Oscars 2024: Poor Things and the Female Bildungsroman

‘Poor Things’ has been nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category at the Oscars 2024.
Oscars 2024: Poor Things and the Female Bildungsroman

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) and Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) are having a lover’s spat. “Bella, you are losing your adorable way of speaking,” Duncan remarks because she can communicate in full sentences now. Bella responds with a dry comment: “You are in my sun.” It’s a fair rebuke when you consider the man is a bit of a pill, blocking her sunlight when she is reading, and his infatuation with her appears to be directly proportional to how much he can control her. 

Based on Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel, Poor Things is about a woman named Bella Baxter who has an unborn foetus’s brain implanted in her by Godwin Baxter, a revered surgeon. Bella is sharp and instinctively curious, quickly discovering her own sexuality and pleasure. 

Bella left Godwin Baxter’s home to accompany Duncan on what is essentially a sex trip before Godwin and McCandles could trap her in an ironclad nuptial contract. But during the trip, Duncan is intimidated by her curiosity, as without her socialisation into gendered notions, she is liberally seeking to assuage her sexual needs, and spouting frank remarks at dinner tables. These actions cut at his ego, which is inflated to a megalomaniacal degree, and he is constantly trying to monopolise her attention. In a flurry of panic, he even proposes marriage, only to be relayed that Bella is already engaged, and is only having fun with him before she returns to her life in London. Their quests for freedom and control are chafing at each other, and in his screenplay, Duncan’s ridiculous imposition on Bella to not read, or socialise, is expressed with jibes that are wicked (and fun), and double as admonishments and pleas. 

Talking about the difference between the novel and the approach taken in the screenplay, Tony McNamara, who has previously collaborated with both Stone and director Yorgos Lanthimos in The Favourite (2018), said, “All the men tell Bella’s story. And then 700 pages later, she tells her story for two pages, and it’s nothing like anything the men said. So that was one of the keys: This is a movie about a woman and all the people who try to control her body, her ideas, her experience of life.” 

McNamara reworked the text to empathetically present Bella’s insatiable curiosity for the outside world as a virtue, but also laced the script with outrageously fun dialogues like, “To get a sexual response from my body, would take the same amount of electricity as North London” (this one’s said by Godwin Baxter), and “I have become the very thing I hate. The grasping succubus of a lover” (reader, meet Duncan Wedderburn). 

Poor Things can dangerously come close to only vindicating the male fantasies around Bella. But, it is self-admittedly trying something feminist, and it is a delight to see Bella set off on a journey where she is able to buy tarts in Lisbon — more than the quantity Duncan allowed her to have; dance with avant garde movements in a fancy restaurant without feeling an ounce of self-consciousness (she is still getting used to her body); and tell Duncan off when he resorts to name calling her (he calls her “monster”, “devil” and “whore”; she calls him “sweary” and “weepy”). Here is a protagonist who wears her openness to adventure on her sleeve, and brazen about how she wants to go about it. What’s not to love about that?

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