Another year, another Fifty Shades movie hits the theatres in time for Valentine’s. Mousey Anastasia is drawn again to uber-rich pervert Christian Grey, they make goo-goo eyes and then they hop into bed, sex toys both in and out of hand. Let me get right to the point: I’m not here to review Fifty Shades Darker, its predecessor or the books. You can go anywhere and get that. I’m not even here to talk about its inaccurate portrayal of BDSM culture or its saccharine romanticism of an abusive relationship. Far more academic minds have taken that to task too.
Rather, I’m here to offer an indictment, a troubling concern that I have over what this franchise says about our entertainment mediums, and what it transmits to future practitioners and the audience. I am here to question if Mrs James and Universal have done something far more disconcerting than making another disposable blockbuster. I am asking if they are guilty of artistic and creative irresponsibility.
The origins of the series are well known by now: E.L. James, a middle-aged TV assistant, loved Twilight and wrote a sexed-up fanfiction, which she later turned into an original novel. Said book got published fairly quickly by a division of powerhouse publisher Random House, became a smash hit and a movie deal followed not long after from Universal, who after losing Marvel, needed something to bring in blockbuster bucks when Fast & Furious was filming. So far, all very ordinary for a lot of entertainment properties, so why do I single out this one as especially bad?
Because, speaking as an author and aspiring filmmaker myself, the message this entire franchise puts out is to, basically, not try.
Don’t research your subject and create a three-dimensional portrayal of something an audience may not be familiar with. Don’t write a compelling narrative, characters or themes that justify the more graphic or extreme elements. Don’t try to be original or have a voice, just steal someone else’s property and tweak a few names. Don’t try to promote unique, interesting or even just imaginative works, just prop up pandering tripe to an internet-illiterate audience and slap a £7.99 price tag on it. Don’t have any level of quality control from places that should know better, and promote works that, from a creative, thematic and narrative standpoint, are abhorrent and misguided.
I’ll not mince words here: James wrote the laziest kind of fiction imaginable (works like this do nothing for the image of fan fiction, which is a genuine shame as there are good ones out there), and where there are authors struggling for years to get their original works, both artistic and just fun, published, she got a deal overnight. She didn’t have to fight for a vision or artistic integrity. She didn’t create a new and interesting world or story for readers to explore. She didn’t even present this culture in a compelling or well-realised light. She committed plagiarism and was rewarded for it by one of the largest publishers around. Does anyone involved in editing or development have any idea what kind of message that sends out to upcoming writers?
Did no editor or development exec step in, at any point when Fifty Shades was first mooted, and say ‘this isn’t good enough?’
Out of all the novels that the company reader saw, what made this one stand out? Did lines like ‘I feel the colour in my cheeks. I must be the colour of the communist manifesto’ really come off as a literary genius to people well seasoned to purpler-than-purple prose? Surely they couldn’t be that shocked at the frequent use of sex and related subcultures when who knows how many novels feature it that, again, they would’ve evaluated. Did no one even check that the book was actually romantic, have coherent character motivations and ask if the relationship driving the story was actually justified by themes or said arcs? Isn’t that precisely why they have so many barriers and safeguards to supposedly keep out bad literature?
Now, I’m not naive: books and films are made all the time solely for monetary gain and because they appeal to a viable demographic.
There’s nothing even wrong with lowbrow or sexual entertainment, but here’s the thing: those books and movies don’t pretend to be more than what they are. Transformers, Happy Madison’s comedies, the Movie Movies by Friedberg and Seltzer, even the cheaper sex novels featuring dashing Fabio-like pirates and bandits: they are stupid and don’t act like they are more than that. That doesn’t make them good, but they are honest about being simple time wasters that can be consumed and disposed of without much fuss.
Fifty Shades is not only juvenile, but it’s also pretentious. It thinks it’s being so avant-garde and daring for talking about sex and an entire subculture in a mainstream work. It thinks it’s highlighting some forbidden part of human nature with Anastasia and Christian’s unusual relationship, and portraying it like some kind of impossible, otherworldly thing. It thinks it’s being incredibly classy, presenting these themes amidst luxury apartments and society balls (literally, in Darker), a far cry from seedy underground dungeons and sex shops.
But how is this worse than said tacky Fabio novels, you ask?
Those also romanticise cheap smut. The difference, aside from not having a psycho as the object of fantasy, is in marketing and presentation: the sleek posters and covers of the Fifty Shades movies and books, reminiscent of a Gucci or Giorgio Armani advert, are a million miles away from the stock photos and middling artwork of erotica literature. Even the titles try to evoke a sense of mystery and danger, not immediately selling themselves on sex but rather, being something forbidden. Vintage Press/Random House and Universal are basically pushing snake oil: sell one thing as something else to make it seem more legitimate and acceptable. They’re more interested in playing taboo buster, making ti clean enough for cross-promotion, than in being one and creating discussion.
Think of all the wasted time and money devoted to this when you could’ve greenlit not just a better work, but several. In this blockbuster culture that we live in, just as much for books as for movies, people would rather bet everything on one property than spread themselves out and reap from several smaller ones, catering to multiple demographics and building better relationships with authors and other creatives. It’s all about the quickest and most immediate dollar they can get, that opening day or weekend, rather than something more long term.
Even the talent involved feel like they were roped in as a means to get clout for bigger and more creative projects that they actually want to make.
Kelly Marcel, James Foley, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger, even TV veteran Niall Leonard, who writes his first feature here, are people who have shown they can do better, but because of the ‘scratch my back, scratch yours’ system, they are relegated to this. Worse, because of the MPAA and the historic stigma of NC-17, they can’t even just go for broke with stylish smuttiness to satisfy that itch and are stuck having to tweak and trim for the sake of an R rating. This is a franchise all about sex, and they can’t even do anything with that. Doesn’t that just sum everything up?
If you’ve made up your mind to go see Fifty Shades Darker, I can’t stop you.
I’m not here to tell you that you are some terrible human being for supporting this project. That’s not my place to say, and despite my vitriol, I’m not attacking the crew or staff involved with the films or the books. They are just doing a job that they have no real say in, and likely using tin as a springboard for bigger and better things. If someone’s rent or college fund was paid for by Darker, then it’s not all bad. I am simply expressing a growing worry about what these types of successes say about the entertainment industry and, more importantly, towards those with the power. Is this a sustainable business model, and is this the right thing to encourage from future content creators?