First, an origin story: Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a work of Twilight fan fiction, written by a woman who used the very Westeros-esque pen name "Snowqueen's Ice Dragon." Now, I had lunch with a friend yesterday who had no idea what fan fiction was—it's an enormously popular subculture, but a subculture all the same—so allow me to explain. Most TV shows, movies, books, anime—pretty much anything with characters in it—have corresponding fictions, written by fans. Some of it is good and some of it is terrible, just as you might expect. Lots, but not all, fan fiction is romantic in nature—sometimes actual couples are given new adventures beyond the screen, sometimes new couples are created (the subculture has many subcultures, but we'll get into "slash" fiction some other time…). Many of those romantic fictions contain what, in fan fiction parlance, is called "smut." The smut you see in fan fiction can get pretty graphic but it's been totally normalized by the subculture. Nobody is shocked by an explicit sex scene, in fact, it's expected. One can speculate as to why fan fiction pornography is so popular. There's the obvious: People like sex. And then there's a second theory: Our mainstream popular culture has become so prudish, people are seeking out sexual narratives in other formats.
But here's the rub: Fan fiction is stealing, in a way—that is, you're taking somebody else's characters and making them your own. But most TV shows and movies don't mind the embellishment because:
- Nobody profits off fan fiction.
- If you did, your ass, rightly, would get sued.
Which brings us back to Snowqueen's Ice Dragon. I guess she realized she had something going with her Twilight fan fiction—it was wildly popular—so she decided to alter it just enough so that she could profit off it without getting sued. She gave herself the hilariously hifalutin penname E.L. James—and Fifty Shades of Grey was born. Mainstream novel buyers were scandalized—and enthralled—by the book's smut. Fan fiction readers gave a collective shrug. Really, all James did with her book was take a subculture and bring it to the mainstream. Hey, long live capitalism.
Turning Edward the vampire into Christian Grey, the bondage-loving billionaire was a bit of a stretch, but as I watched the film adaptation of James' novel, I saw amusing overlaps. Like Edward, Christian (James Dornan) becomes obsessed with a girl—in Twilight's case the adorably clumsy Bella; in Fifty Shades' case, the winsome and virginal Anastasia (Dakota Johnson). Like Edward, who has acquired 200 years worth of ennui, control freak Christian is not used to having all these feelings. And, like Edward, he has a nearly extrasensory perception when it comes to his beloved. Edward used his super vampire powers to track Bella at all times; Christian uses a combination of his wealth and connections and an almost preternatural ability to read Anastasia's body language (his most vampire-y trait), to keep tabs on her. In both cases, the men's fascination with their object of desire would be way creepy (and possibly criminal) if they weren't, well, incredibly, incredibly good looking.
The funny thing about Fifty Shades of Grey is that it actually gives more agency to Anastasia than Twilight ever gave to Bella. Bella fell for Edward and allowed herself to be totally subsumed by him, never doubting that she wanted to become a vampire. Anastasia, on the other hand, isn't quite as sure she wants to be part of Christian's dark world.
That being said, this is really the same old story we've seen in romance novels many times before, just sexed up and updated for modern times. He's worldly; she's innocent. He's sexually experienced; she's a virgin. His wealth is the stuff of fantasies—spontaneous helicopter trips, clothing that he buys for her, shiny new cars. As is always the case in these fantasies, his taste is exquisite (why is it that they never seem to hook up with billionaire schlubs in these things?). Not since Richard Gere in American Gigolo has one man so lovingly color-coordinated his ties. (Although, in Christian's case, he has a few other ideas for those ties…).
My problem with the film's sexual politics is this: Since Anastasia starts the film as a virgin—God knows she doesn't end that way—she really has no idea what she likes. All she knows is that this new beautiful, glamorous man in her life wants to tie her up and spank her. In the end, the fantasy is one of fulfilling his desires, not hers. She hasn't gotten her sexual bearings enough to know if her tastes run toward the kinky.
Still, the film's explicit addressing of dominants and submissives is kind of refreshing. In the film's best scene, Christian and Anastasia sit across from each other in his boardroom, negotiating the terms of his sex contract. Line by line, they go through the contract, as though they are discussing a corporate takeover. (Much as I loved that scene, it also highlighted one of my qualms with the film: Anastasia seems to veer wildly from wide-eyed ingénue to savvy dealmaker from scene to scene.)
A lot has been written about the fact that, judging by their stiff, cold body language on the press tour, Johnson and Dornan quite possibly hate each other. You can't tell in the film. The sex scenes are, frankly, beautiful—art directed sumptuously, with so much sleek, toned flesh and gorgeously arched bodies, they reminded me a bit of Calvin Klein ads (it's no coincidence that Dornan used to be a Calvin Klein model.) Are they sexy? Well, sure, insofar as beautiful people getting naked as cameras linger on body parts, curled toes, and writhes of ecstasy is always sexy. But they have no real blood, no heat. Partly, that's the nature of the beast. In this kind of sex, one person is a fairly passive participant. Anastasia is acted upon, she's not the orchestrator of her own desire.
Both actors are quite good, especially Johnson, who has to negotiate all those shifts—tentativeness, assertiveness; lust, revulsion—and does so quite ably. She bites her lip about a dozen too many times for my taste, but it's clearly written into the script. ("You know what that lip-bite does to me," Christian says.) And her dewy, fresh-faced beauty is absolutely perfect for Anastasia. As for Dornan, his Christian is inscrutable, intentionally, hiding all sort of dark secrets that led to his sexual perversions and inability to sustain a relationship. Gorgeous as he is, I felt he was a bit too boyish looking for the part—more hot pizza boy than billionaire mogul with a den of iniquity (a little scruff might have gone a long way in this department). Still, he looks at Anastasia with appropriate hunger and wounded pride (why can't she understand me??) and lord knows he takes off his shirt like a champ.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson deserves praise. Fifty Shades of Grey is way better than it has any right to be, especially when it has to contend with howlers from the book like Christian's "I'm fifty shades of [screwed] up." In the end, the film is a slick and silly fantasy romance, not totally unlike the kind Adrian Lyne (9 ½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction) used to make back in the '80s. It's about as explicit as an R-rated film can be these days. But if you want real smut, you'll have to read the fan fiction version instead.