Fifty Shades of Grey | Sam Taylor-Johnson | February 13th, 2015
It’s loved, it’s loathed, and you certainly can’t ignore it. Fifty Shades of Grey, the adaption of E.L. James’ novel by the same name, has been unleashed upon us. This pop culture phenomenon has reached the point of critical mass, and the hype has been put to the test. The book series itself has been largely controversial, garnering criticism from all angles of association. With the ability to interpret, adapt, and restructure, has the translation onto the big screen helped it’s case?
The answer is a resounding “No.” Before I decimate this film, let’s turn back the pages to the beginning of this entire saga. In 2009, Erika Mitchell began to write an episodic fan-fiction titled ‘Master of the Universe’, featuring characters from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. After concern over the use of the characters in such a “provocative” way, Mitchell removed the stories and altered them into their own canon. The concept behind Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele was essentially an embellishment of the already questionable relationship between Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. Bella was an unfettered, sheltered teen who was swept off into a surreal and romantic world by a dark, enigmatic, possessive vampire. Both stories are set in the state of Washington. Sound familiar? The parallels between Twilight and Fifty Shades are extensive, with little attempt to mask them. In fact, both real-world phenomenons turned out almost identical in course. In 2011, Mitchell, now under the pen name ‘E.L. James’, published the book online. The rest is history. Through many different means, the Fifty Shades series spread like wildfire, and thus the backlash came…and with it the opportunity to cash in.
Inevitably, a film adaption of the novel was announced, and here we sit. When you look at the pre-production notes about this film, it paints a pretty clear picture of what was to come. The castings for Ana and Christian almost became a hobby for Fifty Shades enthusiasts, with mock-up posters being churned out left and right. The studio eventually chose Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, respectively. The number one criticism I’ve heard from the fans themselves was that these were “miscasts”, and that X, Y, or Z should have been chosen. The truth is that many of those actors and actresses were approached for the roles, but turned them down. Ryan Gosling, Garrett Hedlund, and Charlie Hunnam, among many others, turned down the role of Christian. I think they made a sound decision. I would suspect that after the A-listers weren’t savvy, the studio went for lesser-known prospects. However, I don’t think Johnson and Dornan are actually the issue here; even Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t have been able to make this screenplay tolerable. The script isn’t just bad, it is terrible. A lumbering, awkward, unnatural pile of words. Having read the source text, I can assure you that the book itself is also horribly written…but somehow they managed to make it worse. This set of graphics from Beutler Ink put into perspective how ridiculous some of these lines sound. It’s almost comical, and much of the theater I was in (including myself) laughed at things that certainly weren’t intended to be laughed it. Once again, it’s even hard to blame the screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, for this monstrosity. I mean, she co-wrote 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, which was a pretty good film. I think the root of Fifty Shades‘ evil is directly from it’s source. Many of the “quotable” lines are taken directly from the source text, and they’re just as ridiculous as they were when I read them. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson is a relative newcomer, at least to film, but her job seems to have been done satisfactorily. But, “something something, polished turds”. There are also a couple visually attractive scenes in the film, but none of them involved any of the kinky sex (if you can even call it that), and none are worth the price of a movie ticket. I’ll also give it one point for Danny Elfman’s musical score.
So, the only last possible draw to this film is the sexual content. It was a possibility, but yet again, Fifty Shades of Grey misses it’s climax. The “taboo” nature of it’s sexual content is questionable, and I’m only talking about the book. Here in America, sexual repression is the status quo. This is the first cog in the catalyst. Fifty Shades is largely targeted at women, and historically women have been subject to discrimination in regards to sexual expression. So then, an erotic novel series written by a woman and targeted to women must be a good thing, right? Wrong. There are so many writers who have already made these points, likely more eloquently than I will, but I’ll try to keep it succinct. BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism) is the main subject in both the book and the film…sort of. At the surface it seems that way, but in reality the character Christian Grey is nothing more than an abusive psychopath, and the author falsely attributes it to BDSM. He ignores safewords, uses alcohol to circumvent consent, and essentially ruins a young girl’s life. This is in contrast to a real BDSM relationship, where trust and consent are the single most important aspects. Christian himself seems to imply that in order to enjoy BDSM, you have to be broken or “abnormal” in some way, which isn’t close to the truth. A couple of studies have suggested that women who enjoyed the books were more likely to be in abusive relationships than those who hadn’t read them, though it’s only a correlation. Ana finds her brooding, broken man and sacrifices her own wellbeing to try and “fix” him. The author falsely attributes this to some sort of warped feminist “female empowerment” narrative, when in actuality it’s saying the exact opposite. So, were you expecting for the sex scenes in the film to be hot and wild? Because they aren’t. They were incredibly mundane, and I’ve seen more connection between two people in actual porn. Ana never seems to orgasm on camera, Christian isn’t shown frontally nude, and I actually think Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl managed to be sexier than this. Whatever mental image you may have built up after reading the books, prepare for it to be destroyed.
What we’re left with is a personal choice. Some readers might be thinking “Well I knew all of these things, but it’s just a fictional fantasy, why be so hard on it?” That’s perfectly fine. I’m not saying people shouldn’t like it, and I’m certainly not calling for it’s censorship…but I am a critic, and I’m here to criticize. The problem with Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t that it’s mainstream, or that its subject is flawed. It’s that it takes all of the aforementioned fodder and manages to still execute it terribly. In fact it somehow made it all worse. The source material, Twilight, looks like Homer’s Odyssey in comparison. Any sort of opportunity to expand or embellish with its adaptation was ignored to aim for the lowest common denominator of pop culture and to generate the highest revenue. Everything about the film is shoddy, wholly uninteresting, and painful to sit through–and not in a good kinky way. If you really want to experience a rich mad-man abuse women, watch American Psycho instead. At least that one is well written, honest, and self aware of it’s one-dimensional sociopath. I have a good feeling Christian Grey isn’t cool enough to listen to Huey Lewis and the News.