Baxter is essentially a toddler piloting the body of a grown woman. Max, not unproblematically, is besotted. Bella agrees to marry him, but first — driven by an endless, childlike curiosity — decides she will elope with lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Ruffalo) and learn everything she can about the world.

A self-styled libertine scoundrel set on freeing Bella from the shackles of Victorian moralism, Duncan is nevertheless worn down and eventually broken by her utter disregard for social convention and her insatiable sexual appetites (what she calls “furious jumping”). Bella ditches Duncan in Paris, where she winds up working in a brothel and receiving an education in sex and socialism from fellow prostitute Toinette (Suzy Bemba). After an unpleasant run-in with General Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott) — husband to Victoria Blessington, the woman Bella was before drowning — Bella finally makes it home to marry Max. The film ends with Bella, Max, and Toinette living a life of genuine equality under Godwin’s roof, where she is able to practice medicine and enjoy the socialist utopia she has created in miniature.

But in the book, that’s not the end. In fact, the story recounted is just one text among many: that of Max McCandles (Archibald McCandles in the novel), whose 1909 manuscript the author, Alasdair Gray, purports to have merely reproduced after its recent discovery. McCandles’ narrative is followed by a letter written in 1914 by Bella Baxter, now going by the name of Victoria McCandles. With borderline contempt for her late husband, Victoria dismisses his story as far-fetched fantasy, garbling the sad details of her life into hackneyed Gothic pastiche. Aside from the overt resemblances to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Victoria finds “traces of The Coming Race, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Trilby, Rider Haggard’s She … G. B. Shaw’s Pygmalion and the scientific romances of Herbert George Wells.” She then offers her own more rational and measured version of events.

In the novel’s final section, “Notes Critical and Historical,” Gray attempts to separate fact from fiction, quoting various documents that shed light on Victoria’s later life as a suffragette, socialist, and progressive practitioner of medicine, as well as her gradual ostracization on account of her radicalism and her sad descent into historical obscurity. Gray then calls Victoria’s account into question, suggesting that the events described by her husband might be closer to the truth than she’s willing to admit. Throughout this chapter, he lingers on enough pedantic absurdities to remind us that this dry and authoritative editor, “Alasdair Gray,” is himself a fiction — that it’s all fiction. So, what do we believe?

If Poor Things is indeed a Frankenstein tale, it’s about how the postmodern novel itself is the monster — a hodgepodge of competing voices, a combination of genres, archetypes, and styles stitched together into the appearance of a unitary whole. (If there’s a film that attempts something similar with Shelley’s novel within its own medium, it’s Bill Morrison’s Spark of Being, which comprises fragments of found footage from cinema’s first few decades edited into a narrative approximating Frankenstein.) For good measure, Gray supplies illustrations (attributed to William Strang; actually by Gray himself), changes in typography (including Bella’s childish scrawls), parody blurbs and bogus reviews on the flaps of the dust jacket (situating the novel’s concern with Victorian morality within the context of Thatcher’s Britain), and even a playful errata slip in some editions.

Narrative multiplicity, unreliability, and frequent foregrounding of its own status as text — these are exemplary of what theorist Linda Hutcheon has called historiographical metafiction, self-reflective fiction about the construction of history. In Poor Things, history and fiction are not only both textual, but dependent on each other, and often confused. Admittedly, this is all fairly standard for ’90s postmodernism, though Gray might have had something more specific in mind. On her travels, Bella encounters a Russian gambler who elucidates how nations are constructed through their novels. “Our literature began with Pushkin, a contemporary of your Walter Scott,” he explains, stressing to Bella that:

Before Pushkin Russia was not a true nation, it was an administered region. Our aristocracy spoke French, our bureaucracy was Prussian, and the only true Russians—the peasants—were despised by rulers and bureaucracy alike. Then Pushkin learned the folk-tales from his nursemaid, a woman of the people. His novellas and poems made us proud of our language and aware of our tragic past—our peculiar present—our enigmatic future. He made Russia a state of mind—made it real. … People who care nothing for their country’s stories and songs … are like people without a past—without a memory—they are half people.

Bella, the woman without a past — “Bella Caledonia,” as she’s dubbed in the caption to one of Gray’s illustrations — thus becomes an allegorical tool to explore the problem of representing Scotland. Her journey, a blend of sexual and political awakening, not only poses abstract philosophical questions, but suggests Gray’s preoccupation with writing the nation, with exploring what sort of nation Scotland wants to be.

