“I managed to get about two pages in, but the writing is just too terrible. The language and grammar don’t make sense. It’s just awful.”
That’s my mum’s one and only reaction to the content of Fifty Shades Of Grey, the book by E.L “Frumpy-housewife-mascarading-as-author” James. And if you think that I’m being sexist by immediately attacking some middle-aged woman for earning millions of dollars from her rape fantasy, then fuck you. Harsh, I know, but this whole “book about S&M turned into cashcow film” thing going on really irks me. And, as I’ll talk about in a bit, a lot of that still has to do with sexism.
Now, my mum is a great writer and lover of actual good literature, but she does have a slightly unsettling attachment to pulp romantic novels. The amount of times a went through that massive bookcase only to find another crudely-drawn image of Fabio on a pirate ship or rollercoaster or near-future space station (seriously, it exists) goes into the hundreds. I’ve never told her this, but some of my first exposures to literature were through the tacky, earnest vernacular of Mills & Boon novels. Probably goes some way to explain what’s wrong with me now, I guess.
So to hear her describe Fifty Shades Of Grey as awful came as a slight surprise. I’d heard it was bad, but not to the extent it would even turn off my mum’s sick obsession with literal sex scenes. This pretty much pushed Fifty Shades into the so-bad-it’s-good territory for me, a realm of pop-culture that I usually hold exclusively for the most garbage movies ever made. But Fifty Shades holds all of the same hallmarks as The Room and Birdemic: an overbearingly self-assured, yet deluded, creator; a ridiculous amount of financial investment; a distinct lack of anything approaching quality; and a complete detachment from the real world. The only thing that really separates it is that there’s a huge market for Fifty Shades. It’s as if Tommy Wiseau managed to be a huge success, simply by directing his film to the huge demographic of Eastern European mentally-unstable narcissists with speech impediments and calcified bones that fill the world.
So I decided to get a bit into Fifty Shades Of Grey, just to see if it was as awful as I expected it to be, and to see if I could somehow relate to a section of society I’ve had very little do do with. The results are mixed. Mixed in the sense that I switched between wanting to stab out my eyes and burn down the whole world at various times.
First of all, you have to take in the full majesty of E.L James before you can even think of understanding the subtle nuances of her mind.
E L James is a TV executive, wife, and mother of two, based in West London. Since early childhood, she dreamt of writing stories that readers would fall in love with, but put those dreams on hold to focus on her family and her career. She finally plucked up the courage to put pen to paper with her first novel, Fifty Shades of Grey.
E L James is currently working on the sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey and a new romantic thriller with a supernatural twist.
That’s right, terrible fiction lovers! Are you feeling a big gap in your usual “Vapid main character dry humps vampire/werewolf/Frankenstein/mummy/cat-man” novels! Well don’t worry, because that woman who wrote that scene where a man had the proper sense to pull the tampon out before sticking his “tampon” in (actual scene from book).
From there, we move onto the first chapter, which readily sets the scene by making sure that you understand yes, it’s in first-person, and yes, the main character will shit you to tears with her interior monologue:
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi presentable.
Oh, right, she has low self-esteem. That’s not a totally, blindingly obvious reference point to character development, right there in the first paragraph. You probably know what the basic story of Fifty Shades is about – some rich dude whipping some girl or something – and you can probably guess that it’s some kind of sexual “awakening” journey. Kinda like the subtext of Thelma & Louise but with more dick. Right there, from the first words, James is trying so hard to force the book’s motive on you that you that it comes across as totally tacky. ‘WHAT, YOU THINK SHE’S GONNA BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME?” James seems to scream from the page, the distinct smell of lube and leather polish emanating from her mouth. “NO NO NO, YOU JUST WAIT ‘TIL SHE GETS CHAINED TO A WOODEN POST! THEN YOU’LL SEE SOME FUCKING EMPOWERMENT!”
By the way, if you think that paragraph is in any way good writing, I hate you.
The following is a long, frilly rendition of someone who is dangerously close to the little voice in their head, explaining every aspect of the scenery in eye-rolling detail.
Behind the leather chairs is a spacious glass-walled meeting room with an equally spacious dark wood table and at least twenty matching chairs around it. Beyond that, there is a floor-to-ceiling window with a view of the Seattle skyline that looks out through the city toward the Sound. It’s a stunning vista, and I’m momentarily paralyzed by the view. Wow.
A lot of the first section is just this, interspersed with more self-loathing, before the big reveal of Christian Grey, who immediately becomes the almost-too-creepy badarse who pretty much made the book famous. Cue a confusing three-way conversation between Mr Grey, Ms Steele and Ms Steele’s nagging Jewish mother conscience:
“Do you feel that you have immense power?” Control Freak.
