Donald Clarke: Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

Stephenie Meyer has retold Twilight from the vampire’s point of view. It’s a popular ploy

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

 

Humbert, pain in the arse, pain in the brain. My abuser, my abetter. Hum-bert: the breath closed off by my shuttered lips before they pop towards…

Wait. You’re telling me somebody has already rewritten Lolita from Dolores’s perspective? One Christophe Tison published Journal de L just last year? That really should have been a job for a woman. But go ahead.

Okay, how about a riff on Moby Dick told by the poor blasted whale? Something about trying to live a quiet life amid plankton. Some knowing joke about the whiteness of the average whaler’s flesh. Some ableist gag about that one-legged nut who won’t leave me alone. We may get to the end of the day without somebody actually writing this. Sorry? What? Patrick Ness’s And the Ocean Was Our Sky got there in 2018. Are there no stories left to be retold?

Grey is fanfiction for James’s fanfiction retelling of Twilight that also works as fanfiction for Meyer’s fanfiction for that author’s own work. Someone get Jorge Luis Borges

Such thoughts are prompted by the arrival of Stephenie Meyer’s latest contribution to the Twilight universe. Midnight Sun, published this week, retells the first book from the perspective of Edward Cullen (supernaturally miserable) rather than Bella Swan (mortally miserable).

Not for the first time, Meyer’s career finds itself rubbing against that of her admirer EL James. Early chapters of Midnight Sun were shown to the cast of Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight when that excellent adaptation was being shot in 2008. After writing Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined, a gender-switched version, Meyer resolved to next complete Midnight Sun.

Momentum sagged at the news that EL James, creator of the Fifty Shades spankoverse, was to publish a book titled Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian. “It was a literal flip-the-table moment for me,” Meyer remarked. The Cullen retelling was put on hold. 

The wheels within wheels here would confuse Zurich’s finest horologists. Not everyone knows that James originally wrote Fifty Shades of Grey as Twilight fan fiction. Nearly a decade before Meyer, a teetotal Mormon, flipped the table at James, she revealed herself as a good sport. “That’s really not my genre, not my thing,” she said. “Good on her – she’s doing well. That’s great!” (The Fifty Shades books went on to sell 150 million copies to Twilight’s measly 120 million.)

So Grey, which emerged long after word got out about Midnight Sun, plays like a rewriting of a rewriting of Meyer that pays homage to a then-unfinished Meyer project. Put another way, Grey is fanfiction for James’s fanfiction retelling of Twilight that also works as fanfiction for Meyer’s fanfiction for that author’s own work. Someone get Jorge Luis Borges in the house.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey

It’s tempting for those of us who have never got further than 150 words into writing our undoubtedly terrible first novel to view this as an enormous sublimation of writer’s block. JK Rowling at least published a few successful detective novels before crawling back to the Potterverse. In the unlikely event Meyers and James are wounded by such attacks they can dry their tears with fistfuls of $1,000 bills.

They can also point out that, although it is rare for novelists to revisit their own work from a parallel narrative perspective, there are endless examples of writers taking that approach to classic work from earlier generations. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a model for the genre that has no name. First staged in 1966, the play follows the titular layabouts, glanced at on the sidelines throughout Hamlet, as they circle the action in that familiar source. New angles are achieved. Parodies are attempted. After over half a century the Stoppard play now finds itself rooted firmly in the theatrical canon.

The focus on antagonists reminds us how often the villain is more interesting than the scrubbed-clean hero

Retellings of Hamlet from the standpoints of someone other than the protagonists are everywhere. John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius tarries with the title character’s mother and stepfather. Claire McCarthy’s 2018 film Ophelia stars Daisy Ridley as the unfortunate sent to a damp end by her boyfriend’s anxious dithering. The play is so much a part of the collective consciousness that the reader or viewer need no reminding of key plot points.

Many of the perspective shifts are offered as defence of apparently misused or underappreciated characters. That is certainly the case with McCarthy’s Ophelia. There are dozens of examples where the supposed villain is offered a pulpit to argue for redemption. John Gardner’s cult 1971 novel Grendel allows the antagonist of Beowulf – a hulking “devourer of mankind” – to emerge as a sad outsider who longs for human connection. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, focusing on the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, became a veritable industry when Stephen Schwartz’s musical adaptation hit Broadway in 2003.

Among the most amusing entities in this line is George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers. Published between 1969 and 2005, the books take the antagonist of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days – a savage bully ultimately undone by the title character – across an array of imperial adventures. None of the volumes is a strict retelling of Hughes’s book, but the protagonist frequently revisits his schooldays to pore scorn on the apparently insufferable Brown.

Is anything left? What about a novel telling the story of Jaws from the shark’s perspective?

The focus on antagonists reminds us how often the villain is more interesting than the scrubbed-clean hero. It also points up how often such characters are demonised for everyday differences (though this is not the case with Harry Flashman, who really is a total shit). Much perspective-shifting fiction is in the business of reclaiming the unfairly othered. No book does this more successfully than Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. A prequel rather than a retelling of Jane Eyre, the slim volume, first published in 1966, is a sympathetic treatment of the “mad woman in the attic” who did so much to spoil Jane’s wedding to Mr Rochester.

Drenched in feminism and anti-colonialism, Wide Sargasso Sea, much of which is set in the Caribbean, set the template for a form that allows contemporary writers to tease away at prejudices hitherto under-explored. Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly wonders what the poor female servants were up to when Dr Jekyll was becoming Mr Hyde. Jan Needle’s Wild Wood, a socialist text, stands up for the oppressed weasels in The Wind in the Willows.

Is anything left? What about a novel telling the story of Jaws from the shark’s perspective? “The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail,” it might begin. “The mouth was open just enough to permit a rush of water over the gills.” You’re away ahead of me. Peter Benchley got there first in a book called… Jaws. 

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