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'Fifty Shades of Grey': What Kind of Movie Could It Be, With What Cast?

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 4, 2012 at 10:26AM

The only way EL James' notoriously erotic "Fifty Shades of Grey" will ever wind up a half-way decent movie will be if the filmmakers take the high road. Going with Focus Features was a step in the right direction.

It's easy to see why this erotic trilogy is a huge bestseller, but the first book, at least, is often repetitive and silly. How much intimacy will audiences tolerate? It will take a clever writer and director and charismatic actors to pull this off. There are so many ways this could go wrong.

There are ideas buried in this book about the power dynamics between men and women and the potency of S & M role playing that could prove fascinating in the right hands. Also, intimate sex described in detail in a novel can be shown in a movie--and much can be implied.

I could see fearless Ryan Gosling, who mined similar terrain in "Blue Valentine" and "Crazy Stupid Love," as the controlling but vulnerable master, with coltish tomboy Jennifer Lawrence ("Hunger Games") as the awkward innocent submissive with strongly-held values, ready to rock her sexual world. Chris Pine and Blake Lively also come to mind.

Part of the book's fantasy fun is Grey's Cinderella makeover of the penniless college grad, who blossoms under his attentions, flying in his personal jet and helicopter, as well as being gifted with a snazzy new wardrobe, computer and car. This is a case where a mediocre book (see: "Twilight," "Bridges of Madison County," "Love Story," or "The Notebook") could be much improved in movie form. "Pretty Woman" is one watered-down model of how this movie romance could go.

These were mainstream offerings, though, and I suspect this will not go that route. Movie crowds tend to avoid movies that make them sexually uncomfortable. That's another reason why this NC-17 material should go upscale and arthouse--that's the group that can handle this stuff, and might even appreciate it. Many women, especially, are starved for movies about emotional relationships.  Those who assume that this will be cheesy smutty trashy porn may be surprised.

On Facebook, Chris Willman asked me: "Would a halfway-self-respecting actor like these two do this project? (I probably don't want to know the answer.)"
Anne Thompson: "Well, it depends on who Focus Features (a classy label) puts together as a creative team. They'd have to be top notch to land those actors. If done well this could be box office hit. It's a risky high-wire act at best."

Willman: "No matter how popular the books are, wouldn't this be a losing proposition for A-list talent, if the perception is that it's soft-core smut for over-30 ladies? How much can Focus class it up? Who would be the modern-day equivalent of Adrian Lyne?"

Thompson: "Many bad books have been turned into better movies--it's an age-old Hollywood tradition. The romance is alive and well. The torrid language and even the explicit sex in the book need only be shown or implied on film."

Glenn Kenny: "So, Anne, unless I'm mistaken, what you're saying is, that there's a good movie to be made from "50 Shades of Grey," and that, IF that good movie is made, it will be a spectacular domestic box office flop. Day-um."

Thompson: "It's risky but it could go either way. 'Sex and the City' was a hit, when they hit it right. Many variables."        

Willman: "I'm trying to think of examples of a trashy novel being made into a good or great prestige movie (not to be argumentative, but just as an exercise). What I'm coming up with is... "Bridges of Madison County." And I'd have to watch it again."
Thompson: "'Gone with the Wind,' 'Bridget Jones Diary,' 'Fried Green Tomatoes,' 'The Notebook,' 'The Shining' and 'Carrie' (among the movies adapted from Stephen King novels), 'The Hunt for Red October' and 'Patriot Games,' among the movies adapted from Tom Clancy novels, and the 'Twilight' films were better than their source, if not exactly good."
Kenny: "Hmm. What if the precise appeal of the material is such that 'classing it up,' or applying a level of refinement, is precisely what needs NOT to be done in order to retain the popularity that calls for a movie version?"

Here's the inevitable parody.

This article is related to: In The Works, Books

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.