“I employ over forty thousand people, Miss Steele. That gives me a certain sense of responsibility – power, if you will. If I were to decide I was no longer interested in the telecommunications business and sell up, twenty thousand people would struggle to make their mortgage payments after a month or so.”
My mouth drops open. I am staggered by his lack of humility.
“Don’t you have a board to answer to?” I ask, disgusted.
“I own my company. I don’t have to answer to a board.” He raises an eyebrow at me.
I flush. Of course, I would know this if I had done some research. But holy crap, he’s so arrogant.
So yeah, that, but then this:
“I have varied interests, Miss Steele.” A ghost of a smile touches his lips. “Very varied.” And for some reason, I’m confounded and heated by his steady gaze. His eyes are alight with some wicked thought.
“But if you work so hard, what do you do to chill out?”
“Chill out?” He smiles, revealing perfect white teeth. I stop breathing. He really is beautiful. No one should be this good-looking.
“Well, to ‘chill out’ as you put it – I sail, I fly, I indulge in various physical pursuits.”
He shifts in his chair. “I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies.”
It scares me just how much I didn’t want anything to do with this story within the first few pages. As much as I label Fifty Shades as a poorly-written wankfest masquerading as a game-changing romance, I did want to objectively understand what all the fuss is about. I still don’t really, apart from the fact that Christian Grey seems to be some hypnosis-inducing demigod with enough game to make The Game look like the Bible. In fact, I found my mind swerving halfway through the first chapter from “What the hell is this?” to, “Man, this is great stuff, I gotta remember this”. That, no doubt, made me feel slightly more nauseous. But my point is that the main supporting character is constructed as an infallible example of independent ability and determination, despite coming off as arrogant and cold to people around him. Remind you of anything? Grey, admittedly in only the first chapter, seems such a shameless rip-off of Howard Roarke from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that you half-expect some anti-government diatribe to appear halfway through the novel. There’s no way I’m getting that far, because I have to keep stopping to wipe all the rage spittle off my computer screen.
Anyway, enough douchebag literal criticism; this is all stuff you already know. You probably also know that there’s a huge-budget movie adaptation getting rushed out in time for Valentine’s. Really, there’s no more perfect day to release a film which is essentially a thinly-veiled attempt to cash in on people’s sexual fantasies. No longer able to focus on the words in the book without passing out, I decided to watch the trailer and try to piece it together that way. Here it is, in full, creepy glory:
So, going on first impressions alone, my initial understanding of the storyline of Fifty Shades based on the trailer – forgetting the book and all the whip-based conversation going on about it for a a moment – was, “RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPE”. I’ve gotta admit, filling an entire feature trailer with creepy, creepy looks takes some balls, but I still feel nothing for this movie other than it’s apparent christening of the “genitalia-specific romance fantasy” genre. No, not porn: this is porn with a PLANE. And BEYONCE. It’s different.
I honestly can’t feel anything for Fifty Shades in context other than this is a poorly-realized attempt to create a fairy tale with sadomasochism, and that the main characters are completely unbelievable. “You amateur,” I can hear you saying. “You just know nothing about romance.” Maybe I don’t. But that’s society’s fault for not teaching me early enough that the easiest way to get into a girl’s pants is to convince her you’re a sexual deviant before man-handling her in an elevator.
Anastasia herself appears to be nothing more than a soulless vehicle for the story, which is often the result of pretending a female character has some weight on the story. This is a long-standing trope in books, films and more, and it’s something I’ve gotten angrier and angrier about over the years, because so many people have produced vapid female characters under the ruse of strong personas. “It’s totally feminist, because the lead character is a woman!” is an argument that rears its ugly head a fair bit when something as controversial as Fifty Shades is released. No, it’s not, because when your lead female character operates solely as the repository for other character’s problems/issues/ennui/violence/antagonism/semen (take your pick), you’re not really doing the job there. Think about every horror movie ever. The lead might be female, but their one job is to run around in a blood-soaked t-shirt, screaming “HEEEEEEELP” at no-one in particular. I’m sure Anastasia has some kind of character arc, but Grey was the one who seemed to change the most in that trailer. I might be over-analyzing this, but I’m doing so in the unrealistically positive mindset that the movie will be something better than just two characters staring at each other for an hour and a half with the strong sense of “OOH YEAH, LET’S MASH OUR BITS TOGETHER WHILE WE HIT OURSELVES” radiating from their faces.
Either way, since I don’t really have anything better to do on Valentine’s Day, expect to see me watching Fifty Shades at a cinema near you. I’ll be the one in the front row, crying and screaming “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON” while furiously masturbating.