How Do You Solve a Problem Like Christian Grey?

15 minute read

Jamie Dornan has a simple job. All he has to do is fulfill the romantic and erotic fantasies of 100 million women around the world, of all different ages, backgrounds and tastes. He needs to satisfy each one in a little over two hours. And he has to do it while playing a guy who likes to hit women.

Dornan portrays Christian Grey in the upcoming movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey, the racy novel that put the words bondage and suburban mom in way too many of the same sentences. In theaters on Feb. 13, just in time for Valentine’s movie dates, it is described by all who worked on it as a fairy tale, but it’s not one you’d read to your kids. A young woman, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), falls in love with a handsome millionaire who comes with a small catch: he wants her to sign a contract saying she will do everything he says or he will punish her. The novel describes many, many acts of congress (but not the ones TIME usually writes about).

In the early 21st century, ardor is a rare commodity; the stimulation buffet is too abundant for people to develop an appetite for any one dish. To stoke the fires, Fifty Shades ventured deep into the sexual hinterlands of bondage, sadomasochism and female degradation. In an age in which caution is the watchword–partly because you never know who is watching or recording–the book championed passion and recklessness.

And millions of women from a range of countries and cultures responded, whispering to friends about the fantasies Grey inspired and making the book and its two sequels one of the fastest-selling paperback series in history, besting even Harry Potter. “You need to read it. You need to do it now. And you need to wear a panty liner,” one early fan, Jen Boudin of Melville, N.Y., was told by a friend. Vintage, which didn’t publish the books until months after they had been made available for download, went on to sell 100 million copies.

It’s not surprising then that the movie is one of the most anticipated of the year. Preordered-ticket sales have been sharp, faster than for any R-rated movie in the history of the site Fandango. Opening-weekend revenue is expected to be at least $45 million, which is about what the movie is reported to have cost. Every scrap of information that has leaked out about the project has sent shudders through the Internet. Clearly, the book’s fans feel they have delayed gratification long enough. Or as the book might put it: They. Want. It. Now.

But the film is being released just as a legion of stories have made headlines about the sexual violence young women are prey to. On Jan. 27, two former Vanderbilt University football players were convicted of raping a fellow student, the latest in a string of troubling incidents at colleges. The Hunting Ground, a documentary about campus rape culture, will arrive in theaters a month after Fifty Shades opens. Statistics on sexual assault in the military are raising alarms. And an ever growing list of rich older men are being accused of sexual impropriety with women who were clearly their underlings.

The book amassed an impressively catholic group of critics: committed feminists, committed Christians, committed users of grammatical English and even committed practitioners of BDSM. Similarly, the movie’s R rating has been denounced as too loose by antipornography groups in the U.S. In the U.K., no one under 18 will be able to see it.

Nobody gets raped in Fifty Shades, and all the physical acts are consensual, but a romance about the possession of a virginal college student by a more powerful, older guy that involves her having to bend to his every whim, call him “sir” and get beaten in the process could be accused of glamorizing a deeply unhealthy relationship. “I don’t want [my daughter] to see the movie,” says Dornan, whose kid was born during filming. “But I can’t stop her seeing it one day. I’d do everything in my power that she doesn’t, but what can I do?” Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey was initially reluctant to take on the story. “I have a 14-year-old daughter, and I wonder about the images and the stories that we send out,” he says. “It wasn’t a film that I wanted to do particularly.”

Hollywood’s Finest

Yet McGarvey, whose film credits include Anna Karenina and Atonement, signed on. As did producers Mike De Luca and Dana Brunetti, who made The Social Network and Captain Phillips; Mark Bridges, the costume designer who won an Oscar for The Artist; and revered composer Danny Elfman. Even Beyoncé contributed a song. What drew the cream of Hollywood to a soft-core porn story that began life as Twilight fan fiction? It wasn’t (just) the money, because these people can always get work. It wasn’t the script. It was the director: Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose artistic and feminist credentials are unimpeachable. “Without Sam, I hate to say it, but we wouldn’t have done the movie,” says production designer David Wasco of himself and his set-decorator wife Sandy Reynolds- Wasco. “Her involvement was key for us.”

The movie they made together will almost certainly be a box-office success. It remains to be seen whether its more artistic ambitions–to create a romantic epic that makes a significant statement about the power and nature of female carnality–will be fulfilled.

A date movie in the Tinder era, when people don’t really go on dates, is something of a contortionist act. To woo the young, the film has to tantalize people for whom pornography is so readily available that avoiding it requires more of an effort than seeking it out. The film also needs to connect with women who are more likely to see it with a bunch of girlfriends than with their significant other. And viewers of all ages are probably more sexually experienced than the women who were charmed by previous millionaire fantasies like Pretty Woman.

