8 March 2015
London 

Fifty Shades of Grey continues a well-worn and lucrative literary tradition of bad writing about kinky sex. Sam Taylor-Wood’s new film version attempts to salvage the story for the arthouse crowd – but is it any good?

Sometimes there’s nothing better than the transgressive thrill of reading a dirty book. Most of my adolescence was punctuated by covert readings of erotic fiction. My desk mate Deborah in 4th form English lent me a well-thumbed copy of Flowers of the Attic, which fell open conveniently to the passages describing brother-sister incest. My sister’s collection of Clan of the Cave Bear novels supplemented my meagre Catholic school sex education, and provided useful guidance on how to skin a mammoth. From there, I moved on to the hardcore stuff: the Kama Sutra, purloined from the Reference Only section of the local library; the “Readers’ Wives” columns in skin mags sold at my corner dairy; and, inevitably, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which Mellors the gamekeeper raved about lesbians and Socialism in between bouts of buggery in the woodshed.

They were confusing times, but through it all I learned a few reassuring truths. Office desks are actually made for rough rear-entry sex, not doing work on. Wearing panties should be the exception rather than the rule. And, most importantly, the majority of writing about sex is actually quite bad, which seems to be part of its charm.

Though it all seemed terribly pervy at the time, my youthful fumblings through bad erotica now reads like something from a Victorian novel. Who knew that the 80s, that decade of big hair, shoulderpads, fast cars and incest in the attic, would one day be viewed as passé or even prudish? But so it is. In our post-Internet age, one can quite easily access the kind of hardcore pornography that would have given D. H. Lawrence a stroke and sent Anais Nin to a nunnery. We now live in an aggressively sexualised age, a world of sexy underwear ads and slut-shaming, where DP doesn’t mean “director of photography” and creampies have nothing to do with baking. Wank mags and dirty books have gone the way of the penny farthing bicycle, a charming relic from a more innocent time.

With sex – or at least orange-skinned pornographic depictions of it – available 24 hours a day on our computers and iPhones, it seems surprising that the dirty book would still have a life. Enter Fifty Shades of Grey, an execrably written but insanely successful book by English writer E. L. James, which is the mega-bestselling bonkbuster of the digital age. 50 Shades began life as self-published Twilight fan fiction, penned (or should I say typed) by Ms James on her morning commute to work as a BBC producer. Inexplicably, it found an an audience and made great sales through good word-of-mouth. Picked up and re-published by Vintage Books in 2012, 50 Shades and its two sequels have since become the biggest sellers in publishing history, selling over 70 million copies, and estimated to have been read by 100 million people.

The success of trilogy was thought to have been boosted by the emergence of Kindles, which allow self-conscious readers to have their guilty pleasure without fear of exposure or judgment. This in itself suggests that, despite all the rumpy-pumpy available online, there’s still a mental block when it comes to admitting to reading about sex – at least for women. That said, there seemed to be a hell of a lot of readers of all genders who were quite happy to read the paperback version on public transport in London in 2012. The book’s distinctive grey tie cover illustration became as ubiquitous a part of London life as the Sun’s Page 3 Girls (though those unfortunate creatures have since been consigned to the dustbin of history).

I sped through 50 Shades in a single morning, somewhat relieved that it didn’t take me the ten and a half hours estimated by my Kindle reader. As everyone else who’s read it can attest to, the prose is laughingly bad. It’s told in the breathless voice of Anastasia, a 21 year old college student who meets and is devirginised by Christian Grey, a devilishly handsome and fabulously wealthy 27 year-old business magnate. Christian is courtly and charming – excellent with parents, a dab hand playing Bach and Chopin on the piano, and generous to a fault. He buys Ana a first edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (one of James’ entertainingly pretentious references to greater works of literature than hers), and thoughtfully holds back Ana’s hair while she’s sick all over his Prada loafers.

