January 17, 2024 - 1:10pm

“What she has…is this power of freedom. And that is scary to people at times”, director Yorgos Lanthimos said recently of his latest film. Poor Things is adapted from Alasdair Gray’s novel, and features as its protagonist Bella Baxter, wonderfully played by Emma Stone. She is the Frankenstein-like creation of Godwin Baxter — a clear reference to William Godwin, father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Interestingly, Godwin is less the stereotypical mad scientist usually found in science fiction, and more a rationalist humanist who sincerely believes in the power of science to improve the conditions of human life. 

The film is obviously inspired by Shelley’s novel which, as its original subtitle suggests, was inspired by the Prometheus myth. The great classical tragedian Aeschylus, in his chef d’oeuvre Prometheus Bound, told the quintessential version of a story that has resonated across generations in Western culture. The titan seized fire from Olympus, gave it to humanity so that it could learn the practical arts just as it was threatened with annihilation by Zeus, before he was punished by being chained to a rock in the Scythian mountains. Throughout his ordeal, Prometheus maintained his adamantine defiance, never apologising for his transgressions against the divine order.  

Prometheus is usually associated with the triumphs of technology and industry. For radicals, from Shelley and her husband Percy to Karl Marx, Prometheus also represented humanity’s innate yearning for freedom and agency: for self-emancipation against tyranny, for rebellion against established authority, and — like John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost — even open sedition against the sovereignty of the divine. The Frankenstein iteration of this myth remains compelling because it speaks to the dialectic of modernity: the promise of a man-made future, of man’s mastery of natural forces through science, and the horrors that can inadvertently arise from crossing boundaries which shouldn’t be crossed. 

Bella Baxter, in a subtle way, is a modern Prometheus, her existence a rebellion against nature. Her brain is that of a baby, inserted into the head of a recently-dead woman, and yet she lives. In a struggle for her personal liberty and independence from her “God”, as she calls Godwin Baxter, she gains self-consciousness. 

The primary form this takes in the film is sexuality. What is refreshing about Lanthimos’s approach is that Bella isn’t punished for her promiscuity as might happen in a morality tale, nor is she condescendingly portrayed as merely acting out of a past trauma. Her taking multiple lovers is an expression of her increased self-mastery, not its opposite, and soon afterwards she becomes more socially conscious. 

During her stint at a brothel, she proposes that a prostitute should pick the customer she wants to sleep with, and then starts applying Godwin’s rationalism to society. That is, there are always new methods of doing things and society should strive towards doing things in a better way, if such a way exists. 

Among the turning points in Bella’s odyssey is her encounter with poverty in Alexandria. She naively tries to give starving people money, only for it to be stolen by a couple of grifters. Yet her devastation derives from her realisation that poverty is man-made. In other words, a product of how society is organised that can be changed through collective human intervention. 

Prometheus, in the words of Karl Marx, “is the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar”. Prometheanism is now often chucked around as a slur by environmentalists to mean pointless industrial “productivism” which ravages the earth. But the point of the legend often missed is humanity’s long struggle for freedom against natural and social fetters. We need more Prometheanism, then, not less. In this sense, Poor Things should be welcomed as a shameless ode to Promethean creation and Dionysian hedonism.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.