Credit: Searchlight Pictures

The concerns of a novel are not the same as a film, and spending too long speculating why specific changes were made in the process of adaptation often proves a fruitless and tedious task. Nevertheless, it’s striking just how much of Gray’s political content has been jettisoned by Lanthimos’ film version. Scotland is notably absent — with the story relocated from Glasgow to a fantastical rendering of London, the imperial center — and so too is the question of its relationship to the British Empire and more broadly imperialism. On a cruise ship, Bella meets the cynical English Malthusian Harry Astley (Jerrod Carmichael) and the American white supremacist Dr. Hooker, who school her on politics from their contrasting yet fundamentally colonialist perspectives. Dr. Hooker is replaced in the film by a character named Martha Von Kurtzroc (Hanna Schygulla), who, unlike Hooker, advocates for the improvement of humanity not through racist civilizing projects but through philosophy; she recommends that Bella read Goethe.

We do see Bella reading quite a bit throughout the film, although Gray’s exploration of the relationship between literature and history is also dropped. “Why doesn’t he speak of women?” she asks of an Emerson novel. “Perhaps he doesn’t know any?” Stone’s deadpan delivery sells the line, but it’s an easy, unchallenging swipe at the androcentrism of the Western canon. More than that, it’s representative of the film’s tendency to flatten the novel’s concerns regarding gender into predigested pop-feminist soundbites, its willingness to portray the refreshingly unsocialized Bella as an unwitting girlboss.

As an attack on our prudish sexual culture, the film generally works. Bella spends most of it puzzling over why others aren’t having sex all the time; certainly, her childish joy at discovering masturbation feels more understandable than the admonishment she swiftly receives from her housekeeper. Quite unlike the sex in Lanthimos’ previous films, sex in Poor Things is centered on sensation rather than transaction or adherence to any social script. The heightened shock factor of the Victorian setting barely disguises that Lanthimos’ provocations apply just as easily to our own puritanical times. It’s no surprise that Lanthimos’ sex-heavy film has become a beacon for certain audiences in the context of a mainstream cinema starved for sex, especially amidst the seemingly incessant (though possibly just over-amplified) stream of online movie discourse that dismisses sex on screen as “unnecessary.”

For all the supposed transgressions Poor Things’ sex positivity makes possible, it’s all in service of a rather straightforward journey of individual female emancipation designed to pander to its liberal audience. The film’s final frames imagine Bella’s victory against the patriarchal order in rather bourgeois terms: Bella, lounging in her beautifully ornate garden, sipping on a cocktail. In company are her devoted husband, her lover, and her misogynistic ex-husband in the form of a new pet, his brain having been swapped with that of a goat. All of them are contained within the closed utopia of Bella’s walled garden, keeping her quite separate from the social whole.

It’s a starkly different ending to the excised latter parts of the novel, in which Victoria goes on to become a practicing doctor, suffragette, member of the Fabian Society, anti-war campaigner, and lifelong champion of the poor. Granted, Gray doesn’t allow Victoria a happy ending; she’s not only attacked by the conservative press, denounced by the church, and taken to court for training women to perform abortions, but also patronized by fellow socialists and dismissed as an erotomaniac by acquaintances. Victorian society — and it’s not a stretch to suspect Gray also had his eye on his contemporary Scottish society — won’t make space for a woman as complex and radical as Victoria McCandles.

Neither, ironically, will the film. In the book’s competing narratives, “Bella Baxter” is doubly the product of men’s fantasies: she is in one version the physical creation of Godwin Baxter, and in another the textual creation of Max/Archibald McCandles. Which of these versions is more believable is beside the point; what is demonstrated by both Victoria McCandles’ attempt to reclaim her biography and the critical discussion of it by the editor “Alasdair Gray” is that her husband’s account of things is a blinkered, largely depoliticized perspective of a fascinatingly complex individual.

In Lanthimos’ adaptation, by contrast, McCandles’ fanciful Gothic reimagining of Victoria’s life becomes, simply, Bella’s perception of her own life. We’re to understand that what we see is Bella’s world, that the visual eccentricities on screen — blatantly artificial backdrops, Dafoe’s grotesque prosthetics, and so on — are focalized through her childlike wonder. Put another way, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things is a tale of female empowerment; Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things is about male fantasies of a tale of female empowerment. Perhaps the most damning thing that could be said about this adaptation, then, is that it would be easy to assume the novel is a response to the film, and not the other way around.