• Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

Poor Things: Book to Film Comparison

ByLily Brown

Feb 14, 2024

Poor Things (2023, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) has been taking the world by storm, but many are unaware it is an adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name It follows Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), who is brought back to life by Godwin “God” Baxter (Willem Defoe) after jumping from a bridge. Bella’s new brain is that of her unborn child and thus she has no memories and must learn everything about the world anew. The film follows her adventures abroad with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who initially believes he has seduced an innocent girl away from her family and is shocked to discover that Bella is as much of an active agent in their travels as he is. While the film follows the plot and themes of the novel faithfully there are key divergences which that are interesting to discuss. 

By and large, the film is very faithful to the book thematically. Both texts take a similar matter-of-fact approach to sex and desire. Sex is presented as both natural and good, although its darker side is not glossed over. Bella’s commitment to bettering the world despite witnessing its horrors is kept in the film, however some of her more radical beliefs are left out. For example, in both versions, Bella expresses her intention to follow in Godwin’s footsteps and train in medicine. However, while in the film it is implied she will simply continue to work in Godwin’s surgery in the book she becomes a nurse in the poorest area of Glasgow to help those who need it most. Furthermore, the film is noticeably less Scottish than its predecessor, the novel is set in Glasgow and Bella journey is a metaphor for Scotland’s plight for independence. These details are essential to Bella’s character and represent her journey of intellectual and moral discovery, by removing them the film blunts the novel’s critiques.

The largest departure from the novel concerns the omission of Victoria McCandless’ letter. Poor Things, the novel, is written as a collection of documents, reminiscent of Frankenstein. The conceit of the book is that it is being presented to us by Alasdair Gray, who is credited as the editor and who provides a foreword and end notes. Most of the novel is the autobiography of Archibald McCandless (Rami Youssef), which itself contains within it two letters, one from Duncan and one from Bella which present alternate views of their travels. These are where much of the plot of the film is drawn from. Both letters are physically represented in the film, but the dual perspective is not used. This makes perfect sense as the two letters do not contradict each other in terms of the events rather they differ in their opinion of said events, and this difference is clearly communicated in the actions of the characters. However, Archibald’s autobiography is followed by Victoria McCandless’ letter which implores the reader not to believe a word of her husband’s account. Victoria McCandless is of course Bella Baxter. Victoria agrees that before coming to live with Godwin she was the wife of an English nobleman who was horrified by her sexual desires and tried to give her a clitorectomy. However, while in Archibald’s telling she fell pregnant and ended her own life, in Victoria’s Godwin was the doctor she was sent to for the procedure, but he refused to perform it. She then ran away to live with him in Glasgow, where she is called Bella Baxter to protect her identity. She claims that Archibald greatly overstated his own importance in her and Godwin’s life and that in fact Godwin did not particularly like him, and that their marriage was one of convenience for Victoria. She alleges that Archibald invented the science fiction elements as he was ashamed by his lack of history in comparison to his wife and friend and wanted to rend them all like him. The inclusion of Victoria’s letter forces the reader to re-examine what has come before and question how Bella was presented. While omitting this narrative complexity weakens the film, some of Victoria’s critiques of Archibald’s manuscript are incorporated into the text. This is seen through McCandless’ irrelevancy to the plot: the film opens with Bella, rather than him, he is in only a few scenes, and his role in the finale is entirely cut. Whereas in the novel Bella constantly refers to her commitment to marry him, she only mentions it once or twice in the film. At the end her French lesbian lover is shown to be with her in London and the two women sip their drinks while McCandless serves them, a portrait of their marriage far more reminiscent of Victoria’s letter than of Archibald’s memoir. The film therefore reads as what Victoria would have written had she written the same story as Archibald.

Overall, Poor Things, the film, is an excellent adaptation of Gray’s bizarre book, however by omitting the multiple accounts and the more explicit socialist and Scottish aspects, the film loses some of the edge the book had. 

Pobres criaturas, 26 de enero de 2024” by pacogilgon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.