Gray StudiesPoor Things: Dr Rodge Glass on Alasdair Gray's arrival on the big screen


Dr Rodge Glass on stage alongside Sorcha Dallas, Custodian of the Alasdair Gray Archive, and Rachel Loughran, creator of Poor Things: A Novel Guide, at a recent Q&A following a screening of Poor Things at the Glasgow Film Theatre (Photo credit: Alasdair Watson Photography)

This month saw the much-anticipated UK release of Poor Things, the new film from The Lobster and The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos.

With an acclaimed director and glittering cast boasting Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe and Mark Ruffalo, the film is making waves critically and commercially. What could this mean for recognition of Alasdair Gray, the celebrated Glasgow author of the 1992 novel upon which the film is based?

We spoke to Dr Rodge Glass, biographer and expert on all things Alasdair Gray, about reactions to the film among Gray-lovers, the history of Gray adaptations and how faithful the film is to the writer's artistic vision.


Can you provide a brief overview of Alasdair Gray's Poor Things for those who may not be familiar with the novel?

Of course. Gray’s novel is a beautifully illustrated book which is a creative response to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. By that I mean that it takes the basic premise of Frankenstein (of a doctor creating a ‘monster’ for his own ends) and upends that.

In Gray’s version, set in Victorian Glasgow’s medical community, the ‘monster’ is a young, pregnant woman who had committed suicide. In Poor Things, this is Bella Baxter, who like Frankenstein’s monster cannot be controlled by the man who made her. She escapes and travels the world, only to return and find she was once Victoria Blessington, whose husband now wants her back.

Poor Things the novel contains multiple conflicting narratives. Some suggest Bella’s existence is nothing but a male fantasy imagined by her husband in the novel, Archie McCandless. Gray himself also appears of ‘editor’ of this found text which contains Bella’s story. The story is deeply embedded in Glasgow and includes real characters from the city, as well as the People’s Palace museum.

Alasdair Gray's works have not often been adapted. Why do you think that is and what do you think led to the choice of Poor Things for big screen treatment?

Alasdair often adapted works himself, working on a tiny budget. Old plays such as The Fall of Kelvin Walker were remade as novels once he was able to publish. He wrote scripts himself for a Lanark film and a Poor Things film. Like many writers, he spent years trying to see his works adapted, and he usually wanted to be involved with these projects himself.

As early as 1993, there was a Poor Things play script Alasdair wrote himself, and over the next decades a film funded in Scotland very nearly happened – then didn’t, again and again. The original cast was to have Robert Carlyle, Helena Bonham Carter and Jim Broadbent in the main roles, and that would have been exciting, but the making of any film on a big scale is highly unlikely for any novelist. So, like many of his peers, Alasdair’s novels were often optioned by production companies for the rights, meaning he got a wee bit of money to help him survive, but he mostly didn’t expect anything to come of it.

Why Poor Things? It’s definitely Alasdair’s most accessible, fun and funny novel. It won major literary prizes, unlike Lanark, and unlike Lanark, it sold in England and abroad. This is sometimes forgotten now, but it was – for Alasdair at least – a big success at the time, and it briefly overtook Lanark as being seen as his major work. Lanark has taken on such a big place in the history of Scottish Literature since 1992, when Poor Things was first published, that his ‘hit’ was oddly sidelined. No longer. The instant international critical and commercial success of the new film turns all that on its head.

What impact are you hoping the film will have on awareness and appreciation of Alasdair Gray and his work? Have you seen an impact already?

I’m hoping it will bring people back to the novel, and it already is doing. A new edition with Emma Stone on the cover has seen a big spike in interest – but also, especially in Scotland, many readers are returning to Alasdair’s original edition, which contains all his distinctive illustrations, portraits and playful experimentation on the page.

