Film and TV

Fifty Shades of Grey Strips the Book to Its Essentials

Even fans of Fifty Shades of Grey admit the book is a literary atrocity. Novelist E.L. James's erotic reveries read like the rantings of a drunk yokel — less "His firm hands cupped my breasts" and more "Holy crap! He's touching my boobs!" The story is simple: Twenty-one-year-old virgin Anastasia Steele is offered an opening to be cold-hearted tycoon Christian Grey's sex slave. Before they sign a contract — an actual legal document with an addendum for butt plugs — they test the merchandise and each other's emotional and physical limits. The smartest decision director Sam Taylor-Johnson made when adapting the novel for the screen was to throw out half of it.

On screen, Taylor-Johnson and leads Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson seem embarrassed by the source material. They're fine with the tits — it's their middlebrow creator they'd rather cover up. But Fifty Shades of Grey strips the book to its essentials: a confident man, an awkward girl, and a red room rimmed with leather handcuffs. From there, Taylor-Johnson rebuilds, constructing an erotic dramedy that takes its romance seriously even as it admits that Christian Grey's very existence is absurd.

Grey is physically perfect, unfathomably rich, and inexplicably obsessed with the guileless Steele. Dornan plays him deadpan, his eyes as cold and appraising as those of a shark debating the fleshiest part to bite.

Steele was deliberately written as a blank — a cheap copy of Twilight's Bella Swan, herself a thin audience surrogate. Dakota Johnson breathes life into her in tiny motions: the way she leans in to Grey's neck or dances like a fool to Frank Sinatra. Her Anastasia lives in the real world — a place where Christian Greys are unicorns. Every time she looks at him, we see her wonder, "Who the hell is this guy — and why me?"

The irony of Fifty Shades is that Anastasia isn't passive. She's a power bottom. In the book, her resistance comes from being a stubborn prude. Here, Johnson finds a slyer twist: Anastasia can say no to Grey because she's not afraid of losing something she never expected to own.

Taylor-Johnson has a shrewd understanding of what turns women on. Take Christian's toys, all made of leather, fur, brass and feathers, which line his sex lair like the accessories rack at Gucci. It works both as a display of wealth and skill — only a connoisseur would need four different foxtails — and as a tangible fantasy in which we can imagine the weight and touch of every whip. She favors tactile close-ups that activate the senses: Dornan's knuckles gripping a desk, Johnson's lips nibbling a pencil, and four shots of him clicking her into a seat belt before they zoom off in a private plane.

Taylor-Johnson isn't apologizing either for shooting a sex-positive movie where the woman doesn't end up dead. (Ahem, Basic Instinct and Body of Evidence.) But James's Fifty Shades trilogy is at heart puritanical. The books are credited with introducing dissatisfied women to bondage. Yet the thrust of the series isn't Christian Grey awakening Anastasia to the pleasures of submission; rather, it's her convincing him that his sexual wants are wrong. She may temporarily thrill as he spanks her over his knee, but the book-three climax is a wedding and a baby. The series savors kink and stigmatizes it, implying that Grey is only into BDSM because an older woman stole his virginity at fifteen and his mother was a crack whore.

It's too bad that Taylor-Johnson can't give these insults a suspicious side-eye. She must mouth them as gospel, since his Mrs. Robinson-like backstory villain factors in to the sequels. As a result, both book and film punish their fans. Yes, this naughty stuff is hot — but if you like it too much, you're sick.

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.