How The Fifty Shades of Grey Movie Could Actually Be Good

Posted on February 11, 2015 by


Well, the inevitable is finally here. The Fifty Shades of Grey movie comes out this weekend. Holy crap.

But before it comes out, I’d like to engage in a quick thought experiment. What if it’s not the worst thing that has ever happened? Is there any way this movie could still be, dare I say it, good? What would it have to do?

Well, let’s think about it for a second.

It Has To Rewrite Everything. Everything.

I don’t just mean the bits that everyone knows. The “double crap” and the “Come for me, Ana” and Ana’s subconscious, libido, and orgasms as explosions. I mean everything. E L James can’t write for shit, and including so much as one line of dialogue (or even one “aw geez”) crosses the thin line from “artistic production” to Camp Fanservice.

The AV Club ran a piece yesterday with similar thoughts, and observed that by virtue of being a movie, Fifty Shades has already solved a great deal of its most notorious flaw:

Just by dint of this being a movie, the prose issue vanishes. It is extremely difficult to transfer any author’s voice from one medium to another, a fact that hurts adaptations of, say, William Faulkner, but can only work in the film’s favor here. E.L. James may struggle to depict emotions or interactions, but that doesn’t mean Taylor-Johnson won’t be able to stage them.

I’d argue against some of the article’s conclusions, namely how great an achievement it is that “the only franchise in which all the reins are held by women” when the whole point of the franchise is how great one damn dude is. But it’s definitely onto something worth considering with the prose issue. The question is whether the remaining dialogue will receive any similar benefits, because those don’t have the luxury of simply being erased. The promotional clips don’t look terribly promising, with the “I mean, look at me” and the extra cringe-worthy, “Like your Xbox and stuff?” But maybe the rest of it could not sound like it was written by a ten-year-old.

It Has To Acknowledge That Christian Grey Is A Predator

Fifty Shades of Grey is DEEPLY problematic. This isn’t a subjective thing. Christian Grey is an controlling stalker with extremeley patriarchal views about women. Emotionally abusive relationships masquerade as the truest of true love. BDSM is depicted as a mental illness that can be cured with love. None of this is “my” reading. This is in the DNA of Fifty Shades.

Ariel and I have written over 150,000 words about all of this (I counted). It would be pointless to try to recap any of them further. But I will quote Roxane Gay‘s Bad Feminist, because fuck yeah, Roxane Gay:

[T]hese books are really about Ana trying to change/save Christian from his demons – she is the virginal good girl who can lead the dark bad boy to salvation, as if, historically, trying to change a man has ever worked out so well. […]After all the trials this couple faces, and after all the hot sex, we’re supposed to think this trilogy is about a young woman and her happily-ever-after. It’s not. Ana’s sexual awakening is a convenient vehicle for the awakening of Christian’s humanity. Fifty Shades is about a man finding peace and happiness because he finally finds a woman willing to tolerate his bullshit for long enough.

Also importantly, because you can’t simply choose one Roxane Gay quote:

The Fifty Shades books have also opened the door for pundits, including Ellen DeGeneres, to treat the BDSM lifestyle with derision, mockery, and outright ignorance. […] The books are, essentially, a detailed primer for how to successfully engage in a controlling, abusive relationship.

So what can the movies do? Can it change all of these things? The smart money would almost certainly not be on “yes”. It could try to tone them down, certainly, and given the absurd, Christian Grey’s penis-sized length of the books, it would almost have to for its film adaptation. But what I would argue instead is that in terms of addressing how inherently problematic it is, it might be less important to fix it and more important to not apologize for it.

It would be tempting to reframe any element of this story, to make excuses, or to rationalize. No “Oh, but he’s such a troubled man!” No “Yes, but this is really about…” No. The movie needs to own it, and say, “Yes, this is bad. This is not how healthy people behave, and there is no redemption to be found in this.” There’s no way to exorcise the demons from this story. What’s important is that the movie acknowledges its demons, and doesn’t try to pass them off as Christian Grey’s demons.

Once again, the AV Club article does bring this up: it’s a very promising sign that there were creative spats between the film’s director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, and the book’s author, E L James. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the inherent nature of adaptation will be enough to pry the story from problematic hands. But, then again, given that last week’s Gawker piece has that one E L James quote that really says it all:

“I’m pretty sure the millions of fans who have the read the trilogy will think there is enough sex.”

Maybe the famously self-published Fifty Shades of Grey will finally get the editor it desperately needed.

fifty shades of sigh gawker gif

It Has To Be Corny As Fuck, And Know It

Let’s be real here. It could totally nail those first two things, but there are some things where the movie is simply at the mercy of its source material. Meaning this story. Fifty Shades of Grey is an absurd goddamn story.

But is that inherently a problem? Not at all! Two of last year’s biggest, most-talked-about movies were The LEGO Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy, and while they definitely had their emotional, even poignant, moments, they were primarily just fun. And they were fun because they were self-aware. And that is what Fifty Shades of Grey needs to be if it doesn’t want to be fifty shades of vomit you can’t clean out of your carpet. It’s a story about a white girl and a rich white man who fall in love. That’s just inherently corny.

What the Fifty Shades movie has to do is embrace the cheese. This is not an emotional story. This is not a serious story. This is not a story that will touch the souls of millions and let them let love into their hearts again. This is not a timeless tale of timeless love. It’s a doofy melodrama with maximum doofiness. But these aren’t negative qualities, unless you want them to be by making a Sisyphean effort to make Fifty Shades “serious”. Nobody goes to Rocky Horror Picture Show going, “Oh, the pathos!” And Rocky Horror knows that. It is that. And that’s why it’s great. And that’s what Fifty Shades should do. Maybe the Guardian’s advance review indicating that the movie steers away from the EDGY SEX and towards a simple, campy meet-cute could be a step in this much-needed direction.

rocky horror don't dream it be it

It Has To Cast Lisa’s Mom In The Room As Ana’s Mom

They already totally messed that one up. How do you mess this up? She was the same character!

I’ve spent a great deal of time hating Fifty Shades. This isn’t the only piece I wrote about the problems of Fifty Shades that will even be published this week. But the nice thing about adaptation is that it’s different. It’s new. It’s not the same. True, it could be just as shit, if not shittier, than the books. There’s something delightfully exciting about the prospect of a Fifty Shades movie that manages to be worse than the book. But there’s also something exciting about the potential of a work to become something beyond what it was, as a different work entirely, through adaptation. And it’s with that mindset that I’ll go into my reviews and opinions during Bad Books, Good Times’ coverage of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie next week. I can’t say that this will be the same mindset Ariel goes in with for her pieces, or that Ariel’s boyfriend goes in with for his contributions, or that my girlfriend will go in with for her “can we please leave already?” impressions through tiny gaps in her fingers over her eyes.

Not that don’t expect it will be shit. But there are ways it might not be.