Fifty Shades of Ethics

I have been meaning to write this post for a while, and with the recent movie launch of Fifty Shades of Grey, it is more relevant than ever.

All artists worry about plagiarism, whether it’s ensuring that your ideas are considered original, or having someone else admire your own work a little too closely.  There’s a fine line between drawing inspiration from someone else, and stealing their intellectual property.  No one understands this better than fan fiction writers.  Writing fan fiction can be a great way to keep your favourite characters alive long after their creator has finished with them, but how much liberty is too much liberty?  Most writers are happy to encourage their fans to create stories in their beloved universes with the caveat that no suggestions or plots be directly passed on to the author.

But what happens if a creative fan decides to name your characters something else and turn a piece of fan fiction into a publication… a publication that becomes one of the best-selling books of all time?

Fifty Shades of Grey has become one of the most discussed books ever, and is now famous as a steamy movie.  Most people know E. L. James started her trilogy as Twilight fan fiction, but what they SHOULD be talking about is Stephenie Meyer’s classy reaction to her fan’s success.

I’m not going to touch on the controversial content elements of either book series, though I will say that I read all three Fifty Shades books and all four Twilight books.  In my mind, there is no question that Christian Grey is Meyer’s possessive vampire Edward with an edgier and tragic backstory.  Ana’s admirer-kept-in-the-friend-zone Jose is the same person as long-suffering werewolf Jacob Black, and Anastasia Steele, while possibly the most changed, still retains the gloomier aspects of Bella Swan.

Some reviewers have stated that the two series are “worlds apart”, but there is no denying that the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey have been shaped to match their fan fiction origins.  It would be easy for Stephenie Meyer to be resentful of E. L. James’ success, easy for her to call foul.  Meyer may be shocked, horrified even, by the R-rated adventures James has taken her characters through, adventures that are not exactly in-line with Meyer’s religious and personal views.  Twilight itself is interwoven with Mormon principles and beliefs, from premarital abstinence to forever families, which are indeed “worlds apart” from the violence and sexuality in Fifty Shades.  But despite the media’s determination to get a rise out of Meyer, her responses have remained diplomatic, classy, and warm.

When asked about Fifty Shades of Grey and James’ success (in an MTV News interview):

“I haven’t read it. I mean, that’s really not my genre, not my thing,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve heard about it; I haven’t really gotten into it that much. Good on her — she’s doing well. That’s great!”

When asked about her feelings about fan fiction origin of Fifty Shades (same interview:

“It might not exist in the exact form that it’s in,” Meyer said. “Obviously, [James] had a story in her, and so it would’ve come out in some other way.”

Brava, Stephenie.  Brava.

What do you think?  How far is too far when it comes to the ethics of fan fiction?


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