The film adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things provoked a weird sort of jingoistic fury. 

A writer setting his novel in his hometown, only for it to be snapped away and stripped of that context and placed in London. Glasgow and Gray were considered erased from the final product. Snubbed. Cue outrage. 

Yet, the film is not Gray’s, or Glasgow’s. It’s a film by internationally acclaimed Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. As a filmmaker, Lanthimos maintains an artistic right to take his source material and interpret and recontextualise as he wishes. Gray held the power and licence to set his novel in Glasgow, so it can only be right that the film version can exist as its own work under different authorship. 

Adaptation is not the simple act of transferring a literary work into a visual one. The fine details that can be gleaned from the vast expanse of a novel are irreplicable in film, a medium where thoughts and ideas are conveyed through the much more ambiguous image. The locations of Poor Things are not fundamental to a recreation, the film could be based anywhere and not lose its general meaning.  

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This is not Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, where the distressed setting of 1970s Glasgow is inseparable from its purpose. Ratcatcher tells a story of a time and place. Poor Things operates in a world of its own, where time and place are essentially meaningless and lack reality. Gray looked at Glasgow with creative wonder and incorporated it into his work with an intriguing sophistication – that does not mean his legacy is thus owed to Glasgow as a city. Gray is not a ‘local artist’, he should be internationally considered and is on the cusp of a complete revival of interest due to a hugely acclaimed commercial film.  

To feign outrage when the potential rewards for Gray’s legacy are so huge is narrow-minded, and almost ungrateful. What more can be asked from Lanthimos than filmgoers around the world discovering the source material and being introduced to Gray’s body of work? What could be more wonderful than readers experiencing Gray and the novel’s Glasgow setting in its original context, telling the story exactly as he intended? 

Gray worked for decades. His death in 2019 is recent. There was plenty of time for him to be offered resources to be creatively involved in a film version of Poor Things, perhaps with a Scottish director on side. But this was never a priority, and now we can only derive from the work left behind.  

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Even if Lanthimos decided to base his film in Glasgow, it questions if Scotland’s filmmaking infrastructure could facilitate such an involved and specific production design. Lanthimos told film magazine Little White Lies his reasons for changing locations, being more related to the practical and creative processes of adaptation than the ‘snubbed’ headlines would suggest: “In the novel, the Scottish issue feels like a different part of the book, and I felt it would just be like trying to make two different films if I tried to put it into this version of the story”.  

Either way, the environment of filmmaking and art creation in Scotland would not adequately uplift Gray and ensure he remains culturally relevant and understood in life and in death, but is more less-considered, managerial, and commercially minded. There is endless space for complaining about the film’s change of location, yet very little space for reflecting on our collective role in the legacy supposedly being upheld. 

The response to Glasgow being written out of the film is defensive, though understandably so. It’s natural to become protective when basic recognition can be caught up and cut out in the hype cycle, but this battle hardly preserves Gray and his legacy, and ultimately limits the scope of his work. It’s time to stop thinking of Scottish artists as tailored to a specific domestic audience and free the potential that our creatives have to make their mark across culture universally.  

The Herald: Alasdair Gray's All Kinds of Folk mural at Hillhead Station in GlasgowAlasdair Gray's All Kinds of Folk mural at Hillhead Station in Glasgow (Image: Newsquest)
There is a fear to get over, and that is the living artist. Scotland is reluctant to champion domestic artists until after their death, where evaluating in rearview is a much more comfortable position than engaging directly with the current moment. The work of someone like Charles Rennie Mackintosh then becomes a safe exercise in branding, separating him from the artistic context that made his work important. 

Gray did well to embed himself in the city of Glasgow while he was alive. His mural still proudly adorns Hillhead Station, becoming an incredibly public and open nod to his life and work. But these occasional opportunities were largely restrained by a bureaucratic guard blinded by and apprehensive of a modern, vibrant artist.  

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Retired museum curator Elspeth King recalls working with Gray for a People’s Palace exhibition in 1977, and the pushback received at the suggestion of working with a modern artist: “This was a tricky proposal. Living artists working in museums was not an idea that would be welcome in Glasgow, where good artists were dead artists. Even the Scottish National Portrait Gallery did not collect or commission portraits of living Scots before 1982, as to earn a portrait there, the subject had to be judged by history and safely dead.” 

It's not the film that failed Gray, it’s Scotland’s tenuous relationship with the arts. It took a Greek director with a trusted track record to find Gray’s novel and be inspired enough that we even find ourselves talking about such things. Like many Scottish artists, perhaps Gray didn’t get his flowers while he was still here, but it should serve as a bitter lesson rather than manifesting as a perceived injustice.