Christian seems like Ana’s Mr Right, but in the grand tradition of bad romantic fiction, he has a dark side. As Ana soon learns, Christian doesn’t “do” relationships. “I don’t make love,” he tells her. “I fuck. Hard.” Ana’s bottom lip quivers – she’s forever biting it, you see, which gets Christian all excited. Before you can say “nipple clamp”, Christian is giving Ana a tour of his Red Room of Pain, a velvet-lined bordello in a quiet wing of his penthouse apartment, where he likes to tie up and beat his lady friends. He invites Ana to enter into a contract whereby she becomes his submissive. In between bouts of eye-wateringly athletic sex, they haggle over the small print in the contract. Will Ana consent to being tied up with rope or masking tape? Is anal fisting in or out? Things have certainly changed since the days of Mellors and Lady Chatterley.

James’ choice to narrate the story in the voice of a self-involved 21 year old gives her free rein to pen some horrifically purple prose. “Holy crap!” Ana says in moments of crisis, with “Holy fuck!” or “Double crap!” for really bad days. Ana also has a strange tendency to reference her medulla oblongata and her subconscious, as if they were zany supporting characters in the TV show of her life. Then there’s Ana’s “inner goddess”, who acts as a kind of schizoid life coach in moments of romantic crisis. “My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves”, Ana reports, after giving Christian a blow job in the bath. As things get more difficult, her inner goddess “looks like someone snatched her ice cream”, but returns, undaunted, to “pole vault over the fifteen-foot bar”. What a shame Ana couldn’t have gotten in touch with her inner Simone de Beauvoir or Andrea Dworkin, dumped Christian at page 50, and taken her inner goddess out for more ice cream.

While Ana umms and aaahs over whether to give herself to Christian, and has an occasional moment of moral self-awareness. “He likes to hurt women. The thought depresses me,” she says. Her angst doesn’t last long. Mostly, she consoles herself with the material advantages of dating a multi-millionaire. First editions of Victorian novels are all very well, but things only really heat up when Christian buys her some useful shit: a Blackberry to call him on, a new laptop on which to research kinky sex, and eventually a new car, which is pegged as a graduation present but which we suspect is really to shag in. There are private jets, fast cars, rivers of champagne, platters of oysters, designer dresses, stiletto heels and enough designer label name-dropping to sink a ship. Bollinger, Calvin Klein, Ray Ban, Converse, Audi – they all trip off the tongue like dirty talk in foreplay. As Andrew O’Hagan points out in his witty demolition of 50 Shades in the London Review of Books, Ana isn’t so much submissive to Christian’s will as she is to a Dynasty-era fantasy of new money and material consumption. It’s the bling, not just Christian’s mighty erection, that has Ana (and, presumably, Ms James) continually on the brink of orgasm. James seems to pride herself on Ana’s decision to give back all the gifts in the book’s finale. Ana’s not just a whore, you see, and her love can’t be bought – at least not until the start of the second book, Fifty Shades Darker, when she calls Christian and asks him for a ride in his private jet to attend a friend’s art show.

The success of 50 Shades is depressing news for those of us who still believe in the art of the novel, and who hope that humankind might want to read something that isn’t utter trash before we slide into the abyss. That said, when 100 million people read anything, it is incumbent on us as a calcifying species to ask why.

To say that 50 Shades is badly written is to state the truth, but also somehow to miss the point. Like most erotica, it deals in sexual fantasy, and most sexual fantasy tends to be repetitive and over-ripe. (The Kama Sutra and the torture porn of the Marquis de Sade are similarly mind-numbing in their repetitiveness). Not all of us choose to share our sexual fantasies in print, but James has, and in doing so, she’s apparently found millions of people who are just as into shopping and fucking as she is.

