What’s in a place? Or, why you should read the book.

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Words: Esther Weisselberg (she/her)

I was lucky enough to see a preview of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things at Glasgow’s GFT, in a full cinema which, post-covid, has become a rarity. It is set for UK cinema release on January 12th 2024 and is based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel which essentially follows the “coming-of-age” of Doctor Godwin Baxter’s creation, Bella (played by Emma Stone who gives herself up completely to the role). Despite being written by a man, it is a brilliant interpretation of what it means to be a sexually empowered woman in society: Bella galivants across Europe gaining new experiences, both physical and cognitive, which inform her critical thinking and political interpretations of the world as a young woman. 

Alasdair Gray – Glaswegian, experimental, deceased – set his novel in his hometown; the city I live in. I read his novel as part of my English Literature degree and what stood out to me, other than the explicit, and often grotesque and sadistic portrayal of the human experience, was the depiction of Scotland. I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible (but I implore you to both watch the film and read the book – in whatever order you see fitting) but I can’t hide that I was slightly disappointed that the film is not based in Glasgow, instead Godwin Baxter, Max McCandless (Archie in the novel), and Bella reside in London. This was hardly a surprise to me. The world tends to see Britain through a London-centric lens and, while I acknowledge that London, as England’s capital, is both the largest and most diverse of British cities – and perhaps the only British city recognisable to an American audience – I often think that this positioning does not allow wider audiences to learn about, and celebrate, other British cities. 

Published in 1992, just a decade after the Scottish devolution referendum, and during the aftermath of Thatcher’s government’s abandonment in the 1980s, the novel reflects Scotland’s quest for identity. Despite its close ties to England, Scotland was undergoing a period of self-discovery. 

In the early 1700s, Scotland and England came together in The Act of Union, often likened to a political marriage, where Scotland is metaphorically portrayed as the wild, authentic, female counterpart to England’s male one with strict social norms and conservative values. This interpretation aligns with Bella being a representation of an untamed Scotland, mistreated by a symbol of the English elite (this will make more sense when you read the novel or watch the film, I promise).

By removing Scotland from the film’s plot (other than Willem Defoe’s slightly dodgy accent), Gray’s discourse on the relationship between Scotland and England is inevitably lost. Gray’s novel intentionally incorporates national iconography, in relation to Scotland’s identity, into the narrative. Bella’s character seems to be an allegory that portrays Scotland’s struggle to assert itself as a complete nation. Gray uses Bella’s womanhood to symbolise the challenges faced by Scotland in being recognised independently and emphasises the significance of individual countries’ literature in capturing the self-awareness of specific nations.

Of course, it’s unfair to hold film adaptations to the unrealistic task of keeping entirely faithful to the literature they’re based on. Audible tells me that the Poor Things audiobook is a 9 hour listen, and Chat GPT (our lord and saviour) tells me it would take 5 and a half hours of interrupted reading to complete. To expect a 2 hour 21 minute film to achieve all that Alasdair Gray achieves in his novel is therefore an unreasonable ask. The film is a great watch, sumptuous to the eye, visceral, and funny. But I do think, to its detriment, that Gray’s interpretation of the relationship between Scotland and England is entirely lost, so, if I were you, I’d also read the book (and I’d also try and get a copy with Gray’s original illustrations on the cover).


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