The only way EL James' notoriously erotic "Fifty Shades of Grey" will ever wind up a half-way decent movie will be if the filmmakers take the high road.
Going with Universal co-chairman Donna Langley and Focus Features production exec Jeb Brody, who both successfully wooed Brit editor-turned-novelist James, who sought JK Rowling-like control over her project–was a step in the right direction. Given the rumored acquisition cost of some $5 million, the movie would need some names to pull audiences. And the only way to get stars on the order of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in "Eyes Wide Shut," which narrowly skirted an NC-17 in its day, is to promise top-notch quality via an A-list screenwriter and director.
While the novel started out as fan fiction inspired by Edward Cullen and Bella Swan in "Twilight," a much older vampire frozen at age 17 who woos a virginal everygirl teen, James' novel "Fifty Shades of Grey" tells the improbable romance of virginal college coed Anastasia Steele and young Seattle Master of the Universe Christian Grey. But while she seeks a loving relationship, he wants her to sign a contract stipulating rules of S & M engagement. The book is explicitly erotic as this smart and gorgeous but inexperienced young woman sexually comes of age under the guidance of this complicated and damaged young man, who is also in love, but prefers spanking, role play and bondage to "vanilla" sex.
It's easy to see why this erotic trilogy is a huge bestseller, but the first book, at least, is often repetitive and silly. How much intimacy will audiences tolerate? It will take a clever writer and director and charismatic actors to pull this off. There are so many ways this could go wrong.
There are ideas buried in this book about the power dynamics between men and women and the potency of S & M role playing that could prove fascinating in the right hands. Also, intimate sex described in detail in a novel can be shown in a movie–and much can be implied.
I could see fearless Ryan Gosling, who mined similar terrain in "Blue Valentine" and "Crazy Stupid Love," as the controlling but vulnerable master, with coltish tomboy Jennifer Lawrence ("Hunger Games") as the awkward innocent submissive with strongly-held values, ready to rock her sexual world. Chris Pine and Blake Lively also come to mind.
Part of the book's fantasy fun is Grey's Cinderella makeover of the penniless college grad, who blossoms under his attentions, flying in his personal jet and helicopter, as well as being gifted with a snazzy new wardrobe, computer and car. This is a case where a mediocre book (see: "Twilight," "Bridges of Madison County," "Love Story," or "The Notebook") could be much improved in movie form. "Pretty Woman" is one watered-down model of how this movie romance could go.
These were mainstream offerings, though, and I suspect this will not go that route. Movie crowds tend to avoid movies that make them sexually uncomfortable. That's another reason why this NC-17 material should go upscale and arthouse–that's the group that can handle this stuff, and might even appreciate it. Many women, especially, are starved for movies about emotional relationships. Those who assume that this will be cheesy smutty trashy porn may be surprised.
On Facebook, Chris Willman asked me: "Would a halfway-self-respecting actor like these two do this project? (I probably don't want to know the answer.)"
Anne Thompson: "Well, it depends on who Focus Features (a classy label) puts together as a creative team. They'd have to be top notch to land those actors. If done well this could be box office hit. It's a risky high-wire act at best."
Willman: "No matter how popular the books are, wouldn't this be a losing proposition for A-list talent, if the perception is that it's soft-core smut for over-30 ladies? How much can Focus class it up? Who would be the modern-day equivalent of Adrian Lyne?"
Thompson: "Many bad books have been turned into better movies–it's an age-old Hollywood tradition. The romance is alive and well. The torrid language and even the explicit sex in the book need only be shown or implied on film."
Glenn Kenny: "So, Anne, unless I'm mistaken, what you're saying is, that there's a good movie to be made from "50 Shades of Grey," and that, IF that good movie is made, it will be a spectacular domestic box office flop. Day-um."
Thompson: "It's risky but it could go either way. 'Sex and the City' was a hit, when they hit it right. Many variables."
Willman: "I'm trying to think of examples of a trashy novel being made into a good or great prestige movie (not to be argumentative, but just as an exercise). What I'm coming up with is… "Bridges of Madison County." And I'd have to watch it again."
Thompson: "'Gone with the Wind,' 'Bridget Jones Diary,' 'Fried Green Tomatoes,' 'The Notebook,' 'The Shining' and 'Carrie' (among the movies adapted from Stephen King novels), 'The Hunt for Red October' and 'Patriot Games,' among the movies adapted from Tom Clancy novels, and the 'Twilight' films were better than their source, if not exactly good."
Kenny: "Hmm. What if the precise appeal of the material is such that 'classing it up,' or applying a level of refinement, is precisely what needs NOT to be done in order to retain the popularity that calls for a movie version?"
Here's the inevitable parody.