FIFTY SHADES OF GREY Rises Above its Source Material
DIRECTED BY SAM TAYLOR-JOHNSON/2015
The prose in the novel Fifty Shades of Grey is atrocious. It’s a labored labor of love by an author so inspired by the Twilight novels that she reimagined the fantasy story of lovers Bella Swann and Edward Cullen as a mundane erotic romance tale filled with bondage scenarios. The novel was first posted in an online Twilight forum filled with fan-created re-imaginings of the Edward and Bella romance. Author Erika Mitchell initially posted her stories with the title Master of the Universe using the screen name Snowqueen’s Icedragon and later self-published the works as a book trilogy using the name EL James. The books were a phenomenon and eventually picked up by major publisher Random House. Random House sold so many copies of Fifty Shades, both print and digital, that they gave everyone who worked for their company—from the mailroom to the executive offices—a $5,000 bonus.
In the Twilight book trilogy, kind vampire Edward Cullen becomes enamored with moody teen Bella Swan and involves her in wild supernatural adventures as the two move toward consummating their relationship. Fifty Shades reimagines Bella as virginal college senior Anastasia Steele, a proper young woman who has never known love. Edward becomes wealthy young businessman Christian Grey, a mysterious man who has never been in a committed relationship. The author substitutes BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism) for the vampirism of Twilight. It is a practice Mr. Grey picked up in large part due to a troubled childhood.
Like Cinderella before her, Anastasia gets to escape into wealth and luxury. The scenes where she is luxuriating in Christian’s wealth are just as important to understanding the story’s success as are the erotic scenes of BDSM.
The filmed adaptation of the first novel in the series is a handsome looking film featuring a good turn by star Dakota Johnson who was winning in the short lived TV series Ben and Kate. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson gives the film a professional sheen that helps the film rise above its subpar source material. Jamie Dornan (TV series The Fall) plays Christian Grey and isn’t served well by flaccid dialogue and a creepy role. Christian Grey, like Edward Cullen before him, can’t stand to be without his true love and this drives him to stalk and attempt to dominate her beyond the bedroom.
Christian Grey is psychotic and it’s unclear whether the subsequent films will address how unhealthy his obsession is. It appears that his inability to leave Anastasia alone is supposed to be the height of romantic love. Maybe subsequent entries in the series will redress this glaring problem and give Christian Grey, the obvious villain of the piece, some comeuppance. It’s a common theme of romance tales that a good woman can tame a wild man and help him be his best self, but Christian Grey crosses so many lines that Anastasia should run away from him thirty minutes into the movie. It’s a flaw of the film that what is clearly the story of an obsessed mad man is presented as a romance.
The books became a massive phenomenon in part because they took the somewhat taboo subject of BDSM and presented it in frank language. The film, as well, features several erotic scenes of Anastasia experimenting with bondage, trying to figure out what her boundaries are while she falls in love with the domineering Christian. They are more explicit than the sexual scenes in modern mainstream films where the appearance of flesh usually serves as a humiliating punch line. They are not explicit enough to warrant an NC-17, the modern day equivalent of the X rating, and while novel for mainstream films will not shock most adult audiences.
While the film and books have gained notoriety for their erotic scenes, they are also the story of middle class woman who, through her pairing off with Christian, gets to enjoy how the other half lives. Like Cinderella before her, Anastasia gets to escape into wealth and luxury. She gets to ride in helicopters and live in a luxury penthouse while deciding whether or not to comply with Christian Grey’s need to control her. The scenes where she is luxuriating in Christian’s wealth are just as important to understanding the story’s success as are the erotic scenes of BDSM.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a meandering film with a narrative arc that’s hard to discern. It ends on a cliffhanger that asks “can this relationship be saved”, but never convinces audiences that Mr. Grey is of sound mind and not actually a villain.