Gavin Lundy is the co-founder of Ossian Scotland, alongside Jack O’Neil. Together the pair make documentaries on all aspects of Scotland’s history and culture. Their latest film ‘Poor Things and Alasdair Gray’s Legacy’ brings together friends, former assistants, and biographers of Alasdair to explore his work and the controversy surrounding the removal of Glasgow from the film adaptation of Poor Things.

Last night I sat in a packed cinema for an early preview of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things. Hundreds of Glaswegians surrounded me, all there to see the first adaptation of a novel by Glasgow’s greatest literary voice, Alasdair Gray. A well-behaved cinematic crowd waited to see what Lanthimos would do with Gray’s glorious Glaswegian opus. Glasgow was nowhere to be seen.

As I watched Bella Baxter sitting on top of Godwin Baxter’s roof, watching fireworks pop over a trippy Steampunk London, I must admit it hurt a wee bit.

And here’s why: Glasgow is a major presence in almost all of Gray’s work. It’s that great stock character that towers over and wraps round his writing. It’s reflected accurately but romantically throughout his visual art. Gray’s Glasgow was never dull, dreary, and decrepit – it was magnificent.

The National:

Our city has rarely been celebrated as such, but if anyone can claim to have changed that reality, it was Alasdair Gray. Thanks to Gray, we all get to experience Glasgow through a lens that celebrates its patter-merchant working class, its grand Victorian architecture, and all its unique idiosyncrasies.

But the Scottishness of the film persists only in Willem Dafoe’s accent and in the bagpipes that kick in during one key scene. Instead, Lanthimos has chosen to focus on the universal aspects of the novel.

One of these is sex. Poor Things the novel has some sexual themes - but it is no 1982 Janine. Yet the film renders Bella Baxter’s tourist odyssey as a sexual one. When cinema can feel puritanical, Lanthimos is a nice antidote. To his and his cast’s credit, he has spun some of the thinner Gray threads into more lush and interesting fabric. If not Grayesque, the production design is appropriately weird. The film is more in conversation with the Victorian Gothic novels and the Frankenstein tradition that inspired Poor Things than it is with Poor Things directly.

The result is a triumph of modern filmmaking that takes Gray’s novel in a new direction. It is very much Lanthimos’s Poor Things. It looks beautiful. It sounds fantastic. The performances are memorable. It deserves every Oscar it will surely win. In making a beautiful big weird film, Lanthimos has created a fitting tribute to one of Scotland’s greatest ever creative minds. 

The National: Emma Stone as Bella BaxterEmma Stone as Bella Baxter

But I can’t say I agree with his creative decision to move the setting. Novel and film Bella Baxter both have English accents. I don’t think it would have been a stretch for the other originally Glaswegian characters to have remained Scottish. Indeed, Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef’s upper-class English accents slip back to American a few times across what are otherwise brilliant performances. Would it have been much to have one Scottish actor and a CGI backdrop of Glasgow rather than a CGI backdrop of London? I don’t think so. Then again, I’m just a dafty with a YouTube channel and Lanthimos is one of the greatest directors of our time. 

For those familiar with the novel, Lanthimos has also chosen not to follow some of the brilliant tricks Gray used around narrative voice and point of view. The sum effect of all these changes means that another talented filmmaker could pick up the novel and adapt it straight and come back with an entirely different film. That’s not a bad thing.

READ MORE: Poor Things review: Alasdair Gray adaptation is brilliant fun

The decision to remove Glasgow from this adaptation only hurts because we rarely see Glasgow represented positively (or even interestingly!) in TV and film. Glasgow rarely plays an autobiographical role. If it had an IMDB page it would read: Old New York, Zombie Apocalypse Philadelphia, and Crumbling Corner of Gotham #2. 

That’s not Hollywood’s fault. It's Scotland's. It’s Glasgow’s. It’s ours.

It’s not Lanthimos’s responsibility to adapt our best original stories for the big screen and a global audience. We should be able to do that ourselves. 

The National: Lanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of Poor ThingsLanthimos and Emma Stone on the set of Poor Things

That's what Jack and I’s documentary on Poor Things and Alasdair Gray’s legacy explores - not just the decision to remove Glasgow from Poor Things, but moreover our lack of positive screen presence as a whole. We want to get Scotland talking about what we can do to change that for the better, and have our stories adapted in a way that promotes and celebrates their Scottish roots.

Scotland has a big film industry but lacks the ability or desire to tell Scottish stories. There would be much less to be miffed about if we had a well-supported Glaswegian release every few years. 

READ MORE: Poor Things: Why new Alasdair Gray adaptation is proving divisive

I’ve been a Gray fanatic for a long time now and when I first heard that Lanthimos was making an adaptation I was buzzing, and when I found out he had moved the setting to London and had no Scottish cast I was raging. But that was my knee jerk reaction – and we’re all allowed one.

That feeling inspired me to speak with those who know Alasdair’s work best – and some who were close to him personally. I started the process of making my YouTube documentary in early 2023 when Lanthimos’s film seemed far away. Since then, my thinking has changed. I see now that it’s up to Scottish culture to produce what we can, and that in the meantime any good film adaptation of Gray’s work is a worthy addition to his legacy. I hope Lanthimos fans will pick up the book and discover Gray’s lifetime of brilliant, pure creation. 

Now can we please get a Scottish adaptation of Lanark?

Poor Things is in cinemas from Friday