As a cultural phenomenon, Fifty Shades Of Grey is fascinating. The first book of E.L. James’ pseudonymously written BDSM trilogy—first conceived as Twilight fanfic, then revised and self-published, then picked up by Knopf for wide release—has become a record-breaking international bestseller. It’s drawn fury from a wide variety of quarters: from conservatives because it’s kinky smut, from smutty kinksters because its understanding of consent and “safe, sane” BDSM protocols is nonexistent, from literary fans because so much of it is clumsily written. Rarely have so many bishops and dominatrixes come together to virulently condemn the same property. But the trilogy is also fascinating because of what its meteoric rise and cultural saturation says about America’s still deeply problematic relationship with sex: Even though sexual fetish is used in advertising to sell everything from cars to food to clothes to toiletries, it’s still strangely rare to see it used to sell sex. Fifty Shades became a phenomenon fed in part by its own popularity—the more it sold, the more it drew in gawkers who just wanted to see what the big deal was—but in part because its ubiquity drew in the vast audience of people, especially women, who’d simply never been exposed to graphic erotica or kink before. Especially not as something deemed socially acceptable and mainstream.
The film version is fascinating in its own way, in part because it’s clear the gawker wave is still expanding—the film is already poised to break first-week ticket-sales records—and in part because it’s clearly been designed as a corrective, simultaneously addressing the concerns of the prudish, the BDSM cognoscenti, and readers who like their sex-books a little less weighed down with constant references to an “inner goddess” who tends to react to new sexual stimuli by, direct quote from the book, “doing the merengue with some salsa moves.” As a balancing act between personal sexual fantasy and widely accessible blockbuster, the screen adaptation of Fifty Shades is endlessly discussable, and will no doubt sow the seeds for months of cultural conversation.
Pity it isn’t nearly as interesting as an actual movie.
Like the book, Fifty Shades follows shy, klutzy, virginal college senior Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) as she meets and captivates ridiculous fantasy figure Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a haunted, handsome, commandingly self-assured young self-made billionaire bachelor with a tragic past. Christian fixates on Ana’s vulnerability and wants more than anything for them to have a BDSM relationship, but for narrative and dramatic reasons, this means that instead of educating her in a kinky world she knows nothing about, he just wants her to sign a legally unenforceable yet somehow vital contract giving him complete personal and sexual control over her.
Much of the first Fifty Shades movie consists of him badgering her to sign the contract so they can finally have sex—even though they already have frequent sex, including increasingly bondage-driven sex, while she’s still considering the contract. But it will be different when they have the contract, he emphasizes endlessly, while never providing any details about how things will change, what it means to him, or why it’s so important. It’s clear the contract symbolizes a level of trust he desperately wants, but in both film and book, his one-note, repetitive, increasingly high-strung nagging for her to shut up and sign it makes that trust seem inconceivable. Both versions become frustratingly redundant as Ana keeps asking perfectly reasonable questions about the contract and their relationship, and Christian keeps refusing to answer them, in a grinding attempt to turn obscurantism into drama, and repetition into rising action. (That action never does finish rising. See The Reveal for details.)
The film version—helmed by photographer and Nowhere Boy director Sam Taylor-Johnson, and adapted by Saving Mr. Banks co-writer Kelly Marcel—takes deliberate, conscious steps to soothe all the ruffled feathers and make this the sexy soft-core porn everyone can enjoy together. It appeases horrified fetishists by softening Christian’s creepy anger issues, his openly abusive control and isolation of Ana (which has nothing to do with their sex life), and his general malevolence. This is a Christian with slightly more human concern about his lover, and a slightly more ethical outlook on kink. For the easily shocked, the film also softens the sex, which is brief and decorous almost to the point of squeamishness, focused heavily on Johnson’s breasts and her facial reactions. (The lip-biting kink-newbies flocking to the theater for new forms of titillation may be disappointed to find that there’s nothing here they haven’t already seen topped on HBO’s Game Of Thrones.) Literary purists, meanwhile, will probably be relieved to find no voiceover, no constant descriptions of “inner goddess” reaction shots, no endless variations on “Holy crap.” No effort has been made to preserve book-Ana’s interior monologue or the book’s idiosyncratic language, and that alone improves the story considerably.
But there also isn’t much effort to give the film a flavor and visual language of its own, apart from one that makes “fifty shades of grey” literal, with a seemingly endless parade of gray buildings, skies, clothes, and décor. The film’s tone is monotonous and dutiful, with Dornan in particular delivering a performance that veers past “controlled” and well into “unexpressive.” Johnson does better, giving her version of Ana an overdue flowering to a maturity that’s unexpected, but not unwelcome. As Christian pushes her limits, socially and romantically more than sexually, she alternates between raw emotion, coy playfulness, petulance, and openly testing his boundaries in return, all with a sense that she’s trying on new outfits after a lifetime of jeans, and finding them equally frightening and liberating. It’ll be interesting to see how a female audience reacts to Ana being a specific onscreen person, rather than a fill-in-the-blank-with-yourself audience avatar; the pushback will probably be intense, but Ana’s specificity in this adaptation remains one of its few daring steps.
The other unusual choice lies in its perversely un-cinematic storytelling, which slavishly (heh) follows the book’s lack of progress, and thus lacks any sense of tension. It also lacks any sense of emotional buildup as the phenomenally anticlimactic, abrupt ending approaches. A few individual scenes sparkle—the most erotic scene is a visually striking conversation with Ana and Christian, fully clothed, turning contract negotiation into foreplay. (It suggests there’s still a strikingly individualistic, mainstream erotic movie to be made that depicts BDSM as it really is, instead of in this ultra-padded, training-wheels version.) But the progression from scene to scene is plodding and sleepy, and the endless emphasis on the contract—not on Ana’s surrender, which she keeps offering, but on her signature, which the audience has no reason to care about—is maddeningly pervasive. Choosing to ignore any conventional sense of drama, progression, or resolution is, in its way, a memorable choice. But while Fifty Shades Of Grey is a memorable and society-shifting cultural event, it’s in no way a memorable movie.