‘Grey’ matters

Why ‘Fifty Shades’ the movie may be better than the book

The axiom in entertainment is that the book is always better than the movie, always richer in thoughts, themes, characters and subplots that a two-hour film can’t portray. (“The Great Gatsby,” anyone?) Unless, of course, the work is one of pulp fiction. Then a movie in the hands of a great director stands a fighting chance of being the better of the two.

Surely, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” trilogy is superior to Mario Puzo’s nonetheless highly entertaining novel. And there’s no question that Mary Harron’s 2000 film did wonders with Bret Easton Ellis’ ridiculous, misogynistic “American Psycho” – in which title character Patrick Bateman cuts off the heads of women one moment and opines about Calvin Klein sheets the next. Perhaps because she is a woman, Harron brought Bateman’s victims into sympathetic focus while depicting the emptiness of the Mad Men of 1980s Wall Street.

So there is hope for the screen adaptation of E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which arrives in theaters Feb. 13, just in time for Valentine’s Day. The reason? One name – director Sam Taylor-Johnson.

The former Sam Taylor-Wood – she and actor Aaron Johnson combined their names when they married after meeting on the set of the 2009 John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy” – Taylor-Johnson is perhaps best-known as the visual artist behind the stunning photographic series “Crying Men.” In that 2004 work – a response to her own grief in battling breast cancer – she asked a group of actors ranging from Hayden Christensen to Paul Newman to cry on camera. The result was a series that is rich in iconography and metaphor, combining the interplay between the art’s artifice and real emotions with the gender-bending performance of a woman commanding men to weep on cue.

In the best of the photos – the only horizontal and the only nude – Robert Downey Jr. lies on a bed in a nondescript room, one leg and a blanket thrown over his loins, an arm tenting his head. It’s a languid, seductively serpentine pose reserved throughout art history for female nudes, except for the neoclassical period of early 19th century Paris when artists like Anne-Louis Girodet used it to portray unsuspecting male beauties, the sleeping Endymion for one, served up for the female gaze. Here Taylor-Johnson casts Downey as Endymion and her camera’s eye as the feminine moon that caresses him.

It’s precisely this kind of gender reversal that should serve the director well in bringing “Fifty Shades” to the screen. Based on the novel, which began life as fan fiction inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, “Fifty Shades” tells the tale of virginal college student Anastasia “Ana” Steele, who gets caught up in an S&M relationship with enigmatic young billionaire Christian Grey. But who’s the dominant and who’s the submissive in the twisting tale?

“Fifty Shades” has been dismissed as tripe – Salman Rushdie said it made “Twilight” look like “War and Peace” – that fosters female abuse. But Taylor-Johnson sees something else.

“The book appealed to me because it was a dark and tragic love story,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I had a distinct approach to feeling that she was empowered even though she was in a place where she could be seen as a victim, and even though this relationship is about dominance and submission, to have it be an equal journey. It’s pretty complex, and I’m constantly feeling like I’m on a knife’s edge.”

That is music to the ears of fans champing at the bit for the film, which stars Dakota Johnson (daughter of actors Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson) and Northern Ireland’s Jamie Dornan.

“I loved the books (which include ‘Fifty Shades Darker’ and ‘Fifty Shades Freed’) and cannot wait for the movie,” Maureen Kress Stenglein, a fan, posted on People magazine’s website. “E.L. James has admitted she is not a great writer and wrote them for fun. Everything does not have to be Shakespeare. Apparently someone must like them or the books would not have sold over a hundred million copies worldwide. Each to his own.”

Meanwhile, James has said that she is moving on to other romantic stories. But she’s not finished with “Fifty Shades” yet. There are two new wines – one white, one red – based on Ana’s relationship with the oenophile.

As People quotes James, “It didn’t seem like a big leap to making a wine inspired by ‘Fifty Shades.’”

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