Monday, March 9, 2015

Respect the Source: Why Fifty Shades Irks Me

Hi all,

Happy belated International Women's Day! Finished with final exams (finally) for the first part of the semester, so I can blog! Going to be flying to India for a week, so will be offline in all likelihood.

 Recently on Tumblr, I found out that a lot of young-adult and fantasy authors post material there; one of my new favorite blogs posted this interesting bit on how Fifty Shades of Grey did well at the box office and on the bestseller list. For those who don't know, Fifty Shades is an erotic adult trilogy about how an ordinary college graduate ends up in a legally binding, non-consensual BDSM relationship with Christian Grey, a millionaire that has better things to do than to micromanage another adult's life. A film version premiered on Valentine's Day this year and has grossed $150,048,805 in ticket sales.
I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey, let's get that out of the way first. While considering it, two separate people that I know and trust instructed me NOT to read it, and it's a red flag when the actors for the film adaptation describe their discomfort with acting out the book's scenes. With that said, I have heard bits of the prose and marvel at how people find it unintentionally funny. Doug Walker and his brother Rob describe that part of the book's fun lies in its terrible writing, and comment on how the actors make a valiant effort at genuinely playing out the parts.

It's not just the fact that Fifty Shades has terrible writing according to my friends, or that it was originally posted as Twilight fanfiction on the Internet and remains 89 percent similar to its incarnation. What troubles me is the sensation that author E.L. James cheated when writing her novel, that she played some sort of a practical joke on the writing world and the publishing industry. As Bookshelves of Doom pointed out, if James had chosen a more "high-brow" young-adult trilogy to inspire her work, like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, she would have received more flak.

Image source:

This sensation did not feel rational; I've written my fair share of fanfiction and enjoy it, and Neil Gaiman has pointed out that no idea is original; Rudyard Kipling inspired Gaiman's Newberry winner The Graveyard Book, and Gaiman wrote a troubling response to the Narnia books via "The Problem of Susan". C.S. Lewis in turn took inspiration from the Bible for the Narnia books, and despite disagreements over how he treated Susan, he does know how to tell a story.       

Matt Anderson and I were talking about the uncomfortable sensation that I got from Fifty Shades's success, from the fact that it was inspired by a troubling young-adult trilogy that disappointed the reader, and he pinned it down: Fifty Shades despite having terrible writing became a success, either because people purchased the book to mock it or to enjoy the more erotic elements. James's trilogy didn't add anything to the book world or to the fanfiction world. She didn't explore a different side of an "ordinary" girl getting involved with an emotionally abusive, powerful partner as Bella Swan got involved with Edward in Twilight, or perhaps even a unique take on the premise that vampires have carnivorous relationships with humans.

Image source:

Fanfiction by itself has a vague definition; copyright laws determine what characters and settings are public domain and what aren't. Many Lovecraft anthologies have filled the publishing world this year, for example, while Sherlock Holmes's copyright becomes murkier. With that said, the best fanfiction tends to supercede the original author's purpose and dive into a new world, either literally or figuratively, while showing knowledge of this strange territory; Hitchups for example depicts how Hiccup's wanderlust in a deviation, combined with loyalty to his dragon, leads him to becoming a different kind of hero that he becomes in canon, one that cannot tie himself to Earth but still needs bonds to his old home. In contrast, later fanfiction that took the same idea of Hiccup leaving before his final examination tread on similar territory, sometimes condemning the characters that stayed on Berk outright or offering minimal sympathy.

I see inspiration as a springboard into a large swimming pool; you take a leap off established solid ground and end up in a flurry of different water, sometimes aching if you did a belly flop. As long as you make your mark, no matter what the distance from the original starting point, then you have the right to call that story your own. At the same time, one must show that we know the starting point's location, no matter how far we've deviated from it, and pay homage to its origin. To do so otherwise, by weak characterization or convoluted plots, shows disregard for your source and for the reader.

Mel Brooks once said that "You cannot have fun with anything that you don't love or admire or respect." Having done various parodies such as Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs, Brooks knows how to make any mockery work and to tastefully cross lines. In addition to parodies, inspired works ideally ought to follow similar guidelines so that  "love," "admire," and "respect" become the key words. One must act to respect original sources, to remember to pay homage to what made the previous stories great.

Image source:

The Graveyard Book won the Newberry Medal because while paying homage to an English classic that barely avoided racism, Gaiman understood the intelligent prose and themes that children and adults craved, about the power of living and facing down evil. Spaceballs became a classic cult film because while mocking Darth Vader's impact it told a cohesive if absurd story about stealing precious oxygen and rescuing a rebellious princess, showing regard for the hero's goals to discover his identity and earn a reward. Even Shrek, for all the original film's bitter blows towards Disney and fairy tales, displayed a belief in true love breaking curses and outsiders finding happy endings. Fifty Shades despite purporting to have "true love" only reinforces the idea that people ought to be in sadomasochistic relationships with no boundaries, which Twilight already portrayed for a younger audience. The setting and characters were different, but the central idea remained the same, and many readers bought it.

If you're going to write because another author's story inspired you, take that leap and remember your original source. Respect your audience's intelligent and desire for a good story. 

No comments: