Sometimes the best novels make the worst films, and sometimes the worst novels make the best films. Classic movies like Jaws, The Godfather and The Exorcist were all adapted from books that received lukewarm to damning reviews. Meanwhile, the latest version of The Great Gatsby and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit prequels were met with hostility despite their enormous popularity as literature. This happens because the quality of a book-to-film adaptation depends on how its filmmakers interpret the content. Movies and books are two very different mediums after all, and what works on one may not necessarily work on the other.
In the case of Fifty Shades Of Grey (which is available on an early digital release from Blinkbox as of today) Nowhere Boy director Sam Taylor-Johnson and Saving Mr. Banks writer Kelly Marcel attempted to do the former. They aimed to take the crux of EL James’ largely unreadable novel and weed out its flaws to create an unlikely exploration of the power roles and politics in a sexual relationship.
The story of the worldwide phenomenon is well known. Virginal student Anastasia Steele becomes attracted to the enigmatic and intimidating Seattle billionaire Christian Grey. After a few awkward encounters and plenty of sexual tension (actors Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan have amazing chemistry in the movie that fleshes out the novel’s undeveloped protagonists into genuine, multifaceted human beings) she soon discovers that his idea of a relationship is far from conventional. Uninterested in romance or love, he instead desires Anastasia’s co-operation in a light BDSM relationship. This is what turns him on, and an entire section of his expansive penthouse apartment is dedicated to his ‘playroom’ of various sexual contraptions and mechanisms to fulfill his kinky desires.
In order for their unusual sexual relationship to begin, however, Christian Grey demands that Anastasia sign a contract to allow the practice to go ahead. In Taylor-Johnson and Marcel’s movie, the bulk of the drama is dedicated to Ana debating whether or not to sign it and become submissive to his sexual predilections. Fifty Shades Of Grey posits that compromise and negotiation are key components of a relationship, envisioning sex as something of a business exchange. The highlight of the film is a conference about the contract’s particulars that is ironically shot by Director Of Photography Seamus McGarvey and performed by the lead actors as if Christian and Ana are on a romantic date.
Christian perceives himself to be the dominant figure in their relationship, the one who literally and metaphorically holds the power. While it may be true in his ‘playroom’, it is actually much harder to define which of them is really the dominant and submissive in the Fifty Shades movie. Christian may have physical control over Ana, but Ana’s emotional control over Christian is just as strong. She touches Christian on an emotional level he previously thought was non-existent, driving him to lengths as extreme as following her across the country and sneaking into her bedroom as he struggles to comprehend the feelings he has for her. The power-play between them is quite thrilling to behold – especially because Kelly Marcel has thankfully discarded James’ hilariously awful narration. She trusts Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan to do the heavy lifting here with nuanced, internalised and restrained performances. And they deliver.