On the Phenomenon of the Fifty Shades of Grey Movie’s Release

As of Valentine’s Day morning 2015 – the day of its official cinema release – Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film adaptation of the first novel in E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy shows a rating on the Internet Movie Database of 3.5 out of a possible 10. Over the 22853 votes that make this statistic up, 5155 (22.6%) give the maximum 10, whilst 11381 (49.8%) give the minimum 1; the 6317 vote remainder is pretty much evenly distributed amongst the
other ratings, with between 2 and 4 percent of these votes going to each of the
remaining available scores. It would seem from this that the film has dramatically
polarised opinion, but given the fact that as of the morning of its release (a
release so jealously guarded that critics weren’t allowed pre-screenings and a
stream of it online is practically impossible to find), this would indicate
that it’s not the film itself that’s
polarised this reaction, as it is likely that it would have been unseen by most
of these voters.

           The
phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey
the book – notorious for its sexual themes, clunky dialogue, and ‘inner
goddesses’ (expunged from the film) – is what has thus obviously given rise to
this a priori reaction to the film.
This pre-existing polarisation has ostensibly concerned the work’s ‘literary
merit’ (on one side of the split, for example, are lauders of its storytelling,
and its sales figures, and on the other those that have panned its writing
style and believability), something which, in purely formal terms, is
untranslatable between page and screen. So it is that perhaps the phenomenon
itself can be analysed.

image

           However,
the polarisation – and what underwrites it – is the first thing that needs
investigation. As has been noted by many of its reviewers (in a range of
lights), given its theme, the content of the film has not presented anything
overly shocking for mainstream cinema (no full male nudity (whilst female’s of
course fair game), no BDSM aspects to unsettle an audience member sat with
their mum, etc.): it has by all accounts played it more safe, less ‘safe-word’.
In light of this, early reactions of filmgoers have ranged between a distaste
for the ‘contract’ drawn up between Grey and Anastasia in the story (which has
been construed as ‘anti-human rights’) and anger from BDSM ‘lifestylers’ at the
misrepresentation of what goes on in such a relationship by the movie, and a
slew of articles concerning BDSM have been published by various outlets in the
wake of the movie’s upcoming release, though few seem tied to the actual story
of the film, and book, rather using it as a launch
pad
to talk about such sexual proclivities.

           This
lack of controversy concerning the presentation of its material, however,
perhaps should rather alert us to Fifty
Shades of Grey
’s position as that which is more normative than the
discourse around its ‘kinks’ makes it out to be (the trilogy’s trajectory inevitably heads towards marriage in the third). The polarisation of opinion in
the run-up to the film’s release can perhaps be seen as divisiveness on the
parts of those that want to defend or lambast the book, but it might therefore not
indicate something truly rivening about the film itself. If it was heavily
censored or banned on the back of its themes, and yet defended staunchly from
other quarters, this reaction might have something more to say for the
progressiveness or transgressiveness of what it deals with. As it stands,
however, perhaps its ratings will come to even up between the ones and tens it
so far been split between.

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