Monday, July 1, 2013

A Bondage Novel in a Bind




I’m going to write about something I don’t know about: the novel Fifty Shades of Grey and its in-the-works film adaptation.  Many readers are probably already aware of the novel, from its phenomenal sales to its mainstreaming of BDSM to its unlikely origin as Twilight Internet fan fiction.  I haven’t read the book myself because most of the reviews I’ve seen have arraigned author E.L. James’s ungainly prose. 

The reason I’m writing about a book I’ve never read and a film that has yet to be made is because their very existence raises issues about the depictions of sex on the big screen.  By all accounts, the hallmark of Fifty Shades of Grey is its descriptions of BDSM sex, descriptions that, I’m told, leave very little to the imagination.  As one reviewer put it, “the sex scenes don’t fade to black.”  And I think a greater openness and understanding of non-mainstream sexuality (however compromised its representation might be) is, by and large, a good thing.

However, Fifty Shades of Grey is now being adapted to a medium in a marketplace with certain restrictions, at least in the U.S.  Based on what I’ve read, it seems to me that a faithful adaptation of the novel — one that preserves its fascination for the intricacies of a sexual relationship involving practices that many Americans see as deviant — would result in a motion picture rated NC-17.  I’m not saying that such a film would need to be hard-core pornography, but a film doesn’t need to be hard-core pornography to garner an NC-17 from the Motion Picture Association of America.  Still, I do think that such a movie would need to go beyond what the industry calls a “hard R,” a picture that pushes the sexual (or other) envelope but still receives an R rating.  A Fifty Shades of Grey movie would need to be unapologetically NC-17.  And Hollywood avoids an NC-17 like an STD.

In other words, Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic BDSM novel, is being adapted to a format, a big-screen Hollywood movie, that is inhospitable to its content.  I’m anticipating that the forthcoming motion picture, at least in its U.S. edit, will become a vanilla-flavored version of the book by diluting its sex scenes, thereby gutting the property’s raison d’être — while possibly keeping some allegedly awkward plot points — and paving the way for risible results.  The written descriptions of sexual bondage in the book may not “fade to black,” but Hollywood may very well compel the movie’s bondage scenes to do so in order to get a coveted R rating.  This property about a woman being tied up is in a bind.

Furthermore, as the big-studio story editor Billy Mernit says on his blog, it’s doubtful that a novel which gained popularity within the anonymity of an e-book would lure its audience out into the open where they can be seen buying a ticket in public.  And on top of all that, a recent article in Entertainment Weekly says that sex scenes in movies are an endangered species, with audiences for regular Hollywood fare turned off by on-screen hot-and-heaviness.

However, one forum where none of this is a problem is pay TV.  Premium channels like HBO and Showtime can screen boundary-straining depictions of sex without needing to navigate the ratings board’s approval.  I suspect that a number of pay-TV sex scenes in the past that bore the (relatively) uncontroversial rating TV-MA would have been rated NC-17 if released theatrically.  Given all of this, it seems to me that a film version of Fifty Shades of Grey would reach its best audience as a TV movie for HBO or Showtime.

Now, I’m sure that Universal Pictures (the studio making the movie) has done its math and determined that a Fifty Shades of Grey theatrical release is a viable project.  Still, the mismatch between the graphically sexual novel and a movie presumably requiring nothing stronger than an R rating gives the undertaking — at least from what I’ve gleaned about it so far — an aura of impending disaster. 

The cover to the November 22, 2013, issue of ‘Entertainment Weekly’
featuring the stars of the upcoming film version of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’


Nobody asked me, but here’s what I would do if I were overseeing a Fifty Shades of Grey audiovisual adaptation.  I would make it for pay TV (preferably HBO or Showtime), where a sexually incisive finished film would find a friendlier audience (I would expect the final cut to get a TV-MA rating).  I might do Fifty Shades of Grey as a stand-alone movie or combine the novel with its two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, and make it as a mini-series.

Next, given the critical drubbing of Fifty Shades of Grey’s prose, I would hire Richard LaGravenese to write the screenplay.  I would want him to do for Fifty Shades of Grey what he did to another virtual two-hander bestseller that was critically scorned, The Bridges of Madison County, and turn it into an insightful and engrossing character study.  For director, I would want someone like Stephen Soderbergh, who usually strikes a fine balance between an uncompromising art-film attitude and giving the masses what they want. 

However — news flash — I’m not in charge of the project.  Whether the final film version of Fifty Shades of Grey will be a success or a misfire or something in-between is for time to tell.  Still, the novel has made a breakthrough of sorts by bringing what was once considered a perversion, BDSM, to mainstream audiences.  But given the increasing sexual conservatism of Hollywood’s big screen in order to avoid NC-17 ratings, I can’t help but feel that theatrical distribution will transform the novel’s wide-open eroticism into a movie that’s merely erotically ajar.  


3 comments:

Victoria Poulin said...

Kristen Stewart has finally responded to rumors that she's a favorite to play Anastasia Steele.I m excited for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie.i cant wait for releasing date of the movie fifty shades

Alexia Tessier said...

I am awaiting for the releasing of Movie Fifty shades

Stella Smith said...

I can't wait for the movie. I loved the books. I should agree these are the best written books.
the movie fifty shades