Warning: I’m about to get up on my high horse. You might find this offensive, or at the very least somewhat judgmental. Spoilers may be involved. Just saying — I wouldn’t want a throng of bloodthirsty Fifty Shades fans hunting me down.
The movie fandom world was in an uproar over a casting decision this week. No, this was not another raving comic book fan in turmoil because his favorite character was to be portrayed by an actor he (usually a he, right?) thought was inappropriate. We had that conversation about Ben Affleck becoming Batman just last week, and I came down on the side of it not being a good idea. That however was because I felt it would divert Affleck from the superlative work he’s done as writer and director, most recently on the “better and more fun than anyone dared expect” Argo.
This time however, the mental image of bespectacled, overweight, socially awkward fanboys seething with ennui was the wrong one. It was, in fact, the image of a horde of medium-to-middle-aged women who apparently led unsatisfying lives in the boudoir, foment holy war against the casting of Dakota Johnson and Charlie Hunnam as the leads in Universal’s adaptation of the phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey. Everyone has the right to lodge their complaints, but there was something really specific and creepy about this one. In fact, I can say that geek nation has been somewhat redeemed in their online petitions and sucking on the collective asthma inhaler based on this week’s outcry.
For those who are unfamiliar, Fifty Shades of Grey is the wildly popular novel (now a trilogy) written by E.L. James about a young, sexy yet unsatisfied woman named Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, a wealthy businessman. The raison d’etre of the book is that these two have wild and kinky sex. Will Christian dump Anastasia to the curb once he’s whipped her white skin to a healthy swollen pink? Don’t answer yet, because there are two more books to go.
The initial story was purportedly based on a fan-fiction by James, based on the Twilight series. James wondered what it would be like if the leads of that series hooked up, I suppose, and based on that fascination she created this alternate universe where one character gets to wear the other like a handpuppet, yet still respects her (and him — to be fair), and eventually wraps up into a fairytale happy ending. It is a fantasy world where the characters truly have it all: money, thrills, dignity, and freaky-deaky boom-shack-a-lacka. And you know what? That’s fine.
No, I’m not interested in reading them, and I fully admit to not being the target audience, so what do I know about it? Let the fans have at it as it doesn’t affect me in the slightest. Let them have their movie adaptation too. It’s not going to be the end of my world.
Critics have said that the books read like fan-fiction too, with no real sense of plot amid the ball-gags and hot wax. It wouldn’t be the first time a literary cause-celeb has broken through. Most of the same criticisms were leveled at Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, and that really made her cry, and luckily she had all those hundred dollar bills to wipe the tears and nose-runny off her face. The Bridges of Madison County captured the heart of a nation with its tale of an unsatisfied woman who is taken up by a traveling photographer who gives her what she’s been wanting for a while. Clint Eastwood made the movie, which was produced by Steven Spielberg’s company. In retrospect, it is generally agreed both the book and movie are crapola. Nicholas Sparks has made a cottage industry out of glossed-up “prose” that only three decades ago would have been Harlequin paperback thong-boilers.
And again, that’s all fine. But think of what Hunnam and Johnson must be going through at the moment. This horde of hot and bothered readers have said in no uncertain terms that they don’t want to see them as these characters. They want Matt Bomer to apply nipple clamps to a former Gilmore Girl, Alexis Bleidel. Weird as it must be for those the studio chose, how much weirder is it that you are an actor facing a world that says to you, “We want to see you, yes you!, naked and spanked raw!” And here is the ultimate skeeviness of the situation. It’s one thing to say that you disagree with a choice in casting a character. Heck, this has been a constant gripe since the dawn of cinema. For wrong, many were offended when Charlie Chaplin assumed the guise of a Hitleresque fascist in The Great Dictator, failing to understand what Chaplin was actually doing. For right, many are still offended by Al Jolson’s blackface in The Jazz Singer because it is so racially offensive and numb-headed.
Fifty Shades fans have the right to dislike the choices, but to place two people, with such specificity, into the roles of sexual co-conspirators, takes on a weirdness all its own. Who would go down to the street, spy on a handful of passers-by, single out the hottest of the bunch and say, “You two should go simulate sweaty S&M. In fact, I insist!” No one. Because less than free speech, it could be a prosecutable sexual offense. Alexis Bleidel wakes up one morning to find an online petition from a bunch of strangers insisting they want to see Matt Bomer bury his face in her lap. That’s not one step past Wile E. Coyote over the cliff?
So take heart, comic book and movie fans, action figure collectors and Firefly obsessives. You may have thought about your favorites inappropriately. You may have even written stories or drawn comics with them doing things that weren’t sea-worthy. You might have even had heated conversations about it. But you’ve never demanded it of a studio or of individuals, so you win this day. Enjoy it. You’ll probably blow this brief superiority soon enough (or when they get around to casting the next superhero movie).