So the Fifty Shades movie grossed $81.7 million on Valentine’s Day weekend. Disclaimer: I’m into kink and I like the series. It’s hardly great literature, but I think it’s cool how it started out as Twilight fanfiction by an author with no connections and now it’s freakishly popular in the same way Beanie Babies and Gangnam Style were. My friend, a kinky artist who likes music you’ve never heard of, was like “yeah, everybody says it’s a terrible book but I don’t know anyone who didn’t finish all three.”
If you thought Anastasia was a sap, this movie’s for you. Dakota Johnson plays her with dignity and subtle wit. Example: she tells two girls at her graduation party that she heard Christian’s gay. It’s like screenwriter Kelly Marcel heard the bazillion complaints about Ana being a blank slate you could impose yourself on to get to Christian and changed that deliberately. Instead of her inner goddess doing the merengue, the movie is filled with sly little details like Ana absentmindedly putting one of Christian’s “Grey” emblazoned company pencils in her mouth.
Unfortunately Christian’s character didn’t translate as well. The reason he was such a panty-dropping delight in the book is that you got a lot of little details about him, but the overall effect was left for you to fill in. I imagined Christian as a redhead with a tennis player’s body, a Clark Gable sneer, and the unique ability to make his girl feel protected and wrought with nervous excitement at the same time. Jamie Dornan fell flat of my expectations. In fact he was kind of flat in general. Either by bad acting or bad screenwriting he lacked that smug humor we expect of alpha studs. A convincing dominant he was not.
The sex scenes weren’t great either. It’s rated R, not NC-17. Watch this movie for the scenic backdrops and the secondary characters that E.L. James skimmed over. Kate is the pushy friend. Ana regards her onscreen with the same discreet amusement that we have about friends like that. Elliot is a surfer type and an implied underachiever. Christian’s mom is overbearing in a hilarious way. I wish these characters got more screen time. Maybe they will in the next movies like they did in the second and third books.
Now about Fifty Shades in general. Yes, it was poorly written. Move on. I’m pretty sure James just let her hormones jump out of her body and do the writing for her. That’s why it’s such a good series: she nailed that delicate balance of traits so many of us want in a man. Christian knows what Ana needs, when she needs it, and how she needs it. He leads like a champ, but she cleverly added a little detail (he can’t cook!) so we by proxy of Ana could have the pleasure of teaching him something. He’s sexually experienced, but he’s never been in love. Ana gets to show him love just like he shows her sex. She doesn’t sign his obedience contract and he respects her for it. Fifty Shades is a coming-of-age story for both of them.
There are no men like Christian Grey in real life. That’s kind of the point too. Maybe the line between preternaturally self-assured leadership and sociopathy is thinner than we want it to be. Christian finds her at a club by tracking her cell phone. Turns out she needed him around because she was blacked out and about to be taken advantage of. He buys out the company she works for because he doesn’t trust her boss, which turns out to have been an astute move. Every abusive thing Christian does was fortuitously justified later on. That’s not how it works in reality, a fact that James should have taken more delicately. But in a series that contains a helicopter crash, a gun-wielding ex-submissive with a major chip on her shoulder, a kidnapping, a college student who doesn’t know how to use a computer, and a flashy 27-year-old zillionaire with a vaguely sinister enterprise who isn’t screwing models we’re forgiven for believing whatever the author throws at us.
A lot of people in the BDSM community are glad Fifty Shades is making kink more accepted. Even though James didn’t really portray it in a positive light. Christian likes kink because he’s imagining beating his crack whore mother. (Really.) That kind of anger isn’t welcome at our events. E.L. James researched safewords and stuff but Christian would need a serious attitude adjustment to be accepted in the community.
And we all think the kink isn’t rough enough. Most of the sex in the books is vanilla. In the part of the movie where he hits her you can see some pretty hard whacks but not the damage. But I’m not sure if showing Ana’s ass beaten ‘til it’s bloody like in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac would be welcomed here. Because Fifty Shades isn’t really erotica. It’s a romance novel. It has all the tropes. A bad boy with an Achilles’ heel. A girl who feels like she’s a little bit different. An army of evil people trying to keep them apart. But I love how she doesn’t have daddy issues. James gave Ana a kind, supportive father. She’s just picky about men.
Yes, there’s a lot of doms who make good money. But chances are they won’t know everything you want before you tell them and they won’t have copious amounts of ridiculously satisfying drama, none of which is in any way their fault, following them everywhere they go. And does anybody have that much money? A hundred thousand dollars an hour? What’s he selling, an infinite power source that does your homework while getting you off?
To all the haters, Fifty Shades is a fantasy. It doesn’t pretend not to be. It was based on vampires for God’s sake. But it’s a fantasy that, give or take some details, a hell of a lot of people have. Enjoy.