Fifty Shades of Grey: Turning a Literature Turd into a Polished Film Turd

College student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) begins a sexual journey with young entrepreneur Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who introduces her to the world of BDSM. After falling in love with him during their time together, however, Ana realizes she wants more than just sex with the emotionally-distant Christian.

(Author’s Note: I’m about to get very “adult” up in here. If you’re uncomfortable with profanity or sex talk, you might want to leave.)

One of the problems I have with watching and discussing the Fifty Shades of Grey movie adaptation is that it’s impossible to separate it from its terrible source material. This makes it difficult when trying to analyze whether or not the film is good, decent, bad, or awful. But I will say this—because the first book was such an eyesore, the film really could not do worse (at least for me, though it’s different for book fans). When you’re already a 0 (Okay, a generous 1) on the 10 scale, there’s nowhere to go but up. Even though it was just a little jump up on that scale (maybe to a 3 or 4), the film was better.

To say the Fifty Shades film elevated the Fifty Shades book’s content is a laugh, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t add some continuity, style, and sympathy to an otherwise pathetic rewrite of the Twilight series (I didn’t think it was possible to make Twilight look good until now). I think a lot of the credit in Fifty Shades being semi-tolerable is due in large part to director Sam Taylor-Johnson, screenwriter Kelly Marcel, and (surprisingly) actress Dakota Johnson. They didn’t fix the deeper problems with Fifty Shades as a whole, mind you, but they added something I can’t quite place that made it less awful.

Johnson in particular was somewhat likable as Ana, who I absolutely hated in the books because she was a shell character (that is, one with little to no personality because it’s easier for readers to picture themselves in her place). Book Ana often came off as dumb, shallow, and bland. Johnson’s Ana, however, was sweet, smart, sympathetic, and seemed to have more agency in her nonverbal actions than her “inner goddess” and “inner monologue” could ever try to possess in the book. Because of this, I do think Johnson (as well as the movie) should get slightly more credit for taking an awful character and making her relatable and human. I mean, she’s not revolutionary in terms of female characters by any means. But again…it’s a step up.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that I keep seeing all of these articles about how the director and Fifty Shades writer E.L. James were constantly at odds about how to portray the book onscreen. I get that James wants some say in the matter since it’s her material (that she ripped off of Stephanie Meyer), but the fact that she had that much creative control when she knows nothing about film is ridiculous. And you can see it, too, especially in that final scene where Ana leaves Christian after she’s had enough of the BDSM relationship. When he tries to follow her, she says “Stop,” the word that James reportedly fought for. Taylor-Johnson wanted Ana to say “Red,” the safe word Christian proposed, as a way to use his own rules against him (kind of brilliant and more powerful, right?).

It’s things like this that makes me wonder if Taylor-Johnson could’ve made a better Fifty Shades film had she not been constricted by James. Or the rabid fanbase of horny women. Yes, they have that much influence. That’s why the cast and crew kept saying, “We have to make it right for the fans.” I both respect and hate that because it means they acknowledge and understand the need for a fanbase, yet it also suffocates their work because they’re terrified of pissing that fanbase off.

Considering what I heard from the women behind me at the movie theater who kept saying “Ugh! It wasn’t like this in the book!” and proceeded to list off insignificant details that weren’t translated to the film, I understand why Taylor-Johnson and her crew just said “Fuck it” and made the film they did. Because no matter what they did, the fans were going to be disappointed.

Another thing that killed this movie (and Taylor-Johnson’s chances of making it better) was the R-rating. At first, I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but after seeing the movie, I’m starting to question whether it would’ve been more interesting sexually had it been an NC-17 rating. Perhaps then we would’ve gotten more male nudity (a.k.a. “female gaze”) instead of Johnson’s nipples and ass for days.

The sex scenes were fine from a filming standpoint. They were artsy (if not occasionally cheesy, thanks to the music selections), but they weren’t offensive or gross by any means. That said, if they meant to “get me horny,” they failed miserably. A movie about “fucking” that’s targeted at heterosexual women should have visible penis if it wants to accomplish its goals. This movie did not (which again proves how misogynistic Hollywood is in its rating system). All I’m saying is…if you’re trying to make me wish I could have sex with Christian Grey, you better show me his man tackle, “come face,” and thrust action (and less “Laters, Baby” because he’s a grown-ass man and shouldn’t talk like that). I saw none of that. All I saw was her body being struck by various items while he stood there in ugly jeans with a bored face.

The lack of chemistry between Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan didn’t help. You can tell they hate each other (or at least what they had to go through together), so it never feels like you’d want to watch them have sex…which was the entire point of this story. Oddly, the only time where I was mildly turned on was the scene where Ana and Christian negotiated the contract. It was hotter than the actual sex because there was sexual tension and more power dynamics than I ever saw in the BDSM scenes. Ironic? Uh, yeah.

But you know what? Maybe it’s for the best that they couldn’t get the sex right. After all, Fifty Shades of Grey is insulting to the BDSM community because it gets BDSM very wrong (since James has the sexual knowledge of a five-year-old, hence her awkward prose describing sexual acts and human anatomy). The BDSM community practices bondage, dominance, and sadomasochism healthily and safely with specific rules and mutual consent. Fifty Shades does not promote that in any way (both in the book and movie).

Worse, it makes BDSM out to be sexual deviance. This comes up when Christian says that he’s “fifty shades of fucked up,” and that’s why he enjoys hurting her (as well as why Ana later “cures” him of his desires in the second and third books). Now that’s truly fucked up. Just because people enjoy BDSM doesn’t mean they’re “fucked up.” I’m not saying there aren’t cases where abused children turn to BDSM in adulthood (like Christian). But to suggest that as the case for the entire community to the millions who’ve seen this movie or read the book—some of whom have little to no sexual education—is goddamn irresponsible. It’s as backwards as saying homosexuality is wrong and a sin because you aren’t gay and it’s not your norm.

That’s enough. I’m tired of giving this more time than it deserves.

Overall, Fifty Shades of Grey took what I consider to be one of the worst books ever written and made it slightly more tolerable (only slightly), thanks to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction, Kelly Marcel’s screenplay, and Dakota Johnson’s surprising likable Ana Steele. But it definitely isn’t sexy. Part of that is the confinement of the R-rating, but the majority of the problem hinges on the film’s source material. For fans of the book, I have a feeling you’ll either be disappointed in it or hate it altogether. Hell knows I don’t want to watch it again.

Fifty Shades of Grey: C-/D+

For my radio review of Fifty Shades of Grey on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 26:21 mark).

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