The Poor Things Problem

A new documentary focussing on the legacy of renowned Scottish author and artist, Alasdair Gray, and his book Poor Things, has just been released. Watch it below.

It comes as the critically acclaimed adaptation, by director Yorgos Lanthimos, of the novel, approaches its theatrical release on the 8th December in the US, and the 12th January in the UK. The film has already received critical acclaim, having won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and is now being tipped to win Oscars.

Despite the novels Glasgow setting, the Hollywood adaptation features no Scottish actors in the main roles, isn’t set in Glasgow, and wasn’t filmed in Scotland. It would be like taking Joyce out of Dublin, Allen out of New York, Dicken’s out of London or Amy Tan out of San Francisco.

The documentary from Ossian Scotland duo, Gavin Lundy and Jack O’Neil, explores the decision to remove Scotland from the film adaptation of Poor Things, and gets the exclusive take from Alasdair’s close friends and those who are working on preserving his legacy. It points to the wider issue of lack of funding, ambition and connectivity in the Scottish arts.

The pairs longest and most ambitious project yet features interviews from the Alasdair Gray archives’ Sorcha Dallas and Lauren Forde, Gray’s biographer Rodge Glass, and Scottish author and playwright Alan Bissett, and promises to offer a fresh look into Alasdair’s life and work.

Comments (12)

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  1. Jim Ferguson says:

    Wonderful, I really enjoyed watching that!

  2. jim ferguson says:

    Wonderful, I really enjoyed that!

  3. Niemand says:

    Very good watch – the interviewees are really strong and they are given time to express themselves properly. I like the simple style and great song that frames it. In the end it is powerful and evocative and not at all slick and formulaic. It allows the material to speak for itself and elegantly so. There are some minor editing issues.

    I think the documentary addresses the ‘problem’ highlighted in the article pretty well and in the end it isn’t a ‘Poor Things problem’ as they make very clear, as there is nothing wrong with making an adaption that removes it to elsewhere, especially given the novel is an adaption from somewhere else in the first place. The problem is different – why has there been no Scottish version, a version that would very likely be truer to the book? And we are also left with another unasked question – would it be any good?

  4. SleepingDog says:

    A modern writer who fails to learn how to type doesn’t strike me as having a massive intellect, and the blurring of personal and working space seems unprofessional to me. There emerges a picture of unhealthy cultiness, ripe for exploitative behaviours.

    What kinds of people can readily answer the question of who is their favourite Scottish author/artist, and what kinds of people cannot? The obsession with rank is kindred to cult of artist and elevation of privileged voices.

    We did Lanark in school, a novel that didn’t leave much lasting impression, I read some of Gray’s short stories, but didn’t feel inspired to read more from the author. Who possibly wrote the kinds of science fiction loved by people who don’t like science fiction (of which I’ve read a great deal). As to his art, there are many Scottish comic book artists whose work might be more popular, but aren’t fêted by the literary crowd (an overrepresentation of male artists nonwithstanding).

    Why wasn’t even one critic of Gray included in the documentary, which bordered on hagiography, and therefore might not meet broadcast standards in the UK (such as they are), nor UK academic standards (such as they are)? I would be concerned that the hints that Gray’s work are largely inaccessible, obscure and heavy work are hiding a much bigger problem. A lot of writing doesn’t stand the course of time well; but ambiguity can let readers project their own gloss on works, and use them as literary insider touchstones. Maybe this is a reaction to sitting through a 53-minute advert, but the question of instrumentality (how Gray’s work and legacy will be used by these people, and the Scottish Independence movement) remained alloyed with the critical evaluation of the work (not least in promoting Glasgow to the wider world). As if the most important function of Gray’s canon was how it acts as a Selfie, a flattering mirror, a way for others to bask in reflected glory.

    What the documentary failed to do was make me want to read Poor Things or any other of Gray’s work, not a result I was necessarily expecting.

    1. Hi Sleeping Dog – I don’t think typing is a pre-requisite to intellect, is it?

      As for there not being critics of Gray in the documentary, I think kit was a short to look at the issue of the relationship between the book and the film, rather than a comprehensive assessment of Gray’s work. Recommend you read Poor Things, its very different from Lanark.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Editor, the way the documentary reported Gray’s aversion to computers, as a ‘more complicated kind of typewriter’, suggests an inability to mentally model technology. Maybe Gray had other reasons to avoid typing, but that was the only one given. Of course, getting someone else to do your typing is typical of domestic forms of elitism and hierarchy.