50 Shades has been dubbed “mummy porn”, apparently of its popularity among well-heeled suburban book groups, and also because it presents a middle class female fantasy of sex. Christian Grey embodies the post-Sex & the City era ideal of the heterosexual male as a Calvin Klein commercial. He’s muscled and body hair free (but for a “dusting” of chest hair, we’re told), with a boyish mane of “untameable” copper hair and an inner melancholy that looks great in profile. Most of the realistic aspects of heterosexual masculinity have been strategically airbrushed away. Christian never breaks wind, talks with his mouth open, scratches his crotch in public or insists on watching the football rather than pleasuring his novice girlfriend. We’re repeatedly told that he smells good – a magical combination of stench-free sweat and body wash that always seems to be on tap. The sex is rough, but always clean, and relatively femme-friendly. Christian is forever eating Ana out, but fellatio is kept to a minimum. There’s no anal sex at all, despite Christian keeping an array of butt plugs in his Red Room. He always uses condoms, no one seems to use lubricant, much less spill it on the sheets, there’s no fanny farting or embarrassing discharges, and everything ends with a nice hot shower and a reassuring hug. Welcome to sex in the post-capitalist post-feminist age: clean, clinical, clitoris-friendly and served under recessed lighting on Egyptian cotton sheets.

Many women will, I’m sure, recoil at this version of female pleasure, and at James’ soulless packaging of sex as an endless array of shuddering climaxes and Platinum credit cards. The BDSM community has, quite understandably, been dismissive of 50 Shades. Despite James’ explicit descriptions of bondage and flogging, her take on kinky sex is inherently conservative. Christian is a dominant because of his seduction at age 15 by an older woman, who Ana contemptuously nicknames “Mrs Robinson”. His sadism is presented as evidence of his inability to love, a pathology left over from a childhood of physical abuse. This kind of backstory isn’t unheard of in the BDSM community, but James isn’t really interested in exploring the psychology of a healthy BDSM relationship. All that duct tape and bottom smacking is just a means to an end, a romantic obstacle that Ana must wrestle with in the pursuit to Get Her Man.

Then again, not everyone is a critic. My friend Gemma Gracewood, who reviewed 50 Shades for Metro magazine, comments approvingly on the many scenes in which Christian encourages Ana to eat and pours champagne down her throat. If 50 Shades works at all, it’s an X-rated fantasy of self-indulgence – Bridget Jones with a spanking paddle, if you will – in which the heroine is told repeatedly that she’s beautiful and can eat whatever the hell she likes. And let’s just throw in a brand new Audi while we’re at it. As the L’Oreal skin cream adverts say: “You’re worth it.”

Given the massive popularity of the 50 Shades trilogy, a film adaptation was inevitable. When the source material is this over-ripe, filmmakers have one of two choices: stay true to the pulp fiction elements of the original and make an unashamedly trashy film, or try to polish a turd and turn it into art. There are one or two cases of the latter working well. Case in point, The Bridges of Madison County, a turgid novella by Robert James Waller that chronicled a three-day affair between an Iowan housewife entanglement and a wandering photographer. Waller’s prose was awful, but it sold in its millions. With strategic pruning by director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and a great central performance by Meryl Streep, the film was an emotional knockout – evidence that it is possible to spin straw into gold.

50 Shades peddles a much harsher form of romantic fantasy than Waller’s Mills & Boon-inspired tale, and is accordingly a more difficult project to adapt. Things probably weren’t helped by James retaining a Stasi-like degree of control over the film adaptation. (She reputedly secured rights of approval over the script, director, stars, and even the choice of butt plugs). Fortunately, Taylor-Johnson and Marcel manage to excise quite a bit of James’ awful dialogue, paring back the excess and focusing on the central relationship. While the result is far from a great movie, it’s considerably better than the steaming pile of shite it could have been.

As Ana, Dakota Johnson makes a plausible little girl lost, biting her lip most fetchingly and projecting an air of wide-eyed innocence that’s seldom cloying. Her Ana is a more reserved and eminently more believable character than the inner goddess-quoting nymphomaniac of the book. We discover Christian’s world, as she does, one step at a time. Though she seldom loses her composure (or her lip gloss), Ana is clearly in over her head, and Johnson offers a mostly coherent exploration of Ana’s dark sexual journey.