There are two things going on at once here, clearly. One: people who have previously had some interest in Alasdair are reading the novel for the first time, or returning to it, and his other books too. But there’s a much, much larger amount of people who have seen the film, previously had no idea who Alasdair was, loved the film and are now searching out his work. Of course, some filmgoers just want the film and that’s fine. But some are curious, and the level of interest is frankly so huge that this means there’s a whole new readership for Gray’s work.

I’m hoping [the film] will bring people back to the novel... many readers are returning to Alasdair’s original edition, which contains all his distinctive illustrations, portraits and playful experimentation on the page.

In your experience so far, how have those already with an appreciation of Gray’s writing reacted to the film?

It’s different in different contexts. I took part in two post-screening Q&A events in Glasgow in the last two weeks, and both were very different to each other, though in Glasgow especially, people feel a personal connection, often a deep emotional connection to Alasdair and his work. Sometimes they feel that they know what he would have wanted for the film, and that’s what they want for themselves. That’s okay.

I think that people who already love the novel feel very attached to the way that story is told, and understandably so. It’s a very particular approach, in which part of the appeal is that Poor Things contains lots of stories that conflict with each other. The film takes one of those stories – Bella’s – and treats it as truth. For some, that liberates the story, makes it more universal – she’s a hero who resists the ‘polites’ of society, and audiences tend to cheer her on. For some, the fact that it’s Bella’s ‘truth’ distorts or reduces the original story, but then we are well used in our culture to adaptations, and the fact that film is a very different art form, most people are at peace with that, though there have been plenty of hot takes too! Online and in the press in particular. I think that’s just part of the machinery of the film business. Talking points are needed to fill cinemas.

What has surprised me is just how overwhelmingly positive responses have been. It’s rare to get both critical and commercial success.

The filmmakers have jettisoned the novel’s Glasgow setting. Does it matter?

I think what matters is that those of us who really care about the city of Glasgow, about Alasdair’s work and his relationship with the city use this film as an opportunity to encourage people to search out that work in its original form. No version of Alice in Wonderland kills the novel, it only increases interest, and gives it multiple lives.

I think we should have confidence here that Scottish stories can have universal appeal. This story genuinely does, and that’s wonderful. Personally I’d love to see a future version that does root Poor Things back in Glasgow, and that is an important part of the novel. But I think the removal of Glasgow has sometimes been used to get Scots annoyed who don’t know anything about Alasdair Gray and have not read the novel anyway. Gray gave permission to a Greek director to make the film his way, with his own script and sensibility.

In many ways the film is very faithful to Alasdair’s way of seeing – feminism, socialism, moral responsibility. Yes it moves Glasgow to London but the novel also had a large section outside Glasgow. In the novel it’s Odessa in the Ukraine, which is changed to Lisbon in the film. London is in the novel (this is often forgotten or ignored), and this section is replaced in the film with Paris. So it’s made into an international story, but it’s good enough to withstand that. It’s a steampunk universe, in which place is distorted anyway. I think we should be at peace with it, in the knowledge that good stories can cope with change.

The novel arrived is now over 30 years old. How do you think changes in cultural context between the novel’s release and film’s release affects the story depicted?

That’s an interesting question – and one that’s rarely been asked around the film’s release. I think our culture and language have changed in a way now that reflects well on the original novel. Alasdair writes about personal identity, sexual politics, the nation and freedom from shame in a way that I think reads more strongly now than it did thirty years ago. His compassion in undeniable, as is his interest in doubt. His work is never dogmatic, but it is political. That makes it a good story for our times.

The fact that it has a historical setting disguises this somewhat, but essentially the novel is the story of a women who escapes the control of the men around her to make her own life, which she chooses to spend fighting injustice – medical, social, political – no matter the personal cost of those decisions. It was Gray’s best novel in 1992, and remains his best now. Though he disagreed with that diagnosis!


The University of Strathclyde is a major centre for Alasdair Gray Studies. Learn more about the BA English & Creative Writing, the MLitt Creative Writing, the MLitt Interdisciplinary English Studies and English postgraduate research opportunities with us.