The idea for this essay started with a question: what is it about Twilight and its derivations, especially Fifty Shades of Grey and Transcendence, that allow these variations to represent “fresh” and “new” in the retelling? I’m not interested in whether these books are good or bad, nor am I concerned with their relative value and benefit/detriment to readers. I’m just interested in the possibility that the very familiarity of the tropes and archetypes might provide a foundation that puts a spotlight on the points of differentiation and adaptation, and this is an exploratory essay, not a polished work with clear conclusions. Also, please expect spoilers.
It should come as no surprise that Bill Condon, who directed the two-part film version of Twilight: Breaking Dawn, is now working on a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. Condon likens Part 1 to Bride of Frankenstein, and from the first book in Meyer’s series, Edward’s references to himself as a “monster” makes the connections to both horror and romance, to Frankenstein, Dracula, and Beauty and the Beast (from the 18th C version on). Edward’s “making” by Carlisle, his attempt to live on his own, his ultimate return to Carlisle and Esme and their unconventional but nonetheless functional family structure, and his heartbreaking love for Bella (“La Belle,” aka Beauty) — the echoes back to Beaumont, Shelley, Stoker, et al. are clear.
Both Fifty Shades and Transcendence utilize these literary connections, as well, especially the Beauty and the Beast fairytale. All three stories offer superficially similar “beauties” and superficially different “beasts,” even though they all demonstrate a controlling nature, opacity to the heroine’s understanding, and the mission of guiding the young heroine with long brown hair into a disorienting but potentially satisfying new reality (a common romantic trajectory).
Twilight, Fifty Shades, and Transcendence: Superficial Differences
On the surface, the three books seem pretty different. In Twlight, a high school girl goes to live with her father in a small Washington town, feeling awkward and isolated, especially after discovering the beautiful Edward Cullen. Despite Bella’s belief that she is just an ordinary girl, Edward the vampire is hopelessly attracted to Bella, and though he tries to keep his distance, the two quickly become romantic friends, not sexually involved but clearly romantically bonded. One of the biggest conflicts in the first book is fueled by Edward’s fear that he will not be able to resist Bella’s blood with his ‘monstrous’ vampirism, while Bella ultimately wants to be turned so that she will be able to stay with Edward forever.
Edward’s character is re-written as a young and eccentric Washington billionaire in Fifty Shades, while Bella is aged a few years into an awkwardly innocent college student Ana who falls for Christian, who is immediately attracted to Ana but is afraid that he will not be able to resist ruining her innocence with his ‘monstrous’ need for sexual control and punishment of his partner. Ana, like Bella, is a virgin who has never been in love with a man before, although Bella is a slightly more ambivalent about Christian, choosing to leave him at the end of the first book.
In Transcendence, Ehd is living in what appears to be a prehistoric period, having lost his tribe years ago, hungry and lonely and hoping to catch a meal when a young woman wearing strange clothing falls into his hunting pit. Despite the fact that he has no idea where she came from or who she is, he is immediately recognizes her as his “mate.” Unlike the other two books, Transcendence is told completely from Ehd’s point of view, although he cannot communicate verbally with Beh due to what the author tells us is the absence of Broca’s Area in his brain. Consequently, Ehd must guess at a lot of what Beh is doing, and the focus of the story from his perspective is on him protecting her from danger, getting her to acquiesce to have his babies, and on their family life and ultimate survival.
Bella, Ana, and Beh: “Beauty”
One of the first obvious similarities between the three heroines is that they all are somewhat pale with long brown hair that attracts the hero. Edward tells Bella that “the perfume of your skin, your breath, your hair” made it impossible for him to stay away from her. Christian vacillates between gently pushing Ana’s hair back and holding roughly on to it while they have sex, and he also makes specific demands that she put her hair up when he wants to have sex with her. Among the very first things that Ehd notices about Beh when she falls into the pit he had dug to catch game is the “shining brown hair that flows over her shoulders and down her back.” One of the ways he wins her over later in the book is by carving a comb so she can tend to her hair, something she had been trying to do with a twig.
