‘Yeah, but it wasn’t as good as the book’ is one of the most common phrases to be heard when discussing literary adaptations with film fans. So often the argument goes that the nature of prose allows for a richer and more three-dimensional understanding of plot, back story or character’s inner monologues and motivations. But what if a novel has notoriously bad examples of these three things; can it then ever be a good movie?
Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a young virginal English Lit major who has gotten the chance to interview Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) , a 27-year-old telecommunications billionaire. During the interview she is intimidated by him and embarrasses herself, so she is all the more surprised when he begins to pursue her outside of work and they begin dating (kind of…)
It is only after a few dates does she realise his obsession with having ‘control over all things’ and has a literal manifestation in a private playroom in his apartment full of…toys.
Most of the people who have written negatively about the film have really been reviewing the book from which it was closely adapted - especially the dialogue and the cheesy plot set-pieces (like taking Anna for a flight in the glider, or the fact that the parents and the young people speak in exactly the same language – like talking about Anna’s ‘new beau’). But in a way this kind of negativity seems academic because most of the people who are flocking to see Fifty Shades have read the book and loved it, and to attack the plot too much just seems like an easy target. If you want a review of the plot and dialogue then there are plenty of articulate reviews of the book as opposed to the film…
Fifty Shades is a movie about desire. From the steamy Beyonce in the trailer, to the casting of Hollywood beautiful people, to the glamorous loving cinematography of fast cars and expensive suits and crane shots of skyscrapers, the film is clearly about visual pleasure. So with that in mind, the building narrative foreplay from the beginning should culminate in big rewarding scenes of sex – the film after all is an 18 certificate and marketed explicitly as a film about sexual pleasure. Yet, the problem with the film is that these scenes never arrive – the filmmakers are so aware of the giggly naughtiness of the subject matter that by the time the scenes arrives it inevitably disappoints.
Christian as a businessman is so bureaucratic and risk averse that he insists that before they undertake any sexual activity, Anna must sign a legal disclaimer agreeing to everything. In fact, ‘Consent’ and ‘explanation’ are probably the definitive themes of the film. The entire second act of the film is filled with conversations with Christian explaining to Anna what he likes (which feel at times like a expositional sex-education video for schools) and then explaining over and over again about how he only wants it if she consents. There is even pretty funny drawn out scene where they sit down to dinner discussing a contract outlining the different acts which are/aren’t allowed…(this scene incidentally was the only moment in the cinema where audiences were laughing at an actual joke, as opposed to just laughing at the rubbish dialogue).
Unfortunately, the narrative has one particularly frustrating wrong-footing that changes the entire implications of Christian’s sexuality. For me, the film/book should be about the joy of sexuality and intimacy and experimentation, and that even if individual audiences are not interested in BDSM, the implication is that there is nothing to be ashamed of if you are. Yet the author decides to completely threaten this progressive stance by introducing an abusive back story in Christian’s childhood, therefore implying that his sexuality is a deviance that stems from an abnormal experience in his formative years. And even worse, he admits this in a monologue whilst Anna is asleep next to him – suggesting that the audience should know about it but not the women that he is involved in…
The irony to all of this though is that the sex that actually makes it onto the screen is incredibly tame, borderline conservative. At one point he actually carries her over the threshold into his playroom… in order to have missionary sex with her (yawn!).
There is one incredibly welcome addition to the sex scenes though, that is worryingly absent from almost every other mainstream film featuring sex, and that is the use of two lingering close-ups of Christian ripping open a condom wrapper before they begin. This is not only a sexy moment, but also obviously a responsible one and another example of the film promoting safe and consensual sex.
Fifty Shades was inevitably going to divide audiences but any film that is directed by a woman, written by a woman, adapted by a woman and manages to inspire women to group book massive blocks of seats in cinemas to watch en mass should definitely stop being derided with such vigour by patronising men. It’s not perfect, of course, and is probably disappointing a lot of cinemagoers – but will there be any other film this year that captures the collective consciousness of mainstream culture…?