So the folks at Universal and Focus Features must have been giddy when Taylor-Johnson walked through their doors. They couldn’t have asked for a better candidate to elevate a porny, corny book to a relevant cultural narrative. She held her own with the loutish lads of the Young British Artists group in the ’80s and ’90s, has been exhibited at the National Portrait and Tate galleries and was nominated for the Turner Prize, all with work that was unapologetically female. One of her best-known series of photographs is of famous actors weeping.

Her first commercial film, Nowhere Boy, was the story of John Lennon–one of the few men about whom people feel more strongly than Christian Grey–and his relationship with the women who bore him and raised him. But she also has plenty of flesh on her résumé. After her second bout of cancer, Taylor-Johnson did a series of self-portraits in her undergarments that showed her all trussed up but apparently floating effortlessly. Her Passion Cycle series depicts a real couple having real sex in an ornate bedroom. And one of her earlier films, Death Valley, was a short depicting a guy pleasuring himself in the desert. (She and her crew nicknamed it Onan the Barbarian.)

It’s not surprising that the producers proposed to her after just a few dates. “It was so fast,” says Taylor-Johnson of the hiring process. “I’d put together a whole load of ideas, flew down from Vancouver, where [my husband] Aaron was shooting Godzilla. Eight o’clock the next morning, my phone was ringing off the hook–‘You’ve got the job. We’re announcing it today.’ Suddenly I was on a bullet train, doors were shut, and off I was going.”

Not incidentally, Taylor-Johnson is also a 47-year-old mother of four. It could not have been lost on producers and the studio that a large portion of the book’s fan base has been mothers. One theory behind its popularity is that it hit a nerve among mature women trying to find a way to be both nurturing and carnal, mothering and desirable. In Taylor-Johnson, perhaps, the studio found the ideal mother for the film–one whose husband, and the father of two of her kids, is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the 24-year-old star of the next Avengers movie.

Why would a woman this interesting be drawn to a story about someone as pliant as Anastasia Steele? First, self-deprecatingly, Taylor-Johnson notes that as a mom returning to the workforce, she needed a job. But she also thought she saw how to address the troubling power dynamic in the book: give the control to Anastasia. Put her in charge of her own odyssey. “This is the emotional journey of somebody who doesn’t seem as strong as she becomes,” she says. “And by the end of the story, she holds all the power.” Taylor-Johnson wants to reclaim the sexual-submission fantasy for empowered women. “To be a feminist,” she asks, “do you always have to be on top?”

While many compare Fifty Shades to Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, the director says it reminds her of that more recent you-go-girl epic Frozen: “All the beats are there–a young girl looking for love, finding the prince but discovering he is not the right prince. She is desperately in love, they go on a journey, but only to a point.”

Taylor-Johnson’s take obviously required some adjustments to the script, written by Kelly Marcel and the book’s original author, Erika Leonard–who wrote under the pen name E.L. James–but given a polish by Patrick Marber, who wrote one of Taylor-Johnson’s earlier films, Love You More. Some of them were obvious: the book’s Anastasia often wears girly pigtails, talks like a 14-year-old (“Holy cow!”) and blushes, someone counted, five times a day. The movie’s Anastasia is played by the soigné Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. A bunch of the book’s more graphic sex acts had to be cut, there is no “inner goddess” to talk to, and–spoiler alert–the movie doesn’t end where the book does.

But perhaps the most substantial change is the scene in which Anastasia and Christian negotiate the contract under which she will become his partner in a submissive-dominant relationship. The novel’s Anastasia wangles a few minor compromises in a restaurant. The movie’s Anastasia is much more assertive, proposing that they meet at his office and wittily insisting on edits.

“For Sam and I, it was always really important to maintain the integrity of Anastasia throughout her sexual exploration,” says Johnson. “She’s not a naive young woman. She’s not passive. She has self-respect.” The negotiation scene was Johnson’s favorite, she says, “because Ana’s becoming Christian for a second.”

While these sound like minor changes, they drew the ire of Leonard, who was also a producer on the movie and so had unrestricted access to the set. “She was there every single day,” says Brunetti. “She was there more than Mike and I were.”

The Anastasia that Leonard created is not so sure of herself and a little more submissive. “Oh, how demeaning is this?” she asks just before getting spanked. “Demeaning and scary and hot.”

Taylor-Johnson and Leonard often tussled for control. The director wanted to hang art pieces (done by noted friends like Harland Miller) in Grey’s apartment; Leonard nixed them. The set designers put mirrors in Grey’s bathroom. “And Erika was like, ‘Well, Christian would really not have mirrors. Christian does not like to look at himself,'” says Wasco, the production designer. Leonard also drew up the layout of the notorious Red Room, the lair where Grey engages in bondage. “She said, ‘This would be where the spanking bench would be, this would be where the sofa would be,'” says Wasco.

