After you’ve seen Fifty Shades of Grey, come back and listen to Amanda Hess, Dan Kois, and Dana Stevens discuss the film in Slate’s Spoiler Special:
The two words most conspicuously absent from the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey are “Holy crap.” In the book, our heroine, Anastasia Steele, uses the phrase the way people used “dude” in the ’90s: to underline every emotion, from furious to indignant to scared to embarrassed to utterly delighted. Given the extreme control series author E.L. James is said to have exerted over the movie, the omission is curious. Perhaps Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia in the movie, convinced James that no woman of her acquaintance has ever said those words to signify anything. Missing too from the movie is Anastasia’s internal monologue, the quickening and spinning and clenching and “flying, flying high”—those oddly quaint and euphemistic softcore idioms of the book that no live, post-Victorian woman in heat has ever had running through her mind.
In the book, Anastasia is described as “pale,” “scruffy,” clumsy, a virgin because she floats through life never touching the ground. She fancies herself literary and writes a witty email or two, but as a wallflower without a body she is putty in Christian Grey’s well-manicured hands. In the movie Anastasia is an altogether more knowing creature. She purchases her own sexy officewear and has perfect comic timing. She is clearly a virgin by choice. Johnson’s performance is more in line with Melanie Griffith (Johnson’s mother, by the way) than an awkward, blushing Kristen Stewart. Her haplessness and quirks are entirely within her control and thus seem to elide the grasp of men. So when Anastasia resists Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan, it doesn’t seem like she’s fighting her deepest desires so much as making the obvious, sensible choice.
This more self-possessed version of Anastasia exerts an oddly destabilizing force on the movie. Johnson’s character lives in the 2015 Pacific Northwest, and Dornan’s lives in a timeless ad for luxury real estate. She makes jokes about serial killers and drunk dials while waiting in line for the bathroom; he uses corporate jargon such as “incentivize” and “harnessing my luck.” She seems with it, and he seems clueless. She is acting in the movie directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson; he is trapped in the novel by E.L. James.
In some of the most enjoyable parts of the movie I had the feeling the two Johnsons (Dakota and Sam) were winking at us behind E.L. James’ back. In one scene, for example, Anastasia flies to Georgia to hang out with her mom for a few days. As they are bonding over fruity cocktails at brunch, Christian shows up, unbidden. This scene is supposed to convey the dangerous, stalkerlike control Christian exerts over her life—he won’t even let her hang out with her own mother, for God’s sake! But it played out as comedy, more reminiscent of how, say, in Broad City, Abbi’s roommate’s boyfriend, Matt Bevers, always pops up at the wrong moments. (At my screening, both the critics at the back of the theater and the fans at the front laughed.) Other scenes unfolded as Verhoeven-style camp—Grey says, “I don’t make love, I fuck,” and Anastasia (like us) battles to keep a straight face.
One of the many ways in which the book conveys a message hostile to modern feminism is its insistence that a woman’s words, in the context of sex, mean nothing; her body is telling the truth. Much of the story involves Christian waiting for Anastasia to sign a BDSM contract that spells out exactly what she will and won’t tolerate. In both the book and the movie she objects to several things—anal fisting, suspension—but in the book version, even as she is objecting, her “inner goddess” is “bouncing up and down like a small child waiting for ice cream.” The chapter ends with him handing her the keys to a new car and driving her home, where “desire instantly replaces unease” and writhing and moaning and clenching follow. (Also, “puckering” of the nipples.)
But in the movie version, Anastasia leans in. When they are finished negotiating Christian suggests fucking her on the glass conference table, but Anastasia says she wants to leave. “You want to leave but your body tells me something different,” he says, analyzing her reddening complexion, her knees squeezed tight. While he’s trying to convince her that no means yes, she’s calling on her inner Sheryl Sandberg. She relaxes her knees, coolly walks out to her VW Beetle, and says goodbye.
This doesn’t mean the movie is secretly embracing sexual empowerment. In fact what comes through clearly in the movie is how deeply conservative the trilogy already is, and how much more conservative it becomes on film. For the great majority of screen time the couple has what Christian refers to as “vanilla sex.” The BDSM scenes largely unfold in slow motion, making the flogging action as threatening as brushes at the car wash. And the message conveyed is that no one would be into such kinky sex unless they were, as Christian says, “50 shades of fucked up.” We can already see in the movie where the series is heading: Christian needs a girl with a good head on her shoulders to set him straight and a baby to domesticate him.
It’s hard to say how the book’s many fans will respond to this updated Anastasia, both more modern and more square. Perhaps well, since Johnson’s Anastasia resembles women you might actually meet on Earth at this moment. It’s been assumed that women are drawn to the book precisely because the heroine relinquishes control, ignores her feminist college-girl training, and submits to the inner goddess. But the standout sex scene of the movie, the one that takes place to Beyoncé’s intoxicatingly slowed-down “Crazy in Love,” happens not in Christian’s red room of pain but in Anastasia’s new apartment, on her own bed, where she sleeps most of the workweek when she is not in the luxury mistress suite at Christian’s house. It involves sweaty work out clothes, and laundry, and a gray tie and some ice. It suggests a woman who can pay her own rent and handle a little kink.
More 50 Shades:
“Fifty Shades of Grey Is Not a ‘Good’ Movie. I Loved It.” by Amanda Hess
“Fifty Shades Sure Never Overthinks Things, so I’ll Try Not to Overthink It,” by Meghan Daum