Of the three heroines, Bella has the broadest community of family and friends; both of her parents are portrayed in some detail, and she develops a friendship with werewolf Jacob, who serves as romantic competition for Bella’s affection when Edward temporarily removes himself from Bella’s life. We see Bella interact with her classmates, at least at the beginning of the series, although she tends to ignore her friend Jessica as she and Edward become more serious. Beh is the most isolated heroine; because Ehd narrates the story, we literally know nothing of where she came from and who her family is until the very end of the story, and beyond these silences, Beh is, for much of the story, completely alone with Ehd. Ana is somewhere in the middle; she has a roommate who serves as the means by which she meets Christian, and at least one male friend who, like Jacob in Twilight, provides some romantic competition for Christian, but as the book moves forward, Ana becomes increasingly immersed in Christian’s life and routines, and less identified with her college friends and “home” community. She is also the oldest of the heroines, which theoretically gives her more individual mobility, although she does not always engage its benefits.
Edward, Christian, and Ehd: “The Beast”
Of the three heroes, Edward and Christian are the most superficially similar, in that they both possess a power that makes their influence in the heroine’s life extreme and dangerous. Edward’s vampirism makes him literally non-human, and given the fact that Fifty Shades was written as Twilight fan fiction and minimally edited for publication, Twlight’s invocation of Dracula and Frankenstein, among other fiction that crosses into the horror genre, is implicated in the construction of Christian’s own “monstrous” propensity to hurt women during sex (note: I am not referring to Christian’s sexual behavior as BDSM because it is not accurately represented as such. In fact, Christian himself admits that his behavior is a coping mechanism related to his own childhood trauma, p. 315). Christian’s power comes from the magnestism of his economic and business success, and while he does not quite sparkle, as Edward does, like Edward, his own power can make him dangerous to women, including and especially Ana:
Christian sets me on my feet on the wooden floor. I don’t have time to examine my surroundings – my eyes can’t leave him. I am mesmerized… watching him like one would watch a rare and dangerous predator, waiting for him to strike. His breathing is harsh but then he’s just carried me across the lawn and up a flight of stairs. Gray eyes blaze with anger, need, and pure unadulterated lust (p. 253).
In fact, Christian often uses the language of danger to justify the control he seeks to exercise over her life. When he has her car sold out from under her, in order to buy her a new one, he tells her, “’Anastasia, that Beetle of yours is old and frankly dangerous. I would never forgive myself if something happened to you. . . ‘”(p. 190).
Both Christian and Edward attempt to exercise a significant amount of control over the heroines, and both do so with barely suppressed anger. When Bella is almost attacked by a group of men, Edward, who has been watching her, races to rescue her, ordering her into his car with a “furious voice”:
But I felt utterly safe and, for the moment, totally unconcerned about where we were going. I stared at his face in profound relief, relief that went beyond my sudden deliverance. I studied his flawless features in the limited light, waiting for my breath to return to normal, until it occurred to me that his expression was murderously angry (p. 162).
Both Christian and Edward stalk their heroines. Edward stands guard in Bella’s room at night while she sleeps (unbeknownst to her at first), while Christian has a habit of breaking into Ana’s apartment and trying to manage various aspects of her life. Both exert an almost hypnotic control over the heroines. As Bella puts it: “Because when I thought of him, of his voice, his hypnotic eyes, the magnetic force of his personality, I wanted nothing more than to be with him right now (p. 139). Ana often refers to herself as “mesmerized” by Christian, as if under an influence beyond her control. Bella describes her relationship with Edward in similar terms.