“It was so bizarre,” says McGarvey. “Like what do you mean, Christian wouldn’t do that? He’s not real. But she’s so protective of what’s in her imagination and what is in the fans’ imagination. She knows those characters really well.” Leonard saw her role as her readers’ champion. “I didn’t want to take the money and run,” she says via email of her involvement. “I wanted the movie to be one the readership would love.”

So the showbiz novice took it upon herself to advise some of most experienced and highly lauded creative artisans in Hollywood: Bridges; McGarvey, who’s an Oscar-nominated cinematographer; and the Wascos, designers so dedicated, they stocked closets that would never be opened and met with folks in the BDSM community to figure out what floor coverings are standard. It’s leather, as it turns out, because there’s a lot of kneeling. “And no sheets on the bed,” says Wasco–just a leather cover. “The bed isn’t for sleeping.”

Inducing a Fever

Female sexual desire is not, in terms of chemistry, a stable element. There is no foolproof way to make the mercury rise. It took many women by surprise that they were fired up by the activities described as happening to Ana in the Red Room–having her movements restricted, being deprived of sight, becoming completely vulnerable to her partner. “Women are titillated by the depiction of a woman who is extremely carnal and exploring her own carnality,” says David Schnarch, a psychologist and sex therapist and the author of Passionate Marriage, who says he read Fifty Shades because it came up in his practice. “But they don’t know what to make of being titillated.”

Perhaps even more subversive is the book’s endorsement of the appeal of radical obedience. Fifty Shades extols the thrill of leaning out and letting go, of being completely taken care of in the bank account and the bedroom. The movie constructs a different dream, perhaps not quite as fantastical, that a woman can be fully in charge of her own destiny and choices and still go on a thrill ride.

So many of our romantic fantasies, from Twilight to Cinderella, tell the same story: an extraordinary man finds an ordinary woman so irresistible that he overcomes all obstacles–thirst, class divisions or knowing nothing about her identity except her shoe size–to win her. Fifty Shades is no different. It speaks to our yearning to be seen as somebody worthy of love, somebody who is chosen by someone impressive and who therefore must be special.

Another prevalent myth intersects with that one–that unremarkable people can suddenly discover they are exceptional. Harry Potter is a wizard, Tris Prior is divergent, Susan Boyle can sing like a freaking canary. In Fifty Shades, the virginal Ana discovers she has a talent for getting aroused. She “shatters” around Grey 37 times in 25 days. Apparently this is a talent many women would like to know more about.

“The book is an unfortunate form of sex education for many people,” says Schnarch. “I don’t think it’s a good model of female sexuality, because the woman has to choose between her eroticism and her integrity. ” The movie tries to fix that problem by letting Anastasia have it both ways.

Desire strikes every woman differently, however, and since sex, like reading, is mostly about the theater of the mind, finding a universally arousing depiction of intimacy is damnably difficult. The moviemakers engaged in a robust discussion over whether theirs was arousing enough. The editing stretched on for months. One of the early editors, the venerable Anne V. Coates, 89 (who edited Lawrence of Arabia), felt strongly that it needed to be steamier. Others felt that more graphic sex would ruin the sensuality. The cast went back to Vancouver for reshoots, reportedly to show a little more of Dornan.

“The idea that I’m the guy that’s meant to embody [these women’s] highest fantasy, that’s hard not to think about,” says Dornan, who watched American Psycho, The Thomas Crown Affair and, less predictably, Iron Man to prepare for his role. “It’s hard not to feel that you’re not that guy. Quite early on, I sort of accepted that I’m not going to make 100 million people happy. Because the embodiment of male beauty doesn’t exist. It’s not a real thing.”

Fans have already been voluble about their dissatisfaction with the casting choices: Dornan is too boyish-looking, too connected with the dark serial killer he played in the British TV series The Fall, not dark enough. Johnson, who spends a good deal of the movie naked, has been criticized for having the wrong sort of hair, being too pretty, being not pretty enough, being not innocent enough. (In two of her previous films, The Social Network and The Five-Year Engagement, she more or less plays the girl who’s having sex with someone.)

Those criticisms will melt away if the movie lands, if it can convince audiences that apparently contradictory desires can be satisfied at the same time: for submission and control, for carnality and integrity, for trust and novelty, for a populist tale re-enacted by the elite.

Trying to get that recipe just right has been a long process–the filming took place a year ago–and it’s safe to say that Taylor-Johnson is pretty weary of any shade of grey. And, possibly identifying more than she ever expected with Anastasia, she recently dyed her hair pink. “It was just that thing of, everything else is all over the place,” she says in her unfailingly chipper British accent, “but I can dye my hair and still have some sort of sense of control.”

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