Book vs. Film: Fifty Shades of Grey

It seems insulting to describe Fifty Shades of Grey simply as a book.  It’s one of the most successful intellectual properties of our time, generating a massive revenue stream and commanding extraordinary brand name recognition globally. It was a gamechanger for publishing, eReaders and sex toy manufacturers. It has also provoked a shift in attitudes towards alternate sexuality, pushing bondage practice into the aisles of Target and onto the list of frank discussion topics for the Today team.  It’s pointless now to quibble about the terrible writing, the cardboard characters, the clueless BDSM practice, or the way it showcases an abusive relationship as a romantic ideal: Fifty Shades of Grey is a bona fide cultural phenomenon.

Let’s recap, for those of you who have been hiding under your fainting couch for the last four years. The story began life as episodic online fan-fiction, Snowqueen's [sic] Icedragon’s re-rendering of Twilight as a middle-aged woman’s sex fantasy – Edward and Bella getting down without all those silly vampires and werewolves to distract them from bumping nubblies.  Then its author, TV executive E.L. James, collected it into three volumes, ran a universal ‘Find and Replace’, switching out “Edward Cullen” for “Christian Grey” and “Bella Swan” for “Anastasia Steele”.  In 2011 she published a series of print-on-demand and eBooks through fanfic specialists The Writers Coffee Shop, calling the first book Fifty Shades of Grey to reflect the subtle nuances of its hero’s tortured soul. 

The newly re-titled trilogy wasn’t the only “de-Twilighted” romance on the market, but it was the one that caught fire.  The word of mouth was unprecedented, as women worldwide shared their guilty pleasure with circle upon circle of friends, many of whom quietly purchased an electronic copy for private perusal (it would become the first eBook to sell more than a million copies). Word-of-mouth ignited a media firestorm, with pundits either shaking their heads at the ‘depravity’ of the sex scenes, or expressing amazement that women (women!) could possibly enjoy reading a description of fellatio that included the immortal line, “He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavored popsicle”.

'Fifty Shades of Grey', the movie, shouldn’t be viewed as a separate or oppositional text, but as a brand extension.

Random House imprint Vintage Books heeded the furor and bought the rights for six figures in 2012 (which is when I first wrote about the trilogy and its ramifications for Litreactor).  Ka-Ching! At the end of that year, Random House reported a 76 per cent increase in operating profits and rewarded every employee with a $5,000 bonus. The book has since sold more than 100,000,000 copies around the world, outstripping such previous benchmarks of bestsellerdom in the UK as The Highway Code

While FSOG may have been partly responsible for the explosion of self-published ‘Mommy Porn’ available to married/harried readers on eBook platforms, it didn’t prove to be such a keeper in paperback form – by the end of 2012, British charity shops were reporting a glut of discarded copies (“We have thousands of copies of all the Fifty Shades books, but we've stopped selling them because no one was buying them”).

Perhaps fans, having committed the saga of Ana and Christian to memory, were simply making space on their bookshelves for the merchandising? Inspired by the bondage play in the story, readers bought out existing supplies of anal beads, riding crops, paddles, blindfolds and restraints, leaving many sex shops scrambling to restock.  E.L. James, sensing opportunity, teamed with website Lovehoney for a special range of branded Fifty Shades sex toys. For those demanding absolute authenticity when recreating key scenes from the narrative, she curated a classical music album and turned sommelier, furnishing a specially blended red (Grey Red Satin) and white (Grey White Silk) wine.  The Fifty Shades label has also been slapped on a vast range of merchandising, from a Christian Grey teddy bear (complete with miniature handcuffs) to lingerie, a board game, jewelry, nail polish and scented candles. Last year, profits from the books and the spin-offs meant that James pulled in, on average, more than $130,000 per day. Ka-ka-ka-ching!

Inevitably, Hollywood came sniffing, unable to ignore the mountains of moolah being raked in on a daily basis, and engaged in a seven-figure bidding war for the movie rights.  While the content might scream for a trashtastic Lifetime adaptation, the biggest studios and the most prestigious producers dangled A-list actors and big-budget directors, promising to turn it into a glossy erotic thriller along the lines of 9½ Weeks. James emerged clutching a deal that not only netted her scads of cash but also gave her a full producer credit and unprecedented control over what the audience – her adoring legions of fans – would eventually see on screen.