Similarly, both heroes feel unworthy of their power and the heroines’ love is both desirable and impossible to them. “’I am no good for you’” (p. 368), Christian tells Ana, while Edward responds to Bella’s desire to be with him forever by asking her: “’Is that what you dream about? Being a monster?’” (p. 500). In Twilight, one of the central conflicts centers on the question of how a vampire and a human girl can have a human-type romantic relationship, while in Fifty Shades that conflict is structured around how Christian and Ana can be together when Christian cannot seem to control his desire to punish her sexually. In Twilight, the stakes of the relationship are more problematic on the physical level (will Bella be turned, and if so, what does that mean), while in Fifty Shades, the stakes are more emotional (how can Christian have a healthy intimate emotional relationship).
On the surface, Transcendence seems a departure, in part because Ehd is the narrator, and thus the filter through which we get the story. While Beh is the most underdeveloped heroine of the beauties, Ehd may be the most developed character, in large part because he is the primary and single storyteller, save for the very end of the story, when the reason for Beh’s existence in Ehd’s prehistoric world is revealed. Also, because Ehd is a caveman, he has the most superficial similarity to a “beast,” which, given the linguistic complexity of his thoughts (more on this later) and his growing feelings of affection for Beh and their children, is at least partially subverted. I say partially because Ehd’s characterization evokes the stereotype of the noble savage, a romanticized image of the man who, outside civilization, shows himself to be more humane than the so-called “civilized” person. The stereotype primarily functions to both Other the noble savage character and criticize (usually) white, Christian cultural values. In other words, it is primarily a product of the white imagination, a simplistic symbol that often lacks human complexity in order to do its work of criticizing “civilization.”
In Transcendence, Ehd’s nobility is communicated in part through the sophistication of his own narration. For example:
There is nothing— nothing in my entire existence— that compares to waking up with my mate curled tightly against my chest. Though I had not realized it at the time, the loneliness had weighed heavily on me during my time of isolation, and now I’m beginning to wonder if I would have survived much longer on my own. I could hunt and protect myself, but the lack of companionship had been slowly destroying my will to live.
Before Beh, I hadn’t thought about the loneliness in such a way. Maybe I just ignored how I felt when I would lie awake and look out into the darkness of my cave, listening to nothing except the crackling of the fire and the wind outside. I only remember feeling empty inside.
Now that Beh is beside me, like she has been for the first part of the spring season, I feel warm and full (p. 85).
When she gives birth for the first time, Ehd knows he needs to “deliver the placenta,” and when he wants to make a knife, he refers to the process as “flint knapping.” The modernity of his language reflects a logical break, both temporally and linguistically, although it gives his character the sophistication that the absence of Broca’s Area could suggest is absent, as well.
Although Ehd’s caveman characterization superficially distinguishes him from both Edward and Christian, he shares their controlling tendencies. Like Christian, Ehd is sexually fixated on Beh. In fact, his first thought of her is that she will make a good mate and mother of his child. As he takes her from the pit and brings her back to his cave,
I take her wrist in my grasp and start walking toward the cliff walls and my home. As she had in the pit, she begins to struggle and grab at my hand and arm. She tries to back away from me, her arm extended as she turns and tries to escape through the use of brute force.
It’s… cute. . . .
She is so beautiful— her smooth hair and her deep eyes and her creamy, pale skin. I don’t like the noises she makes, but she looks to be able enough, even if she is small. I briefly wonder if she is fertile and if she would bear a child who looks like me.
I like this idea.
Finally, after all this time alone, I have a mate (p. 11).
Indeed, the word “baby” occurs in the book a hundred times, and most of those references occur before the two even have sex. Unlike Christian and Edward, Ehd appears to spend much of the novel winning Beh over, which makes sense given the fact that she has clearly landed in his space through some sort of time travel. Also, the fact that we only ever get her perspective through his narration, and he cannot render, let alone translate most of her words, the reader’s sympathies are necessarily pushed toward Ehd, because his mind is the only route into the story.
Similarly, by having him narrate, he becomes familiar much more quickly to the reader than he does to Beh, which functions to secure the reader’s faith in his good intentions, even when Beh cannot. Simultaneously, the strategy almost erases Beh as a character, because her familiarity is inferred through the fact that we know she is likely a contemporary young woman, perhaps even a teenager still, whose likely terror is actually amusing to Ehd, because he has no intention of harming her, at least not within his own conception of the term.
