“Fifty Shades Of Grey,” along with sequels “Fifty Shades Darker” and “Fifty Shades Freed” is a publishing phenomenon the likes of which haven’t been seen since “Twilight.” The book, by EL James (a pseudonym for British TV executive Erika Leonard), actually started as fan-fiction for characters from Stephenie Meyer‘s books, entitled “Master Of The Universe,” later reworked, extended and republished as a stand-alone piece, and released as an e-book over three volumes between May 2011 and January 2012. It became a word-of-mouth hit, picked up by Vintage Books for a wider commercial release this April, and has, in a little over a year, sold 20 million copies across the three books — accounting for one in every five hardback fiction novels sold, with Leonard said to be earning $1 million a week for her troubles. It’s all the more impressive considering that the story is unashamed, and reasonably explicit, erotica, not a genre that’s led to blockbuster sales figures.
And inevitably, despite the dangers involved, film rights were swiftly snapped up, with Universal‘s indie arm Focus Features winning the bidding war, ahead of the likes of Warners, Sony and Paramount, with the prestige of James Schamus‘ company, behind films like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” apparently swinging it, although James apparently retains virtually unheard-of creative control over the adaptation. The film(s) isn’t being fast-tracked, but Variety reported this morning that producers have spent the last week pitching to be put in charge of the project, so clearly movement is happening.
And as such, we thought it might a good opportunity to do what your mom’s been doing for weeks, and what you’ve been thinking about getting up the courage to do, and actually reading the thing, thinking about who might be decent candidates to direct and star in the eventual film (Angelina Jolie was mentioned at one point as director, but it seemed to have been nothing more rumors). It’s clear from Leonard’s demands that we’re looking at something that will at least have the veneer of prestige; indeed Focus head James Schamus has suggested that he might write the screenplay himself, as he did for “The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Lust, Caution,” among others.
As for the book itself, it’s safe to say it’s not going to be in consideration for the Pulitzer or anything. There’s only really about one-and-a-half book’s worth of story across the three novels (an adaptation would be wise to make one or two films, rather than three, but that would pretty much be a case of throwing money away, so it’s unlikely to happen), and the prose is mostly of about the level you’d expect for something that started as fan fiction (for a fun way to put yourself into a coma, drink a shot every time the words “inner goddess” appear) and things slow to a boring, boring crawl every time the central couple aren’t fucking.
There is however, plenty of fucking (spiced up with a dash of S&M) and this is obviously the stuff that’s made the book sell into the millions. There’s undoubtedly sexier, better-written erotica out there, but as a sort of gateway, a not-too-threatening, not-too-chaste “Twilight” with nipple clamps, we can probably see the appeal. What’s interesting is how it makes it to the screen; even done without “Shortbus“-style real sex, the book as written is pretty much a guaranteed NC-17, and yet to tone it down would be to risk losing what everyone liked about it in the first place.
And it’ll also affect the kind of filmmakers and actors it can attract. Stars resistant to nudity or sex scenes can pretty much be counted out of the running, and ideally you’d need a filmmaker with some experience in that field too — the risk is that the visual isn’t always going to live up to what the reader imagines (something which Leonard herself seems to be worried about) and could be a little prosaic on screen. We’d also argue that being told through a woman’s point of view is a fairly crucial part of the book’s success (anecdotally, several friends have told us that’s part of what hooked them), and perhaps having a female director might be a way of retaining that perspective and sensitivity on the big screen, as well as hopefully ironing out some of the more questionable gender issues.
But preamble aside, below you’ll find our view on who would be sensible hires for Focus not only to direct the film, but also star as the two leads, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey (we’re leaving the supporting cast alone for now, mainly because it’s pretty much a two-hander, in the first book at least). Obviously, there’s a certain amount of projection going on with fan-casting of this kind, so you’re likely to disagree; feel free to weigh in with your own picks in the comments section below.
The position’s still wide open, and aside from Schamus, there are no writers in the mix, so we could well see a writer-director on board, and that might be preferable, in order for someone to stamp a particular vision on a text that could need it. A Focus Features budget means we’re unlikely to see a bona-fide A-lister.
Our Pick: New Zealand helmer Jane Campion. The director has shown a sure hand with female sexuality in the Oscar-winning “The Piano,” and delved into a darker, S&M happy side of sexuality with “In The Cut.” That film was poisonously received (in part thanks to a miscast Meg Ryan, who replaced Nicole Kidman), but it’s more interesting than its reputation suggests. If Campion can make a film as chaste as “Bright Star” so sexy, than she could certainly bring genuine eroticism to “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” and could probably use a studio-endorsed hit at this point; her current project is the BBC miniseries “Top Of The Lake.”
