Though fond of misdirection and teasing obscurity where his readers were concerned, Alasdair Gray was nothing if not proper about the details of book publishing. Knowledgeable and enthusiastic too. Nerdy even.

Witness the scholarly anthology of prefaces he produced in 2000, covering everyone from William Chaucer to Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Rights Of Women. A pioneer for sex and liberty who once tried to drown herself, Wollstonecraft had a daughter with the philosopher William Godwin who in turn grew up to marry a poet and, as Mary Shelley, write Frankenstein.

So for readers of Gray’s novels, peeling back the onion layers of what’s called “paratext” means negotiating various forewords, whimsical introductions, dedication pages, editor’s notes and gloriously (sometimes gorily) illustrated frontispieces.

READ MORE: Poor Things film review: Alasdair Gray adaptation is wild and wonderful

So it is with Poor Things, Gray’s prize-winning 1992 novel. Purporting to be “Episodes from the early life of Archibald McCandless MD, Scottish Public Health Officer”, it’s essentially the story of 19th-century Scottish adventuress Bella Baxter, a traveller in every sense.

Reach the list of illustrations appended to the table of contents, turn to the one of our heroine (page 45 in your correspondent’s copy), and there she is – a figure in a wide hat and flowing gown, leaning out of a frame on which is written: “Bella Caledonia.”

As rendered by Gray’s pen, Bella looks eerily like Oscar-winning American actress Emma Stone – handy because the La La Land star plays her in the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Poor Things released this week.

It’s directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the filmmaker who was in the vanguard of a cinematic movement known as the Greek New Weird but whose English language films (notably The Favourite, which also starred Stone) have since brought him Oscar success and mainstream recognition. If you wanted Poor Things in anybody’s hands, it would be his.

Frankenstein and the spirit and politics of both Wollstonecraft women – as well as the family name Godwin – infuse his film, as they do the novel.

The Herald: Alasdair Gray. Picture: Colin MearnsAlasdair Gray. Picture: Colin Mearns (Image: free)

In the black and white opening sections we’re introduced to Bella as a lumbering child-woman and, when Ramy Youssef’s medical student Max McCandless is recruited by her guardian Dr Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) to observe her, we learn why. She was a suicide, heavily pregnant and dead from a leap into the Thames when her body was brought to Godwin, whom Bella calls God.

As in Frankenstein, Godwin reanimates the corpse, giving his experiment the brain of her own unborn child so that while her body is fully grown, her mind has to learn and develop.

Which is where the comedy comes in as Bella embarks on a voyage of discovery encompassing travel, food, philosophy, literature and sex. Lots and lots of sex – or “furious jumping” as she calls it in Tony McNamara’s film script.

For his part, McNamara has called the novel “intellectually clever, dark, surprising and humorous … packed with ideas about gender, identity, and even [sic] Scottish nationalism. You’re in this incredibly rich philosophical and political world, all while being tremendously funny”.

But what is excised completely from Poor Things is Glasgow, the city in which the novel was written and where much of the action is set – 18 Park Circus, for example, Godwin Baxter’s home. Glasgow Green, site of Bella’s suicide leap from the spot where St Andrew’s Suspension Bridge stands.

READ MORE: Poor Things: First look at adaptation of Alasdair Gray novel

Lansdowne Parish Church on the city’s Great Western Road (now a theatre), where a crucial plot twist occurs. Or the Necropolis of Glasgow where, the author reminds us, “the three principal characters of this book are interred in the Baxter Mausoleum”. All gone.

Lanthimos was first introduced to Poor Things by a Scottish friend and has long harboured ambitions to film it. In 2010 he even travelled to Glasgow to meet Gray, who showed him around the city and pointed out those key landmarks relating to the novel.

“Alasdair was impressed that Yorgos had taken the time to meet with him personally,” says Gray’s son, Andrew. “It was my dad’s favourite way to converse – walking and showing the city he lived in all his life.” As a result of the visit, the Greek received the author’s blessing for the film adaptation – a blessing which had been denied previous suitors.

Gray fan and former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has stated that she is “curious” to see how a Glasgow-less Poor Things translates to the big screen. Others have been less diplomatic about the loss. Like taking James Joyce out of Dublin or Charles Dickens out of London is the opinion of appropriately-named politics and culture website Bella Caledonia.

Sorcha Dallas, gallerist and custodian of the Alasdair Gray Archive established following Gray’s death in 2019, is more sanguine.

The Herald: The cast and director at the Golden GlobesThe cast and director at the Golden Globes (Image: free)

“I know people haven’t been happy at the fact that it hasn’t been set in Glasgow,” she says.

“There’s two things going on there. What Lanthimos has shown is that Alasdair isn’t a parochial artist or writer. His stories are universal and have that universal appeal. That’s brilliant for him and his legacy.

"There’s another question alongside that about why we aren’t investing more and taking more ownership of telling our own cultural stories. But that doesn’t fall on Yorgos Lanthimos. It’s a wider cultural issue we have to speak about more generally.”

Besides, she adds, “if you look at Alasdair’s entire creative practice, he was always interested in creatively responding to things that existed already. Poor Things is a case in point. It’s a re-working of Frankenstein but set in a version of Victorian Glasgow.

“So I think he’d be really interested in this interpretation and that’s a big part of what we do at the archive as well – we commission other creatives to come in and use Alasdair’s material as a source of inspiration and that makes it generative. It doesn’t fix it to a point in time, it makes it a continuum which is constantly being reassessed.”

In other words, the man himself would probably approve.

Poor Things is out on Friday