Till Death Do Us Part: Romancing the Stone, Death Becomes Her, and the Romance Genre

Publication year

In Robert Zemeckis's 1984 film Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) is a successful but isolated romance novelist preoccupied with fantasies of the swashbuckling heroes in her books. She is soon drawn into a complicated, exotic adventure involving jewel thieves and a rogue love interest who resembles her heroes only in his looks, not in his loose morals or deceptive seduction. Most critics have seen the film as a satire of romance novels. Through her adventures, Joan learns that the "real world" has little to do with her fantasies, which seem overblown and ridiculous in comparison to gritty crime. However, this reading may be too simplistic and even hostile to the genre. Although Romancing the Stone takes undeniable jabs at some of the excesses and peculiarities of then-contemporary romance novels, it also presents a main character whose embrace of romance novel clichés (e.g., exotic travel, the handsome stranger, the family in danger) makes her a stronger, more independent person by the end of the story. The film ends not with Joan rejecting romance but becoming both a better romance novelist and a happier person by living the tropes she wrote about previously. (17)


Perhaps the most telling character in Death Becomes Her is Isabella Rossellini's Lisle, the woman who sells the eternal youth potion. Guarded over by infamous romance novel cover model Fabio, Lisle is the romance novel heroine of Joan Wilder's wildest fantasies: beautiful, confident, mysterious, perpetually stunning. Yet she is also the antithesis of Joan Wilder's romances, offering not personal fulfillment and growth but an everlasting sameness and public death. Perhaps it is not Romancing the Stone, but this film which serves as an all-out attack on the romance genre, satirizing the ideal heroine of the stereotypical romance and using the socially mandated romantic fantasy of youth, beauty, and love to ensnare. (26-27)


There is another chapter in the same volume which also examines Romancing the Stone and Death Becomes Her: "Romancing the Male Gaze: Erotic Desire and Scopophilia in Romancing the Stone and Death Becomes Her" by Sue Matheson. I have not given it an entry in the database because the focus of that article is on the "visual language" of these films rather than on the relationship between the films and romance novels.