Fifty was never going to be the easiest novel-to-movie adaptation.  The narrative doesn’t include much of the kind of external action that screenwriters like to work with. The main drama takes place inside Anastasia’s head, as she angsts about Christian and her “should-I-or-shouldn’t-I?” feelings about her relationship with him.  Christian remains aloof, mysterious, closed, so Ana (with the help of her prim subconscious and her salsa-ing inner goddess) writes his internal monologue for him.  When the two of them discuss their feelings and move their relationship forward, they do it via email. When they ride in fast cars (or a helicopter or a glider) they’re not going anywhere particularly interesting or chasing anything other than a momentary pleasure high – as a prelude to sex.  The main characters exist to serve the fantasy of ecstatic sexual union, and lack dimension beyond the bedroom.

It’s a shame the movie fails to explore the possibilities of the Red Room...the movie balks at addressing what kink is, or why and how people willingly become slaves to devices and desires.

There was also the issue of how to manifest Mommy porn in movie form. The erotic thriller – which enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s – has always been transmitted via the male gaze. From Last Tango in Paris (“Get the butter!”) to Looking For Mr. Goodbar, Don’t Look Now, In The Realm Of The Senses, Pretty Baby, the Cat People remake or anything directed by Adrian Lyne, women are the objects, not the subjects of the storytelling.  The sexual frisson comes from men watching women.  In 9½ Weeks Kim Basinger is the one stripping naked on a rooftop while Mickey Rourke remains fully clothed.  In Damage, it’s Juliette Binoche’s bare ass on the kitchen counter.  The plot of Basic Instinct hinges on Sharon Stone flashing her bits and driving men insane in the process.

Yet erotica on the page comes from (and is aimed at) a predominantly female perspective. Romance readers, including the army of Fifty Shades fans, view the man as the object.  Their gaze is titillated by sculpted abs, tanned forearms, and pants that hang off snake hips just so. And the man’s appearance is merely a jumping off point. There needs to be corresponding arousal from the protagonist so the reader can insert herself into the narrative. Rather than simply showing the audio-visual (as porn does), encouraging the external pleasures of voyeurism, erotica speaks directly to physical sensation (clenched muscles, tingling nipples, the sudden, hot and fluid release down there), encouraging the reader to imagine herself into the embrace.  And there’s the emotional fantasy, which equates electric sex with true love.  Reading erotica is an intensely private and personal experience – the aim of the game is to be turned on by the material.  Watching an erotic movie is public.  Although no one can see you blush in a darkened theater, it’s Not Okay to stick your fingers down your pants.

Therefore the Fifty Shades movie is as much of a gamechanger as the book: it has forced Hollywood to embrace the concept of producing erotic movies made by and aimed at adult women. The [male] producers have bowed to a female vision all along, namely that of the author. E.L. James, who picked the director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, based on her background as a fine artist and her previous (and only) feature film, 2009’s Lennon biopic, Nowhere Boy, a rare and thrilling example of the camera eroticizing the male protagonist from a very female perspective.  The female screenwriter, Kelly Marcel, was another James pick; her screenplay lifts scenes wholesale from the novel, including faithful reproductions of the excruciating dialogue. James also had control over casting, and, according to a much-publicized interview in Vanity Fair with Taylor-Johnson, fought tooth and nail over creative choices on set, from art direction to costume design to the words used in the final scene.

The result is a respectful and oh-so-glossy rendition of the source material. The soundtrack is genuinely awesome. Anastasia plays much better on screen than she does on the page, largely because – Holy Crap! – we don’t have to listen to a single word of her inner monologue.  Dakota Johnson brings a subtle jolie-laide quality to the role, oscillating between lip-biting sex kitten to puritanical librarian within a single breathy sigh.  She manages to enfold the object of desire into the object desirous and does all the heavy lifting in the sex scenes.  She’s center frame, both longing and longed for, while Christian dances around the edges.  Jamie Dornan’s awkwardness within the role works with Christian’s inherent contradictions. He wants to be both a control freak and a commitment-phobe. Dude, you can only pick one.

