Culture / Film / Television

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’: Trying to make sense of the reviews

If you’ve logged into any social network this week, it’s likely that you’ve seen some headlines about Fifty Shades of Grey. The highly anticipated film adaptation of the erotic Fifty Shades trilogy is opening in theaters February 12, just in time for Valentine’s Day (can you sense my sarcasm?). I was perusing both Facebook and Tumblr, and started to read some of the reviews that were being published, not shocked to learn that the film turned out to be a terrible way to spend two hours, according to many.

But what I became increasingly shocked by was the number of writers who went into the movie expecting comedy. From what the reviews stated, many people were expecting to return from the movie with hilarious material regarding Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele’s BDSM-based relationship for everyone to read. Not surprisingly, there was something that all these authors had in common: they didn’t read the books. Now, I understand the stigma “the book is always better than the movie”, but for a “film” with so much hype surrounding it, I was surprised at how many people chose to ignore the print.

If you’re thinking I’m going to support the movie or the books, let me tell you that you’re wrong. This is my lengthy explanation as to why.

I read the books. The summer going into college, my best friend and I were curious about the trilogy; she lived in Orange County and worked at a popular mall, and women would walk by her kiosk talking about it. We’re both pretty into books and pop culture, and the trilogy seemed like an unconventional combination of both. So we decided to read them at the same time so we could discuss it via text. She read the books on her phone at work, and I would read on my iPad— God forbid anyone seeing either of us carrying a physical copy around.

At first it seemed silly and awkward to talk about: we were both pretty sexually inexperienced at the time, and it felt like naive fun and games to be reading what we were reading. But as we read further, both of us started to see multiple problems arising (we took AP English classes in high school and read for fun, we were obviously going to analyze the characters). But as pages turned and days passed, alarming themes started to surface. Christian Grey’s inability to be consistent in any way, Anastasia’s naïveté towards multiple things: Grey himself, sex, a relationship, et cetera. After reading three books with these same characters, you don’t leave feeling exhilarated or sexy. After reading three  books with these same characters, you come away from it seeing prominent examples of emotional and physical abuse.

My friend and I talked about the books and how twisted they were, and we wondered how so many people, the majority women, enjoy them. But after we finished the books and talking about them, I moved on to other things. It wasn’t until all of these reviews started popping up that I truly began to wonder why people enjoyed the book, and even more, hated the movie.

Thinking about this for a few days, there was one “solution” that I kept coming back to. Before there was even talk of a movie, it was easy to pick up the books, read them, and set them down at any given time. After that, maybe you’d catch yourself thinking about it, and replace yourself with Anastasia. You’d replace Christian with the person you were in a relationship with, or even married to, and imagine the situations playing out in your own personal life. Of course, this can happen with any book, no matter the plot line. But what starts to happen with this trilogy, specifically, is that readers began to pick out the parts that they liked most about Christian and then replaced them with the flaws they saw in their partner. Grey is strong and commanding in bed, which would appeal to the housewife who has an apathetic husband. Grey is (unreasonably) possessive, which appeals to the young, inexperienced woman, who longs to be sought after. And so on and so forth, and vice versa as well. It was a matter of subconscious picking and choosing, and applying features to quell particular personal conflicts.

Here is the catch: this whole process cannot happen with a movie. First of all, film as a medium is visual, whereas a book leaves the visuals to the imagination of the reader (part of why the entire trilogy was so successful in print). Secondly, the viewer experiences the entire first book in 125 minutes. Whether it was suspected or not, a reader of Fifty Shades could put the book down whenever he or she wanted. It may not have been a conscious decision either. Perhaps it had to do with a reader realizing that the “romance” in the book wasn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, getting distracted, the train of thought getting disrupted, setting the book down to tend to something else, and then revisiting the book again, several hours or a day later. In contrast, the movie shoves it all into two hours; you can’t set a movie down, go do something else for awhile, and then come back to it. The movie makes the plot seem much more forceful and blatant than it comes across in the book, and rightfully so.

About a week ago, a video began to circulate that was titled something like “The Horrendously Awkward Press Tour for Fifty Shades of Grey.” Many of the comments on various posts spoke to how uncomfortable Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson seemed around each other while on camera. “I hope they’re not that awkward in the movie,” joked one user. But now that the movie is gearing up for release, maybe viewers will start to think about why the “awkwardness” was so present and palpable. It begs the question of how comfortable anyone would be while promoting a movie that so forwardly portrays relational violence and abuse.

I’m not going to pull religion into this aside, because we’ve all read those essays, and I think that there’s more to the problem besides this being a “pornographic film” that you should “sign a petition for.”

The main difference that I see between my reading experience and that of others, and I could be completely wrong, is that my friend and I read the books continuously and without delay. For us, it was a matter of getting through them so we could talk about them; thinking about it now, it felt like we were assigning ourselves homework. I feel like the solution I kept returning to attempts to explain the experience of those who read it for pleasure and were shocked by the movie. But please, if you identify as one of these people and think I am completely wrong, please engage me— after all, I am fully under-qualified to offer this psychological critique anyway.

Ultimately, what threw the match on this wild fire is the fact that so many people are blinded going into the movie by not reading the book. I’m not endorsing the books in any way, but they did prepare me for what the movie might consist of. If you haven’t read the books and are planning to see the movie, I would just warn you that, indeed, Christian Grey “doesn’t do romance,” but what he does do is far worse.

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