Welcome to the YA Movie Countdown, our resident expert’s continued guide to young adult book-to-film adaptations.
First off, it’s important to point out that Fifty Shades of Grey is for mature audiences and is only appropriate for the eldest of the young-adult readership.
Now that that’s out of the way, what’s the deal with this thing?
The Genesis of Fifty Shades
Before Fifty Shades of Grey came Masters of the Universe, an online-based multipart piece of fan fiction that grew out of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books. The series was published online from 2009 to 2011 until fan-fiction specialists -- an Australian company called the Writer’s Coffee Shop -- snatched it up for publishing. At that point, author E.L. James (a pseudonym for Erika Leonard) had to take her fan fiction off the Internet and also remove any references to Twilight before handing the work over for sale.
It should come as no surprise that Masters of the Universe had quite the following, so when the material mysteriously disappeared from the Web, it drew a significant amount of attention and that’s when James’ agent stepped in to make an official statement via Deadline:
“This did start as Twilight fan fiction, inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s wonderful series of books. Originally it was written as fan fiction, then Erika [E.L. James] decided to take it down after there were some comments about the racy nature of the material. She took it down and thought, I’d always wanted to write. I’ve got a couple unpublished novels here. I will rewrite this thing, and create these iconic characters, Christian and Anna. If you read the books, they are nothing like Twilight now."
No, the books are nothing like Twilight anymore and that’s part of the reason the film adaptation has some serious potential.
What It’s About
Fifty Shades of Grey is told from the perspective of Anastasia Steele, a bright, but naive and sexually inexperienced Washington State University senior. When her best friend and roommate falls ill and can’t make due on her duties as the editor of the school paper, Ana steps in to take on her big assignment: traveling to Seattle to interview the illusive young billionaire Christian Grey.
Almost instantly Ana is head over heels for Christian, and as someone who’s yet to feel that undeniable passion or lust for another person, it’s overwhelming. Fortunately, Christian shares her sentiments, but his extreme and rigid erotic necessities make this anything but a love at first sight/ live happily ever after scenario. Both must make significant sacrifices if they hope to make their relationship work.
This is where Fifty Shades of Grey has all the potential in the world on the big screen. The lack of a direct connection to The Twilight Saga leaves the door wide open for two new, fresh characters and you do come to know Christian and Ana to the point that they’re very real people that you truly care about. Christian’s demands may be unusually strict and, to many, downright outlandish, but he’s still a very moral character and, just like Ana, it’ll persuade you to stay open-minded while delving into his unique lifestyle.
Ana, on the other hand, is practically the girl next door. She’s kind, hardworking and just wants to be happy, making her highly relatable. However, there’s an obvious void in her life and because she wants to fill it, so do you. Trouble is, when that opportunity presents itself, it’s absolutely wonderful, but so wrong and potentially detrimental at the same time. Compromising is key but to an unheard of extent and it’s highly consuming watching the two of them weigh their deepest desires and values for the sake of true romance. Should Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson nail the dramatics of that scenario, this could be a highly effective and unique on-screen love story.
This is where things get messy. (No pun intended.) Without spoiling anything, the main hitch in Ana and Christian’s relationship is Christian’s controlling tendencies, particularly when it comes to sex. Not only is Ana a virgin when she meets Christian, but for many readers, you’re a virgin to his particular tactics, too, so a good deal of the book involves learning about this way of life. Fifty Shades of Grey is well written, boasts strong characters and an engaging scenario, but let’s get real. It’s a megahit because it’s a sexual fantasy.
Brand the book with a “mature audiences” label and you’re in the clear. Brand the film with NC-17 and you’re financially screwed. Make it an R-rated movie and you run the risk of extinguishing the appeal of the fantasy. Give it a PG-13 rating and you might as well bury it. In this respect, Fifty Shades of Grey is impossible to pull off.
I recently joked with some colleagues and suggested Focus Features and Universal release a PG-13 cut of Fifty Shades of Grey to appease the Twilight fan base, but then go with an NC-17 version on VOD. The statement was meant in jest, but if you think about it, it’s really the ideal way to turn the film series into a cash cow while honoring all of the elements that made the source material a hit. You’d get all the tweens, young adults and folks just looking for a good romance movie in the theaters, and then you’d basically get everyone and their mother pressing play On Demand whether they’re fans of the books or are fueled by curiosity and nothing more.
The odds of that type of arrangement coming together is slim to none so, realistically, Fifty Shades needs to hit that sweet spot between NC-17 and R so it can be wide-audience appropriate but still uphold those raunchy moments that please our “inner goddesses.”
Hunnam and Johnson
Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson do not fit the characters I pictured while reading the book and even though I’m still too attached to my imagination to picture the duo in the roles, it doesn’t matter. This is about recruiting two talented performers who can convey a layered and often inwardly emotional romance, and that’s how this casting should be judged.
However, even if we’re looking at this from that respect, Hunnam is still a rather weak choice, but that’s also coming from someone who has yet to watch Sons of Anarchy. (Yes, I know. I’ll get right on that.) Based on what I have seen of Hunnam, he’s decent, but on the film front, he’s yet to secure a role that suggests he could convincingly sell Christian as a domineering genius with a growing heart. This isn’t Hunnam’s fault. It just comes down to the fact that he’s got nothing on his resume that crosses over into Fifty Shades territory whatsoever. And we’re even more in the dark with Johnson. Unless you caught her short-lived show Ben and Kate, you likely haven’t seen her in a single thing.
Ultimately, there’s really no passing judgment on these two beyond looks alone and that’s just no way to assess whether or not actors will bring these now iconic characters to life in the best way possible. Should they deliver strong performances, I have no trouble whatsoever deviating from my original perception of the book.
Focus Features and Universal are likely jumping for joy that they’ve got one of the hottest properties out there, and they should. The thing has sold 70 million copies worldwide, enjoyed a place on the New York Times best-seller list for over 50 weeks, and has an absolutely rabid fan base. This thing is almost an undeniable box office hit. However, of course, that doesn’t speak to the quality of the film in the least and in that respect, director Sam Taylor-Johnson has quite the challenge ahead of her.
The YA Movie Countdown runs here on Movies.com every other Wednesday.
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