        Incidentally, I’m somewhat familiar with diverse traditions of socialist art, and Gray’s graphic work does not look socialist to me. For some very apparent reasons.

        Anyway, it looks like I will have to read Poor Things at some point, but it’s very far down my reading order today.

        1. Alasdair Angus Macdonald says:

          What a sour and cavilling couple of posts.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Alasdair Angus Macdonald, I’m injecting some balance. If you have substantive points of disagreement, feel free to raise them. I’m not saying Gray was a bad writer or artist, I’m questioning whether fandom is the appropriate lens through which to view the relevance of his works to Scottish independence. I find ‘literary’ science fiction can often be dreary and pretentious (the movie equivalent would be the abominable but critically-acclaimed Alphaville), and I can be both subjective and objective about that (I recognise that some science fiction was written obscurely to confuse political censors, for example). You can find examples of socialist art in handy collections like Taschen’s Chinese Propaganda Posters, say. The works should stand by themselves, not on the construction of an artist’s reputation.

            Where I do agree with Gray, in the documentary, is in his statements about the falsity of art. Too often Bella’s articles have adopted an entirely fictitious ‘poet-as-truthteller’ stance. I respect Gray’s more honest comments on that topic. Of course, much of the story of art has been about making stuff up and embellishing myths, Adam and Eve and all that. I suppose that was a major reason behind socialist realism. I’ve written elsewhere about my opposition to the cult of the artist, so I’m not picking on Gray here.

  5. Monica says:

    Hello Sleeping Dog, I’d love to let you lie, but please look back objectively at what you wrote. Does it really matter at all if the man chose not to type?!? Really? We could explore the left/right side of brain, etc., but let’s not. ‘The blurring of working & personal space seems unprofessional’ if that is so, was it not his life to live, and for those around him to accept or reject? You seem to have been unreasonably affected by a poor experience of Gray’s work when you were younger. It looks like this has influenced your opinion on Gray, his work and this documentary, whose makers have every right to frame it how they choose. British/academic standards!!! Sorry. I hope you find out one day that, whatever you think of this documentary or his method and work, Alasdair Gray was a great human, with intellectual and artistic generosity that would put many practitioners to shame.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Monica, I think I made reasonable points. I am not sure why you demand objectivity from me but not from the documentary? I don’t agree that we can split humanity into ‘great humans’ and ‘not-great humans’, and I’ve spelt out my objections to this so often no doubt the repetition risks being tiresome. At least you are not accusing me of prejudice, but I think you lack reasons to think I’m being unreasonable. As I wrote, I might well try to read Poor Things sometime this coming year.

      If I recall my reaction when watching the documentary correctly, I picked up on a sense that Gray’s work was often obscure, ambiguous, difficult and/or open to interpretation, and this opens the door to readers projecting their own desires upon it. If they like the result, it’s a kind of self-love, and this drives a lot of fandom (and fan fiction) today. My view on this is that it is often a little toxic and superficial.

      In essence, I am not concerned so much about the persons of creative people but the personality cults that surround them. There was even more than a suggestion in the documentary that Gray played into this kind of personality cult with his own eccentricities, but this may have been for reasons such as simple shyness or whatever (I don’t really care). What I do care about is that reputation- and ‘talent-management’ is a driver of inequality which is manipulated by gatekeepers. Gray may have deserved his success, but the system is open to criticism of inherent unfairness, and indeed mythologisation (as nations need their heroes).

  6. Donald Anderson says:

    Aboot time!

  7. Donald Anderson says:

    No surprise there then, giving Alasdair’s republican politics. English Chauvinism and cultural Imperialism is as alive and well as it ever was. Kelvingrove Museum refused to give him an exhibition, saying he was “unreliable” and drank too much. This was disputed by Elspeth King, whom Labour sleekitly removed from the Poples Palace, after she and assistant, Michael Donnolly, had to reapply for their positions. Elspeth went onto win awards (against the usual Unionist opposition for her work in the excellent Smith Museum Stirling’s Smith Museum. Lord Jack McConnoll’s wife was given the lucrative post of Head of Glasow’s Museums and Leisure, leaving the well-ordered and catalogued exhibits a mish mash

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