Fifty Shades of Criticism

Having a verbal discussion about Fifty Shades of Grey is challenging. The book is a loaded subject and one that at this point has been discussed into oblivion and back. The ramblings of one more person isn’t going to change public perception on the novel, nor should it. On episode thirty of the Pop and Schlock Podcast I spoke about the book’s film adaptation and how it should be viewed as its own entity and judged on the merits presented therein, ignoring the book that spawned the adaptation. I argued that the film improves on the novel in almost every aspect, which I still stand by. It would be hard not to improve on a book that poorly written. I have made it across the finish line on many a terrible book. I could not do that with E.L. James poorly written and terribly constructed mainstream smut. I have annotations on how and why the book is beyond problematic and how as a character Christian Grey is a sociopathic abuser and will not argue that as he is presented on paper, he fits that category. That is not in dispute. That readers are romanticizing him and treating him as an object of desire in spite of this evidence is also not in dispute. Arguing that the film adaptation is without merit or somehow devoid of consequence or craft because of the soil from which it grew is however, something that I would wish to dispute.

    As presented on film, the abuse present in the novel is largely redacted. Christian Grey on film is respectful of Anastasia’s wishes and allows her full agency with regard to her decision to engage in a consensual BDSM relationship. He never ignores a safeword and reiterates multiple times that she has the power and the right to leave at any time. The climax of the film features a scene in which Ana verbally asks Christian to demonstrate his idea of punishment, which he does by spanking her with a leather strap six times. He clearly defines what he is going to do, and before commencing Anastasia has ample time to decline and exit the premises. As the activity is being carried out, she too can utilize a safeword to alter the proceedings; yellow to slow down because she is nearing her personal limit or red to stop entirely. She utilizes neither. She demonstrated at an earlier point in the film verbally to Christian that she understands and is aware of her safewords and her ability to end the scene. She chooses to leave Christian only after the scene has concluded. She tells him to stop following her as she exits with a firm “No,” which he complies with immediately. He does not disregard her wishes at any point in the film’s runtime. Thus, one of the major elements of contention with the novel is erased, a change made for the better by more talented creative forces than the original novel’s author.

If then we can agree that the major element of contention that establishes the original novel as overtly problematic is rectified by changes made in the course of adapting it to screen, my contention during the podcast was that any notations of what happens between Anastasia and Christian as “abusive” by critics then reverts to simple kink shaming. Logically, if the act is consensual and safe, which by my estimation the events portrayed on screen were, then claims of abuse are seeded in a need to judge the activities as deviant by the person giving critique. To argue that abuse does not happen in BDSM relationships is naive and downright wrong, but I am not making a statement about that community or the issues that permeate the members thereof. Speaking solely of what is presented on screen, the BDSM in the film adaptation ofFifty Shades of Grey lacks the offending elements that so many critics of the book get worked into a furor over.

Thus, establishing that there is little to be offended by in the film unless you rally against it for being deviant in its subject matter or simply for being explicit in its depiction of sexual content, the film can be judged as an adaptation and a work of cinema in the same manner as any other adaptation of a piece of writing, be it established literary fiction, modern popular fiction, comic books, or even non-fiction narrative writing. With that in mind, there is little to find contention with while watching the film. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is stunning and transforms a normally dreary Seattle setting into something sleek and refined, with a polished look that raises the presentation of the material above its contemporaries such as hastily produced Lifetime original films or daytime soap operas. This is a film that when viewed in high definition is buoyed by its production value. One of the sole saving graces of Michael Bay’s Transformers films is that they are beautifully rendered at times, and if we can give praise to Michael Bay for his visuals, we can certainly do the same for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Another point of critical contention, at least with regard to the books, was the cringe-worthy writing that E.L. James placed into the mouths of our primary characters. In the novel, Anastasia’s first person narration makes the prose practically unreadable, as it labors the reader’s ability to suspend their disbelief that they are reading the thoughts of a young college graduate and not a sexually frustrated housewife. By adapting the novel to screen, this element is removed as well. We are forced to view the proceedings without an audience surrogate force-feeding information as the narrative progresses. That is not to say that the film couldn’t have kept that same first person perspective. The director and screenwriter might have opted for a Goodfellas approach and given Anastasia the chance to narrate the proceedings in a dreadful voiceover. By making this change, we can see that the producers of this film recognized the flaws of the original text and sought to improve on it wherever possible. With this one choice they have immediately elevated the text beyond its origins and should be given commendations for their efforts.

The final point of contention that a majority of critics latched onto was the idea that the performances in the film were subpar. Nothing on screen in Fifty Shades of Grey feels as if it were phoned in or slept through. The same cannot be said for performances in other films I have witnessed in the past month. Nobody involved in the production of Jupiter Ascendinggave a performance that had a twelfth of the charisma exhibited by Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey. This film should be, and hopefully will be, a star-making turn for her as an actress, as she proves that she can handle a major film franchise with aplomb. Something that cannot be said of actresses in other major releases. Kristen Stewart has respectable acting talent as evidenced in her roles in Adventureland and The Runaways,but she lacked the patience or investment to turn Bella Swan into a realized individual the way that Johnson did with Anastasia Steele, a character who was wholly unlikeable on page but a charming and well-rounded person on screen.

The argument that needs to be made is this; that Fifty Shades of Grey is as deserving of legitimate observation and critique as any other film in wide release and that the level of mockery it has received from so-called film journalists since it hit theaters is indicative of a bully mentality that they so often try to crusade against when the same shallow criticisms are lobbied at the properties that they have a personal investment in. Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the most important movies of this year for a myriad of reasons and those being dismissive of it are doing so due to their own agenda. Objectively speaking, this film is better constructed, in many ways, than Oscar nominees like American Sniper. At least nobody had to cradle a plastic baby in Fifty Shades of Grey. Make of that what you will.


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