Bringing Together the Old and the New
Despite the seemingly significant differences between Transcendence and the other two stories, there is a deep similarity among the works, namely that they are all investigating the question of how two individuals from drastically different circumstances and perspectives can live happily and in love. The Beauty and the Beast archetype drives all of the stories, although each one refigures the nature of the “beast,” and constructs beauty as both a taming force and a figure who must, to some degree, be tamed by the hero. Ana becomes the sexual submissive Christian believes he needs, while Beh becomes the sexual mate who bears Ehd’s children and becomes attached enough to him that when her father inexplicably arrives in the prehistoric world (in a classic deux ex machina), Beh chooses not leave with him. Bella must accept her own human nature while helping Edward to see himself as humane, even if he is not human (in yet another version of the noble savage myth).
Although Transcendence does this most obviously, all three texts bestow the most character complexity on the heroes, which also follows the fairy tale structure, and if we go back to Shelley’s Frankenstein and the book’s articulated concerns around how science would affect the family and even God (who has the ability and the right to create life?), those questions are definitely echoed in Twilight (especially when Bella gets pregnant in the last book), and while they are not as obvious in the other two stories, if you replace “science” with “society,” the dilemma is not so different. In both Fifty Shades and Transcendence, there is some anxiety around how either gender roles or markers of ‘civilized’ society affect the relationship between men and women. And in Transcendence, there is a point where modern medicine intervenes to save Ehd and Beh’s daughter, not intrusively, but in a way that actually saves the perpetuates their cave family (and, for the reader, the fantasy of this improbable and, for the most part, logically unsubstantiated time travel story).
Without question, all three stories make use of popular genre Romance tropes, from the Beauty and the Beast archetype to the billionaire hero, the brooding damaged hero, the innocent ingénue heroine, time travel, lust at first sight, the nature of everlasting happiness (via the vampire myth), and opposites attract, among others. However, each version of what is, in the end, a pretty similar mythos, highlights a different aspect or builds out a new part or restructures certain aspects of the characterization to ask the same kinds of questions in different ways.
Where Twilight uses the vampire to ask questions about immortality and the nature of humanity, Transcendence (notice the title and its thematic link to Twilight) drastically limits the human experience of its protagonists and forces them to prioritize some of the most basic and mundane human functions and experiences. And yet the way in which Ehd and Beh die together, entwined in their cave, seemingly satisfied despite the pretty limited experiences of their world, there is an intimation of immortality that is emphasized in the book’s final scene, where we see these figures presented in a museum, where they continue to exist.
And like Transcendence, Fifty Shades is largely focused on the hero’s sexual desire for the heroine, but where Ehd and Beh live a somewhat simple life that is complicated by all of the communication and time-difference problems, Ana and Christian have much more complex lives through which they struggle with some pretty basic problems around how to manage the distribution of emotional power within their relationship. There is both a great deal of obvious overlap that may make the differences even more distinctive and affecting to the reader. Still, what deserves more consideration is at what level these differences are being registered — at the level of the writing and/or voice, at the level of the reader’s emotional response, or at the level of the storyline and characterization (tropes and motifs).
Even for those who have not read all three books, the tropes, myths, and archetypes at work in these stories are not unique to these stories – in fact, I’d argue that they are among the best known and used in the genre, and therefore likely to groove right into the unconscious expectations readers have when they encounter a certain story type. And because these grooves are worn by so many versions of the same story, it might be that even the smallest divergence can trigger a reader’s attention in a way that signals something “fresh” and “new” and different. And depending on how any given reader has interacted with text, which stories signal “new” to the reader will be different. That these books all are explicitly connected helps elucidate common themes and distinctions, while also raising the question of how the mainstreaming of fan fiction is helping to shape authorial interests, reader expectations, and genre trends.