Other Choices We Like: The involvement of Schamus makes his regular collaborator Ang Lee a genuine possibility, and we can absolutely see him being a good choice, particularly after the risque “Lust, Caution,” one of the biggest-grossing NC-17 releases ever. Sarah Polley‘s “Take This Waltz” recently explored similar territory in terms of the awakening of female sexuality, and she’d do a spectacular job, but we can’t realistically see her being interested. It’d be fascinating to see Paul Verhoeven‘s take, but we’re not sure Focus would trust him with the material. A safer pair of hands would be Ben Lewin, whose sexually-frank “The Sessions” looks to be a major awards player later this year, although that film’s considerably warmer.
Other Possibilities: In terms of more studio-friendly names, Steven Soderbergh might be feasible if he wasn’t retiring, while Adrian Lyne made his name on this kind of fare, he’s hasn’t made a film for a decade, but is currently gearing up to return with “Back Roads.” From the indie world, Dee Rees, Debra Granik, Lynn Shelton, Julia Leigh, Sofia Coppola or Paul Schrader would all be interesting choices, but probably unlikely ones, while the riskiest, will-never-happen-but-would-be-perfect choice would be French auteur Catherine Breillat. A good compromise would be Philip Kaufman, who’s been in this kind of territory before with “Henry & June” and “Quills,” and recently made something of a comeback with HBO‘s “Hemingway & Gellhorn.”
The Role: A virginal 22-year-old university grad who wants to work in publishing, Anastasia (or Ana), covers for her roommate Kate to interview Christian Grey, and finds herself drawn to him, discovering sides of herself she never knew existed. She’s described as a “pale, brown-eyed girl” with “eyes too big for her face”
Our Pick: Analeigh Tipton. The former model (who came to fame thanks to “America’s Next Top Model” has made an impressive transition to screen acting, first thanks to rom-com “Crazy Stupid Love” and then Whit Stillman‘s “Damsels In Distress.” A good match for the physical description and age, and a talented actress who’s unlikely to make the part as much of a pushover as some might. But despite some risque moments in her modeling, and in a recurring role on HBO‘s “Hung,” would she sign off on the nudity required?
Other Choices We Like: Felicity Jones has become a bit of a fan favorite for the part, and we can certainly see why; although she’s 28, she looks significantly younger, and could pull off the inherent innocence of the character easily. But again, she might resist a part quite as explicit as this one, especially as she’s being offered everything in town these days. Perhaps more open to it, given some of their past work, are Elizabeth Olsen (although she’s equally in demand) or “Game Of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke, if the latter wouldn’t be too constricted by her HBO obligations to sign on to a trilogy of movies. Jones’ “Albatross” co-star Jessica Brown-Findlay might be a possibility, although the actress oozes sexuality, and we wonder if she could pull of the repressed nature of the role early on.
Other Possibilities: Kristen Stewart, inevitably, has been much talked about by fans, while names like Lily Collins, Anna Kendrick and Shailene Woodley have come up too, though most have more wholesome images. Either Teresa Palmer or Emily Browning feel like good, if very different fits, while British actress Imogen Poots and rising star Bella Heathcote are very plausible as well. Another offbeat suggestion we like: Samantha Barks, who has a plum role in “Les Miserables” that looks to make her a star.
The Role: A 28-year-old billionaire from a troubled background, who’s used an interest in dominant sexuality and S&M to avoid opening up emotionally to anyone, who picks Anastasia to be his new submissive. He’s described as “tall, well dressed” with “copper-colored hair and intense green eyes.” For what it’s worth, an academic recently released a photo composite of what women had told him they thought the character looked like, and you can see that here. Spoiler: it doesn’t resemble Paul Giamatti.
Our Choice: Fast-rising star Tom Hiddleston. At 31, he’s as close to the age required, has his star firmly on the rise thanks to “The Avengers” (which let him be brooding and dark), and is a good fit for the character’s description. Has displayed his romantic stripes in “The Deep Blue Sea,” and pulled off a strong American accent as F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Midnight In Paris.” But would the shackles of his Marvel contract, which likely still has several films to go even after “Thor 2“, mean he might resist another franchise for now?
Other Choices We Like: Another Brit, Henry Cavill, could be a good fit for the part, but again, he could be tied up with superhero business for the immediate future, unless “Man Of Steel” tanks. Armie Hammer is another one who springs to mind, but is he too old-money to come off as the son of a crack addict? We like the idea of Joel Kinnaman in the part too, who has a certain exoticism, and likely isn’t yet too big to take the role. One chocie that might seem unlikely until you think about it: Benedict Cumberbatch, whose fervent female fanbase has a lot of cross over with a target audience, and has a certain dark sexuality to him (see: “Sherlock“). But is he too old at 35?
Other Choices: Fans have brought up the names of Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Andrew Garfield, but we can’t see any of the three, arguably the most sought-after actors around, being willing to do it, and the same likely goes for Channing Tatum. Alexander Skarsgard is a more plausible choice, while Justin Timberlake could arguably work too if he tones down certain aspects of his personality. Ian Somerhalder is a serious favorite among fans, but we suspect more for the looks than his acting skills… For a younger take, rising star Sam Claflin (“Snow White & The Huntsman“) might be be possible. And for our curveball: porn star James Deen, currently making his straight acting debut in Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis‘ “The Canyons.”