Stripped down, the plot doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous.  Marcel’s screenplay sometimes functions as a quick synopsis, referring obliquely to scenes from the book rather than relaying them on screen.  All the truly awkward bits (the tampon scene!) are gone.  There is no popsicle. After her Red Room induction, Christian balls up Ana’s panties, puts them in his pocket, and they head over for dinner with his Ma and Pa without ever mentioning her knickerlessness again. The problematic boathouse rape has been excised altogether. Ana appears at the end in Christian’s underpants and shirt,  without explanation.  It’s an exercise in putting as much of the book as possible on screen in under two hours; it’s impossible to do everything, bricolage rules.

There is, however, not a lot of sex and barely any kink. Partly, that’s down to the rules of engagement. Archaic cinema censorship rules permit us to see bare torsos, naked ass, and quick flashes of pubic hair, nothing more. We’ve been watching vanilla sex scenes cut together that way for years. However, it’s a shame the movie fails to explore the possibilities of the Red Room. In the book, Christian and Ana first enter it fully clothed, and openly discuss what the apparatus is for. However, the movie balks at addressing what kink is, or why and how people willingly become slaves to devices and desires.  Despite the poster campaign (‘Curious?”) that’s been running for months, the movie is reluctant to do anything bold or new within the sex scenes. The climax, with Anastasia receiving six lashes from Christian’s belt, seemed like no big deal within the book, and without even a contextual discussion of pleasure/pain responses, is doubly nonsensical in the movie.  Pro tip: next time out, hire a professional dominatrix to choreograph.

But, maybe, Fifty Shades of Grey is driven by money rather than sex? While the T&A is softest softcore, the wealth porn is as hard as it gets.  Christian is a poster boy for the 1%, an apparently self-made billionaire who does something vague in technology. Or asset stripping. No one knows or cares where his money comes from, it’s what he spends it on that matters. The art direction is spectacular, a monument to tasteful materialism that would make Patrick Bateman come in his pants. The main voyeuristic pleasures of the movie are to be found in ogling Christian’s sumptuous skyrise apartment, his Fazioli grand, his cars, his helicopter, his exquisite suits and graceful flower arrangements. It seems he can only render Ana truly speechless by handing her the keys to a brand new Audi.  Oprah never had it this good.

Let’s be real. My opinion is insignificant. No one involved in Fifty Shades of Grey has ever given a rat’s ass about critical acclaim or opprobrium. Given the ubiquity and popularity of the book, this movie was guaranteed to be a financial success before the ink dried on E.L. James’ contract.  It made its nut in pre-sales, more than a week before it even opened, and the inevitable sequels have already been green lit.  This is in part thanks to the way Focus Features have treated it throughout as a prestige production, anxious not to alienate or disrespect James at any point – and by default, the fans.  Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie, shouldn’t be viewed as a separate or oppositional text, but as a brand extension.  The book shook the publishing industry to its core. The movie may trigger a similar paradigm shift in Hollywood, with book-to-movie adaptations becoming more dependent on the original author’s input (Suzanne Collins and Neil Gaiman are also making waves in this respect). If you’re a writer hoping to break your book to a wider audience, that can only be good.

Karina Wilson

Column by Karina Wilson

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami February 13, 2015 - 1:21pm

Well that explains why some women seem to hate the books (especially if they spawn from Hollywood). They can't stand the thought that some women might actually like porn! Gosh, how surprising!

Now I'm no porn advocate, but it's horendously ironic that Twitterminists like to talk the talk about equality, but then yell and scream about women enjoying porn.:/ Let's not even go into Yaoi.

pentakillgnar's picture
pentakillgnar from Pennsylvania is reading Novel length fan fiction about the Star Wars prequels February 13, 2015 - 2:31pm

People aren't mad women like porn, people are mad that this book glorifies abusive relationships and the author didn't do their research on how BDSM is supposed to be done. I only made it maybe 60 pages- well before any of the sexual scenes begin- and I had to stop because Christian Grey was getting too controlling and abusive for me. If the book is triggering for someone who has been in an abusive relationship, that should suggest there's something wrong with it.