Just for a moment, let’s consider the Fifty Shades Of Grey movie without the baggage of its source material. Forget, if you can, the book’s improbable origins as erotic Twilight fanfiction, or the notorious quality of its prose, or how disheartening it can feel that it sold a staggering number of copies while ambitious and challenging authors of any genre toil on in unpaid obscurity. Just imagine that on Valentine’s Day, Universal is releasing a random steamy thriller starring a pair of attractive-but-relatively-unknown actors who get embroiled in some kind of sexual brinkmanship.
Just based on that, isn’t this the kind of step we’ve been wanting Hollywood to take?
Obviously Fifty Shades is arriving amid an unending stream of snickers and eye-rolling, carrying with it perhaps more baggage than any other high-profile film in recent memory. But all that adds up to this being not just one of the most intriguing studio experiments in a long time, but also a film that could be—and I may end up embarrassingly wrong on this the moment reviews start flooding the wire—revolutionary, even good.
First off, ask any critic what types of film he or she thinks Hollywood needs to make more of, and consider how many of those categories Fifty Shades fits into:
- It’s a film aimed exclusively at adults. Granted, it’s not an original work and sequels have already been announced, putting it firmly in Hollywood’s franchise wheelhouse. However…
- It’s the only franchise in which all the reins are held by women: director Sam Taylor-Johnson, screenwriter Kelly Marcel, actress Dakota Johnson, and E.L. James, who wrote the novel. Much ink has been rightfully spilled over the dominance of men in all levels of Hollywood production, and while this material doesn’t have much respectability, it does tilt the scale toward equal representation. Certainly one of the most high-profile films helmed by a woman since (ironically) Twilight is something to cheer.
- It’s a film about sex. This is thematic territory that Hollywood, in its growing distaste for the audience-excluding R rating, has totally ceded to television.
So. High-profile films about sexuality are a rare breed, ones about female sexuality are rarer still, and a film about female sexuality from a female perspective is damn-near unprecedented. This is exciting! Except, of course, for all that baggage, so let’s unpack.
The filmmakers behind Fifty Shades Of Grey are in an interesting position where the material they’re adapting is both wildly popular and a bit of an embarrassment. (For a film that’s as close to a sure-fire hit as you can get, it was unusually difficult to cast, declined by actors who have not otherwise shown an aversion to adult material.) People seem to have taken it as a given that the film will be just as disreputable as the books, but that may give too little credit to the filmmakers, who would’ve undoubtedly been aware of the book’s reputation when they signed on. A bad adaptation of this material would likely be so horrific that it would be a career-killer, so why is it so implausible to think that they’ve been positioning their adaptation against the book from the start? If there was ever a major literary property where an adapting filmmaker could feel free to ignore the spirit of the source, this is the one. So far, that’s what the signs are indicating.
A quick recap for the uninitiated: Fifty Shades Of Grey is about the dynamics that develop between the waifish Anastasia Steele (played by Dakota Johnson in the film) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a wealthy entrepreneur. Despite Steele’s desires, the relationship is sexual, not romantic, and as you’ve probably heard, eventually involves bondage play and submissive/dominant scenarios. Given the book’s origins as erotica, these passages are frequent, lengthy, and graphic.
That material (the apogee of which is an infamous scene where Grey removes a tampon from Steele before sex), while outré, doesn’t really account for the book’s poor reputation. Kinky sex has been in art forever, including critically approved works like Story Of O or Philip Roth’s oeuvre, where The Dying Animal features a far more graphic scene with menstrual blood. The big mark against Fifty Shades is its prose, which ranges from the amateurish and immature to the laughable. (“Oh jeez,” Steele mutters during the period sex.) The characters are thin, the metaphors cringeworthy.
Just as a good book doesn’t guarantee a successful adaptation, a bad book doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie version will be bad. A good antecedent is The Bridges Of Madison County, whose central couple also struck a nerve with readers, making the book supremely popular despite being atrociously written. Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep were able to turn it into something quite sweet. Unlike Eastwood, the filmmakers here are pretty much blank slates. Taylor-Johnson’s sole credit is Nowhere Boy, the fine-but-forgettable biopic of John Lennon’s childhood, while Marcel’s only other screenplay is Saving Mr. Banks. While it’s intriguing that both are coming off of wholesome works, neither offers many clues as to how they’ll handle this material.
Let’s consider what the film version of Fifty Shades would have to do in order to escape the reputation of its source material and work as a movie. It would need to dump the prose, revamp much of the dialogue—starting with Steele’s “holy crap!” catchphrase, which has become a favorite bludgeon for critics to hammer the books—and find a way to depict the sexual material without it overwhelming everything else.
Just by dint of this being a movie, the prose issue vanishes. It is extremely difficult to transfer any author’s voice from one medium to another, a fact that hurts adaptations of, say, William Faulkner, but can only work in the film’s favor here. E.L. James may struggle to depict emotions or interactions, but that doesn’t mean Taylor-Johnson won’t be able to stage them. Similarly, it wouldn’t be terribly hard to rewrite the more egregious missteps of structure or cut the worst lines of dialogue (and never underestimate the ability of an actor to improve a line through sheer delivery; even “oh jeez” could be funny or cathartic in the right context.)
As for the sexual material, here’s where it gets interesting. While the film will certainly stand as a rare attempt by modern Hollywood to make an erotic statement, there have been reports of Taylor-Johnson clashing with James over the amount and graphicness of the sex in the film, with the director pushing for less. The film’s trailer suggests a restrained, even clinical take on the material. Obviously the trailer can only show so much (is it odd that no red-band version was released?), and Taylor-Johnson isn’t doing anything so radical as totally eschewing nudity, but so far the vibe is more suggestive than exploitative, as it would have to be to stay out of NC-17 territory. This doesn’t mean the sex will be chaste or sanitized, but that the focus will be on what it means for the characters, not just on what it looks like. No doubt to the disappointment of some fans, it will be closer to erotica than pornography. The way to remove the “male gaze” issue, it turns out, is to remove the males.
Forbes, meanwhile, writes that the amount of sexual content will be “kept to a relative minimum,” with some of the more extreme material—including the tampon scene—cut. While “relative minimum” could mean anything under the circumstances (one calculation puts it at 16 percent of the running time, which is lower than I would’ve expected, though it depends on how one defines “sexual content”), the report suggests that Taylor-Johnson is less interested in what the characters do, and more interested in what those actions mean. In turn, that indicates a director who is interested in the themes suggested by the premise—issues of class, harassment, power dynamics, and sexual violence, all of which would be unquestionably worthy of exploration even without their ubiquity on the front page—but who otherwise has little use for the source material. (Incidentally, among the many salient points in this Entertainment Weekly piece is a convincing argument for the book as a feminist document.)
Again, this is all speculation, and it may well turn out that the film is every bit as ludicrous as the book. But there are a lot of ways this material could go, and there’s precedent for quality in most of them. We’re in something of a golden age for strong work coming from unlikely sources (while it isn’t exactly the same, remember how skeptical everyone was when Hannibal and Fargo were announced?), and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise if Taylor-Johnson adapts Fifty Shades in the same way Paul Verhoeven adapted Starship Troopers, using a maligned source as an unlikely vessel for subversion.
The origins of the Fifty Shades movie are ultimately meaningless. These kind of themes can be told poorly, as in the Fifty Shades book, or they can be told to devastating effect, as in Last Tango In Paris. A year ago I was dubious that a film with Species’ logline could be a thrilling and profound meditation on humanity, but then Under The Skin came out and laid waste to that skepticism. Art has been spun from trash before, and it could be spun here. It just comes down to the telling.