I went to Fifty Shades of Grey prepared to mock it mercilessly. But over the course of last weekend, something happened. As I skimmed the 50,000 cultural commentaries that dissected Fifty Shades as the definitive statement on female sexuality, soccer moms' sexuality, the sexual revolution, modern depravity, mainstream cluelessness about alternative sexuality and on and on, I found myself agreeing more and more with an erotica writer I interviewed last week. Not a fan of E.L. James' best-selling series, she nonetheless wished everybody would "shut up about it." "It's a fantasy!" she said, exasperated. "It's pretend."
Indeed. And maybe we shouldn't judge people by the content of their fantasies, whether those fantasies involve remorseless, scot-free murder (the focus of many an action flick) or getting tied up by a dreamy billionaire.
Because fantasy is such a private thing, however, the transition from page to screen always involves directorial interpretation and contact with cold realities. Idealized characters must be replaced with real actors, vague settings with concrete ones.
Movies also target a wider audience than books, so it's worth asking how it feels to view Fifty Shades when its fantasy is not your own. In my experience, the film is sometimes boring to a non-fan. Sometimes confusing. As pretty as an upscale home-furnishings catalogue. And not nearly as squirm inducing or giggle-worthy as expected.
Let's address "boring" first. As everyone probably knows by now, once upon a time there was a naïve college senior named Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) who met a big, bad, ridiculously handsome billionaire with intimacy issues. Instantly smitten, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) buys her luxury goods and offers her a coveted place as the submissive occupant of his private sex dungeon, all officialized by a contract. Ana says yea to the sex, but demurs on the paperwork. This happens repeatedly until the movie ends — or, really, just stops.
When a film is essentially just about two characters negotiating an offbeat relationship, they need to be likable, and Johnson's Ana is. Gone is mousy book Ana's first-person narration; no longer must we witness her efforts to blame every bold sexual impulse on her "inner goddess." Despite some lip biting and whining, this Ana owns her desires and, in a few scenes, even calls Christian out on his creepy insistence on controlling every aspect of her life.
That's where the movie gets confusing, because Ana's self-respect comes and goes like the March wind. A glance from those gray eyes, or a hint of Christian's tortured childhood, suffices to make her forget how often he's a bossy jerk. Dornan was memorably creepy in the British series "The Fall," but there he played a character, not a fantasy figure. Here he fails, as most actors doubtless would, to show us just what Ana is so damn mesmerized by.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson gives the Seattle-set film an elegant, streamlined look and a silvery-gray sheen, distancing it from the more florid aspects of its source material. Even the sex scenes tend to the pictorial, following the grand tradition of arty soft-core films.
All these choices work to make Fifty Shades a more tolerable experience for non-fans of the books than it might have been. A more adventurous writer and director could have turned this twisted fairy tale into a full-fledged surreal fantasy (think Lynch or Almodóvar), using its inconsistencies as assets. But James, who wielded considerable control over this production, surely wouldn't have given her OK to such escapades.
In any case, the reality of Fifty Shades was long ago eclipsed by the frenzy of discussion around it. Perhaps it's time for all of us to recognize that fantasies come in a great many more than 50 shades — and that they're not real.