Christian Grey is less-well written character, and, like most fantasies, near impossible to embody. Irish actor Jamie Dornan seemed like the perfect casting, at least on paper. A former Calvin Klein model, he has a lean muscled physique that matches James’ CougarTown fantasies, and a sweet boyish face that ably suggests a 27 year-old lost boy. Best of all, Dornan brings with him the sense memory (at least for British viewers) of his performance as a sadistic serial killer in the ITV series The Fall, a character who’s only a Gucci suit and a helipad or two removed from Christian. Once Dornan opens his pretty mouth, however, it’s a different story. He struggles with the American accent and the ridiculous dialogue, and is visibly uneasy in much of the film, as if trying to mentally distance himself from the action. It’s not exactly his fault – it’s a dog of a role – but this leaves Johnson to do most of the heavy lifting, which is tricky given that she spends much of the film trussed up like a Christmas turkey.

The film is handsomely photographed by Seamus McGarvey, who makes the pristine surfaces of Christian’s world glitter with an otherworldly sheen. In the book, James offers up all the bling for unironic consumption; in the film, it’s as if Ana has fallen into a dark fairytale world that she’s not sure she wants to stay in. Marcel’s script finds a welcome vein of self-knowing humour, that helps cushion some of the more ridiculous plot twists. Scenes that were deadly in the book – Christian buying duct tape and rope from Ana at the hardware store where she works, the contract negotiation scene – are played here as black comedy. Like her mother Melanie Griffiths, Ms Johnson is a deft comedienne, and her laughter in awkward moments gives the audience permission to do the same.

The humour of the first half sets the audience up well for the second act sex scenes, which are filmed with impressive frankness. Taylor-Johnson is a director who takes sex seriously, and seems up for showing all fifty shades of the lovers’ sexual relationship. The penultimate sex montage, where Christian gives Ana a thorough tour of his Red Room gadgetry, is sobering and disquieting, filled with an air of menace that seems appropriate for a relationship that’s largely about coercion. In Taylor-Johnson’s hands, the film finds a moral centre that the book never quite managed. Ana’s final “No!” isn’t just to Christian – it’s a declaration of purpose to the censors and to every naysayer who criticised James’ story for glorifying sexual violence against women. Ana is reinvented as a latter-day feminist, who tries to please her man but concludes that it’s more important to choose herself instead.

This is a refreshingly grown up approach for a film about sex, and something of a triumph for Taylor-Johnson and her team. It’s also the film’s biggest failing. James’ novel is trash, with no literary merit to speak of, but it succeeds as a brash and unapologetic form of all-you-can-eat pornography. A filmed version of 50 Shades, made by a major Hollywood studio and intended for a mass market, will never be able to reach James’ multi-orgasmic highs and lows. Constrained by the limits of film censorship, and no doubt wishing to not stoop to the most common denominator, Taylor-Johnson’s film does away with genitals, erections, penetration and cum shots and – but for a brief moment – pubic hair. Even more puzzlingly, she gets rid of orgasms, which seems like a mistake. Even 50 Shades’ harshest critics wouldn’t deny its heroine the opportunity to get off, which Ana does at least every ten pages in the book. In the film, Ms Johnson writhes and pants obligingly, but never manages to find her joy spot. It’s unclear whether orgasm scenes were removed to please the censors, or whether Taylor-Johnson was just trying to be classy and not make a porn film. But therein lies the problem of trying to adapt a text like 50 Shades. Try as she might, Taylor-Johnson and her classy arthouse film is never going to be able to compete with good old-fashioned filth.

Lack of orgasms notwithstanding, the film of 50 Shades has already made mega-squillions, which means that adaptations of the sequels are only a whip crack away. If they know what’s good for them, Taylor-Johnson and her stars will hopefully take their pay cheques and run for the hills. In an ideal world, someone would then exhume Russ Meyer, the director of sexploitation films Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Supervixens, to continue the franchise. Meyer, an unashamed B-movie director who never saw a D-cup he didn’t like, would be sure to make the kind of tasteless big titty schlockfest that James’ crappy books truly deserve.

Until then, we’re left with the conundrum of a pulp novel that wants to be art, and an art film that isn’t as dirty as it should be and – fatally – fails to get the audience off. Maybe it’s time for me to hunt out a second hand copy of Flowers In the Attic and relive the good old days of kinky sex again.

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