50 Shades of Grey film spanks the silver screen

Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele in the film adaptation of the best-selling erotic novel ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ gives a convincing and likeable performance, bringing life and dimension to the character.
Universal Pictures and Focus Features/Courtesy
Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele in the film adaptation of the best-selling erotic novel ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ gives a convincing and likeable performance, bringing life and dimension to the character.

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Somewhere in its translation to the silver screen, E.L. James’ “Twilight”-based erotic tale “Fifty Shades of Grey” became a rom com. Yes, a rom com. A melodramatic and sex-filled one, to be sure, but a rom com nonetheless. For despite the original story’s carnal and even oppressive sensibilities, the film adaptation seeks to recreate the relationship between the witty but compliant Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and the mysteriously brooding Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) to fit that of a modern love story between consenting individuals. The success of this euphemistic representation depends on how the viewer takes her pleasure. Is it the twisted “Cinderella” story that draws viewers in, or is it the kinky sex? More on that later.

In tandem with the book, the film begins with Steele tripping through the office door of the dazzlingly handsome billionaire, Mr. Grey. What she doesn’t realize as Mr. Grey helps her up from the perfectly polished floor is that the mysterious businessman is secretly an S-and-M enthusiast who would prefer for her to stay crouched on her hands and knees. The unfolding story is that of Steele’s first love and eventual revelation that the powerful but troubled Grey wants to acquire her as his personal, sexual submissive. Most of the plot features a cat-and-mouse game in which Grey attempts to convince Steele of the fruitfulness of this scheme, while she, in turn, tries to weasel out of him the secret causes of his unusual tastes.

There are many ways in which the film improves upon the book. Quite frankly, the absence of Anastasia’s internal perspective, which features much too prominently in the books, is a gift. Without exhausting references to her sexual consciousness as her “inner goddess” and with her inability to incessantly think of Grey as that “beautiful man,” Steele becomes an individualized character who is more than just the medium through which the audience can get its hands on Grey. Johnson should be credited for giving Steele an actual personality — and a likeable one at that. What’s more, she is able to add credibility to the story by acknowledging the absurdity of her relationship with Mr. Grey, even if her idea of standing up for herself is refusing anal and vaginal fisting.

But now, for the question all actually want answered — the question for which traditional “Twilight” fans had to wait four movies to get answered — how good was the sex?

A fair amount of nipple, followed by a mountain range of abs, some butt, a peek at pubic hair and a quick angle change to a thigh and a sigh ends the scenes of copulation. Throw in some leather halfway through, and this about sums up the several — which is more than most Hollywood films — sex scenes. Compared to the book, however, this is a pittance of sexual activity, and the intensity levels of these scenes, hovering between cool and a bit clammy, are by far screenwriter Kelly Marcel’s greatest deviations from the original story.

On the one hand, this is likely a mistake. The plot of the book is meandering and weak, with the most exciting bits being tied up in moments of intimacy or else Grey’s overwhelming displays of wealth. The movie also follows this thread, with helicopter trips, dazzling views and deeply penetrating staring contests, but with only a very mild version of the atypical sexual practices that many believed made the books revolutionary in the mainstream. Even with whip in hand, “Fifty Shades” loses much of its snappy edge without the physical harshness and stalker-like obsession featured in the book.

But had the sex in the film been made to wholly reflect that of the book in terms of the number of sex-related scenes, would it still have seemed romantic to the majority of the women who consumed the story faster than green grass through a goose? Could it have rather come across as something dangerous, something more harmful than a delightful romp in the “red room of pain”?  Would it have brought more pain than pleasure? Such an outcome would, despite the excessive number of tools of bondage and pain housed in Grey’s “playroom,” simply have been unacceptable. The result is this unimaginative and watered-down version that, nonetheless, can fulfill the romantic, if not physical, needs of its viewers. For “Fifty Shades” always aims to please.

Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected]