The Woefully Neglected (and Partially Unfilmable) Creations of Alasdair Gray
Jonathan Russell Clark on Poor Things and Its Adaptation
“Gray’s idiom may be modern, but it embraces many traditional things; not only autobiographical realism, but low comedy, afterlife fantasy, scattershot satire, nightmarish allegory, self-referential metafiction, tender eroticism, lunatic scholarship and profuse literary borrowings.”
—David Pringle on Gray’s debut novel Lanark: A Life in Four Parts (1981)
Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels (1988)
In 1951, the Scottish novelist and artist Alasdair Gray published a short story in the now defunct British periodical Collins Magazine for Boys and Girls called “The Star,” in which a young boy finds the smooth spherical remnant of a falling star in his backyard and carries it around with him everywhere he goes, until one day in school as he sneaks a peak at the star during class, his teacher catches him and demands he give up his treasure.
The boy refuses, finally putting the star in his mouth and swallowing it. Immediately he feels “relaxed and at ease,” and the brief fable ends like this: “Teacher, classroom, world receded like a rocket into a warm, easy blackness leaving behind a trail of glorious stars, and he was one of them.”
There’s a sense of beauty to “The Star,” a faith in the astounding mysteries of existence and a refusal to allow our awe (and our fundamental connection with) the cosmos to be stolen or extinguished by arbitrary authority. Such an attitude isn’t surprising, considering Gray’s biography. Born in Glasgow in 1934 on December 28th, Gray grew up in the gorgeous landscapes of Scotland, accounting for his appreciation of nature, and among the growing movement for Scottish independence, accounting for his distrust of (and even downright contempt for) authoritarian forces.
His postmodern, satirical, fabulist, and class-conscious fiction helped launch a Scottish renaissance in literature and art, and he received numerous awards for his novels, including the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Whitbread Novel Award. His first novel, Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981) is considered a cult classic and was named by the Guardian as “one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction.” And yet, like the boy’s star in the story, Gray seems like a secret miracle, a furtive totem kept hidden by those lucky enough to find it, and any amount of exposure of this talisman to those in charge will risk having it taken away so that we can focus on the banal conventional education of bloodless fiction.
Now, with the release of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, an adaptation of Gray’s 1992 novel starring Emma Stone, Willem Defoe, Ramy Youssef, and Mark Ruffalo, comes the hope that the critical acclaim of the film (and its inevitable run at the Oscars next year) will revive interest in Gray’s work. This would be a wonderful result of someone with Lanthimos’s skill and influence bringing a sadly neglected author into the limelight.
My only concern, though, is that any cinematic version of Gray’s inimitable tales necessarily omits some of Gray’s most innovative techniques, which do more than simply adorn his narratives with postmodern festoons, but add realist weight to his sometimes bizarre stories and also provide comparative context to our own world, so that we can see how the absurd, grotesque, and downright filthy stuff that happens in Gray’s diegeses relate—are, in fact, meant to directly compare—to our own reality.
When literary texts are adapted into film, what transfers over most accurately is the story being told, while what gets almost completely shut out is how that story is told. Some authors, like Haruki Murakami, come up with wild plots that are relayed via relatively straightforward prose; others, like Maria Semple in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, employ numerous means of narration (emails, texts, news articles, et al) to undergird its suburban realism.
Gray often clashes together the verisimilitude of documentation with the eerie fantasy of Kafka, the political commentary of Orwell, and the postmodern brashness of Calvino and Borges. Borges in particular seems to be an apt literary antecedent for Gray, as the great Argentine fabulist also juxtaposed the grounded tropes of nonfiction with stories too absurd or intellectually devious to ever be written in nonfiction form.
Film can reproduce such techniques only so faithfully. Novels narrated in the first-person or in the third- can have those choices rendered cinematically, and some forms used in books can be suggested in a movie, as when a character reads a book and the audience sees a depiction of its contents. But Gray used endnotes, illustrations, typography, plagiarism, self-reference, and the layout of the page to further his plots, to deepen his diegesis, and to make us laugh.
In a conversation with Bradley Cooper for Variety’s Actors on Actors series, Emma Stone describes her impression upon learning about the premise of Poor Things from director Yorgos Lanthimos: “The shortform explanation of that story is pretty wackadoo.” And she’s right: Poor Things takes the form of an autobiography (with additional material and extensive critical notes and even a jokey erratum) of one Archibald “Archie” McCandless M.D., with Alasdair Gray credited only as editor.
The novel focuses on a woman named Bella who, Archie claims, was revived from death Frankenstein-style by the mad scientist friend Godwin Baxter, who replaced Bella’s brain with an infant’s, so that even though she’s in an adult body, she’s experiencing life as if a child. Godwin, of course, created Bella so that he may, as McCandless tells him, “possess what men have hopelessly yearned for throughout the ages: the soul of an innocent, trusting, dependent child inside the opulent body of a radiantly lovely woman.” It’s like a darker, more grotesque version of Weird Science.
Gray, however, grants Bella more agency than Kelly LeBrock’s computer-generated vixen ever got. As Bella develops, her sexual appetite becomes insatiable, and soon with unapologetic abandon she’s having sex with other men, including Archie. Following Archie’s autobiography is a letter from Bella (now going by Victoria) contradicting much of what Archie wrote in his self-published book, claiming that Archie was always jealous of her relationship to Godwin (whom she refers to as God) and “soothed himself by imagining a world where he and God and I existed in perfect equality.”
Bella/Victoria gets the last word on her story, and it is her impression of events that we’re left with. Gray has created a wonderful metaphor for the ways in which men believe women to be subservient to them and the refusal of women to be controlled or treated like property. Bella as a character exists on the same plane as Toni Morrison’s Sula Peace, Erica Jong’s Isadora Wing, Alice Walker’s Shug Avery, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley—sexually promiscuous women whose behavior challenges the norms not only of society but also literature itself, which often employs female sexuality as a reward for a man or as a reason for a woman’s punishment.
All of which is to say that although the plot description of Poor Things is wild and provocative and dirty, it is not the foremost aspect to enjoy in Gray’s novel. The means by which the story is relayed is as central to its efficacy as its basis in Mary Shelley’s masterwork (which is also told via numerous literary techniques).
This is not to say that Gray’s fiction is so inextricable from its written form that any adaptation will fall woefully short of its source, but rather that I hope people who see and love the film this winter will discover that Gray’s book offers more rewards than the ones that are translatable to the screen. He is not merely a teller of peculiar and transgressive tales.
He is also a virtuoso of style, a postmodern trickster who sought to confront his readers regarding their expectations of both content and form. Too many times audiences leave a theater after seeing an adaptation of a novel believing that they had just experienced some approximation of the original, and while sometimes this may be truer than not, in the case of a writer like Gray, it is tragically false.
Writers of the 20th and 21st centuries have consistently responded to the emerging technologies of film and television with innovations not replicable in any other medium. Postmodernism, in particular, combatted the homogenizing influence of network TV and Hollywood by devising techniques and points of view only accessible in literature, which is why so few of them have been successfully adapted.
Like Calvino and Borges and Byatt and Pynchon, Alasdair Gray is a reminder of the pleasures wholly unique to reading, even if Gray is read much less widely than his counterparts. We should be grateful to the authors who kept the spirit of literature alive during the sieges of movies, TV, and the internet. Their tradition has been a beautiful one, leaving in its wake a trail of glorious stars, and he was one of them.