Tuesday, February 12, 2013

50 shades of differentiation

Let's start with a caveat: I have not read 50 Shades of Grey (but I have read about it to the point that I'm familiar with the plot), nor have I read any of the Twilight books (but I have seen a few of the movies). Ahem.

Now that that's out of the way, let's look at this New York Times interview with Jodi Picoult. She makes several interesting comments, but the one that caught my attention was this:
"E. L. James has been upfront about the fact that this was “Twilight” fan fiction. As a writer, I find it pretty reprehensible that someone who began a story cycle with somebody else’s created characters would go on to make gobs of money off those characters simply by slapping new names on them. Honestly, if I were Stephenie Meyer, I wouldn’t have been that gracious."
I would be more sympathetic with this viewpoint if 50 Shades were more akin to the "Tanya Grotter" et. al. rip-offs that emerged in the wake of Harry Potter. But it's not just the names that are different. It's the plot, too.

Based on my understanding, what E.L. James really borrowed from the Twilight series was a model for romance. The archetype of the wide-eyed heroine and the dangerous, brooding, Byronic hero already exists in The Phantom of the Opera, Anne Rice's vampire novels, and pretty much anything by anyone named Brontë. My only point is that I think it's pretty well-accepted among creative types that we all take inspiration from other works that have intrigued or entertained us.

E.L. James's process may have started with characters named "Bella" and "Edward," but I think she distinguished them sufficiently when she gave them not only new names, but also a new set of, um, preoccupations. Not to put E.L. James in the same sentence as Tom Stoppard, but, there, I already did it. Stoppard's own Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Real Inspector Hound openly reference Hamlet and Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, but even with direct connections, Stoppard's plays distinguish themselves from their source material.

But maybe those are just my thoughts. I'd like to hear otherwise from anyone who's actually read the Twilight and 50 Shades novels. 

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