by Billie Doux
Yeah, yeah, I know -- not my usual thing. This was all Jamie Dornan's fault. I was so captivated and freaked by his exceptionally well acted turn as a serial killer in The Fall that when I was alone one evening and noticed that the movie Fifty Shades of Grey was available free on demand, I succumbed to curiosity. Honestly, I had no clue what it was actually about, other than that it was erotica, the books were monster bestsellers, and a lot of people seemed to actively hate it. I had tried the first book a couple of years ago, and didn't get very far.
Fifty Shades of Grey is about a brilliant, wealthy businessman, Christian Grey, who can only express himself sexually within BDSM relationships, and his affair with his complete opposite, a vanilla virgin college student named Anastasia Steele. They meet when she interviews him for the college newspaper, and he pursues her relentlessly while trying to transform her into yet another of his rigidly controlled sexual submissives. As one might expect, Anastasia, or Ana, is strongly attracted, but as she resists Christian's efforts to turn her into his latest sex toy, their relationship becomes an emotional tug of war.
I kept thinking "female gaze" while I was watching this movie. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson, a woman, focuses a great deal on the physical beauty of Jamie Dornan, who quite understandably looks much hotter and more accessible as Christian Grey than he did as Paul Spector in The Fall. (There's a fun little reference to The Fall in an early scene, by the way.) Dakota Johnson, daughter of incredibly gorgeous actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, is very appealing and surprisingly fun as Ana, definitely a break-out part for her. Johnson and Dornan are both talented actors, and they do indeed have chemistry.
Some scenes actually made me laugh, and yes, they were intended to be funny -- especially the "business meeting" where Christian and Ana were negotiating the clauses of the sex contract he wanted her to sign. But while the movie was definitely romantic, what with the helicopters and gliders and kissing passionately in elevators, I thought it should have been a lot hotter. The sex scenes in the "playroom" were borderline embarrassing and at times, it felt as if the actors, especially Dornan, were a little embarrassed, too.
When I decided to check out this movie, I had no idea I would write a positive review. If I wrote one at all, I was certain it would be a snarkfest. But when I got to the rather abrupt and surprising end of the movie, I realized that I had to know what happened next, and I wasn't willing to wait a year until the second movie came out. So I went on a mini-Kindle spree and read the book series in the space of about a week.
About the book series
Although my favorite genre is the so-called "hard" science fiction, it is not all that I read. Along with general fiction and non-fiction and a good mystery now and then, I have always liked the occasional romance because the happily-ever-after escapism appeals to me. Some romance authors are very good, and I buy by author.
The thing of it is, romance is a genre written almost entirely by women, for women, and when the romance genre is treated as trash in the mainstream, it often feels to me like the disdain is misogynistic. Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels are romance novels with a twist, and that is all that they are, but they are constantly criticized as if they were mainstream literature. After I finished the novels, I spent some time reading reviews of the books and the movie, trying to figure out why I liked them when the reviews were so universally bad.
Okay, "universally bad" is not completely true. The books were such huge bestsellers and have such die-hard fans that some reviews were inevitably positive. I even found some positive reviews of the movie (this one at Vanity Fair was my favorite). But for the most part, the contempt directed at Fifty Shades of Grey, books and movie, is voluminous and surprisingly vicious.
Why do so many people despise Fifty Shades of Grey? Is it just the same old dislike of the romance genre taken to the extreme because the novels were such huge bestsellers? Is it discomfort that it features BDSM? Is it because of the implication that BDSM is unhealthy because it's an expression of Christian's emotional illness? Is it James' writing style, which I will readily admit is flawed?
And I mean, I sort of get it. I had a negative opinion of the books before I actually read them. The dislike of Fifty Shades of Grey is in fact quite similar to what is directed at its parent series, Twilight. (Fifty Shades of Grey started life as Twilight fan fiction. The author, E.L. James, decided to rewrite it as original fiction, which was clearly a smart financial decision. If you know the Twilight books at all, the character and story similarities tend to jump out at you.)
Although it sounds a lot like "I read Playboy for the articles, not the photos", it was the emotional connection between the leads that kept me reading the Fifty Shades books. There is no question that the books are too long, the sex scenes repetitive, the third novel in particular is short on plot, and I kept wishing someone had taught the author how to exercise better control over her adjectives. And while I enjoyed a lot of the email flirting (which became texting in the movie), it got old.
But I like stories about damaged heroes. It's a popular trope in the romance genre, and Christian Grey is so deeply damaged by his early childhood (he calls himself "fifty shades of fucked up", which is where the title comes from) that it's amazing he can function at all. It is acknowledged fairly early that Christian has been seeing psychiatrists since he was a child, and that emotionally, he is still an adolescent with a deep need to control everyone and everything in his life. Ana sees the deeply damaged child behind the facade, and she copes, poorly at first but better later on, with his need for control while never losing respect for herself and her own boundaries. There is never a moment when the author intimates that Christian and Ana have a normal relationship, that happily-ever-after will be easy, or that Christian isn't going to spend his entire life in therapy.
But on the whole, I enjoyed the books. If you look at them as one long, complicated romance novel, they're pretty good. There's a reason why they're best sellers.
Am I recommending the books and/or the movie? If you like the romance genre and can handle some sexy spice, then yes. If you don't or can't, then no. I'm glad I gave the movie a try, and I plan to watch the sequels. At home, though. Not in the theater.
Billie Doux is the founder of Doux Reviews and has been reviewing her favorite shows for quite some time. More Billie Doux.