'Poor Things,' the weird movie, was a weird novel first
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'Poor Things,' the weird movie, was a weird novel first
The Oscar-nominated film is based on a 1992 book by the prolific Scotsman Alasdair Gray. Beloved by writers, “that’s not the same as being widely read,” says one of them.

by A.J. Goldmann

NEW YORK, NY.- Hot air balloons soar above the Mediterranean. Aerial streetcars fly along ropes suspended above the alleys of a candy-colored Lisbon. Pastel green smoke billows into the night sky from the funnels of a cruise ship.

This is the eye-poppingly surreal world that Bella Baxter, played by Emma Stone, thrills to in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-nominated film “Poor Things.”

Bella, a 25-year-old woman who, after committing suicide, is reanimated with the brain of her unborn infant, is the daring and unusual creation of Alasdair Gray, whose 1992 novel was adapted for the movie.

And it may not even be his most eccentric book. A prolific writer and visual artist who died at 85 in 2019, Gray wrote five other novels, two novellas, 89 short stories and a version of Dante’s Divine Comedy (“Decorated and Englished in Prosaic Verse”).

In Scotland, Gray is something of a national treasure, his papers housed at the National Library of Scotland. (The cover flap for his illustrated autobiography, “A Life in Pictures,” described the lifelong Glaswegian as “Scotland’s best-known polymath.”)

Outside Britain, however, he is not exactly a household name.

“I would say he’s one of the very few writers from my lifetime that I’m in awe of,” said English novelist Jonathan Coe, adding that Gray is “enormously respected” by writers and critics.

“I’m not sure,” he added, “if this is the same as being widely read.”

“Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D. Scottish Public Health Officer” is set largely in late-19th-century Glasgow. Deftly mashing up genres, Gray wraps together gothic horror, science fiction and comedy and passes it off as a Victorian-era chronicle.

As a narrative, it’s anything but straightforward. The book purports to be the 1909 memoir of McCandless (the similarly named character played by Ramy Youssef in the film), salvaged from a rubbish heap and edited by Gray. It concludes with an afterword that turns much of the plot on its head.

Lanthimos follows the outlines of the story, but the look of the film, an eclectic mix of belle epoque and fantastical elements that nod to H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, is a far cry from both what Gray describes in prose and in his copious black and white drawings that illustrate the work.

Tony McNamara, whose screenplay received one of the film’s 11 Oscar nominations, recalled Lanthimos mentioning the book when they were working on 2018’s “The Favourite.” According to McNamara, Lanthimos had visited Gray in Glasgow to get the author’s blessing to film “Poor Things.”

“He really hit it off with Alasdair,” McNamara said, “and when he came back, we had lunch and he gave me the book.”

McNamara and Lanthimos decided to focus the story on Bella, the young woman brought back to life. “Putting Bella’s experience at the heart,” McNamara explained, allowed him to “grow and expand her story.”

Gray, who trained as a painter, found literary renown later in life with the 1981 publication of his first novel, “Lanark: A Life in Four Books.” Ambitious and sprawling, “Lanark” is a peculiar mixture of realist bildungsroman (the art student main character is largely based on Gray himself) and dystopian science fiction.

Critics cheered. “It was time Scotland produced a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom,” the towering British writer Anthony Burgess wrote. “This is it.”

But Gray’s age — he was 46 when “Lanark” was published — may have worked against him. In 1983, Granta published its decennial list of the best British novelists under 40. It included Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie and Pat Barker, writers who, according to Coe, “mesmerized British literary journalists and dominated coverage of new writing in England.” Gray, he added, was “eclipsed.”

In Scotland, however, the novel helped usher in a national renaissance in letters. Scottish writers Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and A.L. Kennedy have all been described as “Gray’s bairns.”

In the decade after “Lanark” was published, Gray brought out eight more books. Although his productivity dipped in the mid-1990s, his body of work came to encompass novels, stories, plays, nonfiction, poetry and essays. All the while he continued to work on murals, paintings and the distinctive illustrations with which his books teem.

“He would always consider himself an artist who fell into writing,” said Sorcha Dallas, who runs the Alasdair Gray Archive, a center in Glasgow dedicated to promoting his work. “The visual and literary were always kind of connected in his mind.” (The archive has assembled an engaging online guide to “Poor Things.”)

As a graduate student, Coe came across Gray’s second novel, “1982, Janine,” in a bookshop. “Gray always designed his own covers and wrote his own blurbs and I thought this one was very funny: It was laconic and self-parodic and promised readers a tour around the head of an alcoholic Tory,” Coe said.

“I bought the novel on a whim and was blown away by it,” he continued, referring to “1982, Janine” as “my gateway drug to ‘Lanark,’ which, of course, is the hard stuff as far as Gray is concerned.”

If “Lanark” made Gray a critical darling, “Poor Things” brought him closer to mainstream acceptance when published a decade later. The novel won Britain’s Whitbread Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. Gray sold the film rights, although the project, set to star Helena Bonham Carter, Jim Broadbent and Robert Carlyle, never got off the ground. (Gray’s own stab at the screenplay was published in the 2009 collection, “A Gray Play Book.”)

McNamara, Lanthimos’ screenwriter, said he initially toyed with preserving the “postmodern unreliable narrator,” but ultimately “felt that while that worked brilliantly as literature, as a film it wouldn’t give us the emotional weight and absurdist comedy we were looking for.”

In a 1992 piece in the London Review of Books, Coe praised “Poor Things” as Gray’s “funniest” and “least uneven” novel. Asked recently about that earlier judgment, he acknowledged that “digression, discursiveness and deliberate prolixity” make Gray an acquired taste. “Probably there is less of that in ‘Poor Things’ than in any of his other major novels,” he added, “so it’s a good place for new readers to start.”

While his books were never chart-toppers, most of them are still in print, according to Andrew Gray, the author’s son, who runs his estate. Renewed interested in “Poor Things” has likely helped sales, but Gray said he believes that “Lanark” is still his father’s best-selling book.

That could change, he noted, after the March 10 Oscars. But even without a stack of Academy Awards, Lanthimos’ film might lead to reevaluations of his father’s other books.

“He was always very keen on ‘1982, Janine,’” Gray said of the novel, about the sadomasochistic fantasies of a middle-aged alcoholic with an erotic fixation on actress Jane Russell. “He always felt that it should have gotten more recognition than it did.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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