The '50 Shades of Grey' Film Will Be Better Than the Book (but Still Bad)

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The movie version of E.L. James's series—which began as Twilight fan fiction—will be an adaptation of an adaptation. Which is at least a better reason to exist than the original novels had.

50 shades Andrew Matthews aP.jpg
AP / Andrew Matthews

50 Shades of Grey, the erotic romance series by E.L. James, was a massive international best-seller and publishing phenomenon. This, of course, means there must be a movie. And so there shall be; the internet is already abuzz with grim foreshadowings ... er, teasers. The film will be NC-17! Alexander Skarsgard may play Christian Grey and show off his incredibly enormous penis! Mila Kunis or Amanda Seyfried may play Anna, which means we'll get to see Mila Kunis or Amanda Seyfried in nipple clamps! And so forth.

It's probably needless to say, but I'll say it anyway: The movie is going to be dreadful. The 50 Shades of Grey novels are almost incomprehensibly bad. To stick with the most obvious problem, both Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, our romantic leads, are smug, self-absorbed, whiny drama-queens with the combined intelligence of a stump. The fact that we are supposed to believe that Christian is a brilliant self-made multimillionaire and that Anna has a profound love of literature only throws into high relief the bleak banality of their every thought and utterance. These are people who think it is the height of flirtatious wittiness to refer to each other as "Mr. Grey" and "Miss Steele." The idea that anyone—even Christian Grey—could fall in love with such a repulsive, vacuous specimen as Anastasia Steele is ludicrously implausible, and vice versa.

And yet, the gargantuan awfulness of the books is not just a trap for the films. It's also an opportunity. Even if the films are very bad, they still have a good chance of doing that thing that films almost never do: being better than the books.

In part, this is simple regression to the mean. E.L. James is such a poor writer that whichever Hollywood hack does the script almost has to be an improvement. Similarly, having even a mediocre actor portray Anna with facial expression and line readings has to be better than relying on James's aggressively arid inner monologue full of "Holy shit!"'s and "Holy crap!"'s and constant references to Anna's "inner goddess." Plus, would you rather read overwrought prose about Christian inserting silver balls into Anna, or would you rather watch Alexander Skarsgard insert silver balls into Mila Kunis? James has to keep telling us how sexy Christian and Anna are. Hollywood can provide us with actual world-class physiques of both genders.

In short, Hollywood has mastered fan service. Which is a huge advantage in this case, because 50 Shades of Grey is virtually nothing but fan service.

50 Shades the novel is fan fiction robbed of its source material. But the film will be an adaptation designed to echo the popular book—so it'll be close to fan fiction itself.

Indeed, the novels famously started life as Twilight fan fiction—Anastasia was Bella, and Christian was Edward. The names have been changed, but for those who have read Stephenie Meyer's series, the links are still pretty visible. Christian, like Edward, is a control freak obsessed with Anna/Bella's safety. He plays classical piano like Edward did to show that he is incredibly romantic and deep. Anna loves literature like Bella did to show that she is incredibly romantic and deep. She's also sporadically klutzy, like her prototype (the first time she meets Christian, she falls face first on his office floor.) The ensemble cast, too, is familiar. Anna's fishing-loving dad, her flighty mom with her new husband, and Christian's hyper-perky pixie sister all recall Twilight prototypes. And then there's the way that Anna's best friend marries Christian's brother while Christian's sister marries Anna's best friend's brother, so that the extended family turns into a giant happy incestuous scrum, mirroring the queasy brother-sister extended family weirdness of Meyer's vampiric Cullen clan.

These shadows of Twilight past aren't just poorly erased errata. In a lot of ways, they are the book's essence. 50 Shades of Grey isn't so much plotted as staged. It's a series of tableaux—and those tableaux get their energy in large part from the fan-fiction context. Watch Christian-as-Edward spank Anna-as-Bella! Watch Edward buy Bella a car! Watch Bella and Edward rush to her father's bedside after an accident! Watch Bella pretend to break up with Edward because of some ridiculously improbable kidnapping plot! You can change the names if you want, but the dynamics remain the same. Narrative, characterization, logic—all are secondary to the cathartic set-pieces for fans. It's the romance equivalent of having Batman fight Superman over and over for 1600 pages.

Of course, the whole point of the exercise is called into question if you have to refer to Batman as "Rodentman" and Superman as "Bob." Which is, again, why a film version of 50 Shades seems in some ways like it would be more logical, or at least more comprehensible, than the books themselves. The novels treat the characters as if you care about them in themselves—as if you have affection for them going in, and want to see what happens to them because of that affection, rather than because they are in themselves likable, or even tolerable.

But what seems like presumption in the books suddenly becomes par for the course in a film version. 50 Shades the novel is fan fiction robbed of its source material. But 50 Shades the film will be an adaptation designed to get mileage through echoing the popular book—which is to say, it'll be very close to being fan fiction itself. People who see the film really will care about Christian and Anna, because they will have already read about them. The weirdly disconnected and emotionally unmotivated action of the book will, in the film, have a referent—that referent being the book itself.

Filmgoers like to see adaptations of books they've read. It's not a good reason for a film to come into existence—but at least it's a reason of some sort, which is more than the orphaned, de-Bella-ed book has going for it. A movie audience—even (especially?) a movie audience that hasn't read the book—will know that they're supposed to like Anna because there were a bunch of best-sellers about her. Rather than book-Anna, pretending to be of interest in her own right, we get movie-Anna, who is simply another legacy-character marketing meme. 50 Shades the movie doesn't have to be coy about its derivativeness the way the book does. As a result, it's bound to be at least marginally more coherent than its source material.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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