Fifty Shades of Grey: How A Sequel Script by E.L. James Would Doom the Entire Franchise

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

I will readily admit that I’m nowhere near the target audience for Fifty Shades of Grey. However:

A: As the last two box-office weekends have proved, $400M worth of people are.

B: As our own Neil Miller pointed out, all that Fifty Shades dough will probably fund a future film that I will be the target audience for, and that I’ll probably like a whole bunch.

So it’s in mine and everyone else’s vested interests to keep Fifty Shades alive and well. And if series creator E.L. James is allowed to pen the screenplay for the next outing, Fifty Shades Darker — something she’s currently pursuing- it’s all but guaranteed that the Fifty Shades media empire will crumble and die a miserable, penniless death.

The creative team that gave us the first Fifty Shades, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel, are more than likely done with this particular sex-based film franchise. Johnson is reportedly “pulling out” (major Fifty Shades news can only be reported in sex pun form) of all future sequels, and Marcel has been neither seen nor heard in the film’s press tour. Variety stresses that neither has made their departure official, but it’s really just a matter of time. And in their absence, James has been angling to take on the screenplay herself- something Universal is “resistant” to, but no so resistant that they’re not discussing their options with James at this very moment.

This is a very dangerous idea.

First: James, as a novelist (or, being painfully blunt, not a novelist at all but a fan-fiction writer given “novelist” status through sales figures) is not suited to writing any screenplays, period. Very few book writers are. Entertainment Weekly put out a terrific piece on the matter, explaining why “novelist-turned-screenwriter” is such a rare title and why authors especially should avoid adapting their own work for the screen.

Here’s the gist of the piece: turning a novel into a screenplay means taking a text that lasts anywhere from three to eight hours and chopping that number down to an even two. Any subplots, any “internal moments of indecision and longing,” anything extraneous, and even a good chunk of the necessary bits, have to go if the film’s going to be anything but a pacing nightmare. And most authors are too attached to their work to take a chainsaw to it.

EW’s exception to the rule is Gillian Flynn, who wrote “Gone Girl” as a novel, and then had the icy resolve to strip her own writing down to a much leaner screenplay. And even she had a tough time doing so, Flynn admits in the piece that it took multiple drafts before she could come to terms with the necessary cuts.

”There are certain scenes that I would just hang on to. I knew, ultimately, they were going to go. I just couldn’t quite do it yet.”

Flynn also reveals that she didn’t do this alone- writing the film required more than a few multi-hour phone conversations with Gone Girl director David Fincher, hashing out exactly what the screenplay needed to be.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Universal Pictures/Focus Features

Put E.L. James in that situation. It’s been cited that James is the primary reason why Taylor-Johnson is currently fleeing for greener filmmaking pastures. James was given far more creative control on the Fifty Shades set than most authors, and she “used every opportunity to flex that power,” insisting that her way was law on everything from costume color to minor dialogue changes. One of the nastiest on-set battles was reportedly fought over one of the final lines in the film- Taylor-Johnson wanted the word to be “red,” Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey’s safe word. James wanted the more abrupt “stop.” Cue an epic struggle for superiority that ended with James getting her way and Taylor-Johnson realizing she couldn’t take several straight years of this.

If James got the bump from “based on” to “written by,” that would probably mean multiple five-hour phone calls with whomever Universal can woo into this particular sex minefield. And what happens if, just like the last time, James is incapable of finding any common ground with anyone? James has never written a screenplay (more troubling- she hasn’t written a single work that isn’t Twilight fan porn). I’m assuming a future Fifty Shades Darker director, plus producers and other creative types, would have to walk her through the basic screenwriting process just to end up with something filmable. And given what happened the first time, it seems so very likely that she might ignore their collective advice and write whatever the hell she wants- practical advice be damned.

Just as likely: “whatever the hell she wants” is something either completely unfilmable, or so batshit crazy that a $400M audience will abandon the series in red-faced embarrassment. And that’s not a comment on James’ screenwriting ability, but a comment on “Fifty Shades Darker” being source material that absolutely, 100% needs significant creative massaging.

The Fifty Shades currently causing theater-goers to break out in spontaneous, uncontrollable fits of masturbation is not the same work you’ll find in print, as Taylor-Johnson and Marcel lopped off major chunks of the book. Stuff like Anastasia’s “Inner Goddess,” a personification of Ana’s emotional state that acts out her innermost feelings about Christian in some kind of interpretive dance. At various points in “Fifty Shades,” Ana’s inner goddess:

  • “is doing the merengue with some salsa moves”
  • “is swaying and writhing to some primal carnal rhythm”
  • “leaps up cheering from her chaise lounge”

There’s also a scene involving a used tampon that you’ve no doubt heard of (or are perfectly capable of Googling) and is gross enough that I’m not going to tarnish this perfectly nice sentence by including it.

None of that made it into Fifty Shades: The Movie. Likewise, there’s plenty of crazy crap in “Fifty Shades Darker” that has to be burned out of the script this very instant, and it might not be if James is the one writing it. Say, a sex scene where Christian spoons vanilla ice cream into Ana’s pubic hair, then licks it off. Or a sequence where Ana rummages through Christian’s “butt drawer,” which I swear is the exact phrase used in the book. How could something like this ever play out onscreen?

“Anastasia, these objects.” He holds up the butt plug. “This is a size too big. As an anal virgin, you don’t want to start with this. We want to start with this.” He holds up his pinky finger, and I gasp, shocked. Fingers… there? He smirks at me, and the unpleasant thought of the anal fisting mentioned in the contract comes to mind.

The sex continues from there, and it does indeed involve use of a butt plug. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t imagine a sex scene involving an item that looks like this (EXTREME NSFW WARNING: IT’S JUST A LINK TO AMAZON’S BUTT PLUG PAGE) to be anything but hilarious. The first movie skirted by with a single butt plug joke. Showing one onscreen and using it in a sexual context- a this is supposed to be blissfully erotic context, is far more treacherous ground. Especially if James intends to ignore the advice of the filmmakers around her.

50 Shades of Grey: Riding Crop

Universal Pictures

Along with the sex scenes there are structural, thematic and general relationship-uncomfortableness issues that James would naturally have to talk through with the future director of Fifty Shades Darker. People complained that it took nearly 40 minutes for the first film to stop talking and break out the ball gags, and it takes “Fifty Shades Darker” nearly half the book to do the same (at least, as far as I know, as I haven’t read it and am relying solely on braver souls who have). That’s something a writer and a director should figure out ahead of time… unless of course, James doesn’t want to.

Or another giant criticism leveled at the film- that it plays fast and loose with the idea of consent and healthy BDSM-based relationships (something our own Kate Erbland has discussed in far more detail than I’m going to). Those that bristled when Christian tossed consent out the window in film #1 will probably bristle when Christian, say, buys the company Ana works for in an attempt to win her back. Or insinuates that he has access to her bank account. Or upon lines like:

“It’s my body,” I mutter, annoyed that he hasn’t asked me.
“It’s mine, too,” he whispers.

Also:

“We’re lovers, Anastasia. Lovers don’t need safe words.”

Again, smoothing out those issues will probably involve a lot of collaboration. And if James isn’t willing to collaborate- and worse, if she ends up exercising the same my word is law creative control over Fifty Shades Darker, Universal will almost certainly end up with a final product that’s too poorly written, morally gross and bizarrely over-gratuitous to be considered sexy by anyone. And if people stop finding Fifty Shades sexy- which, it can’t be understated, is the entire appeal of these movies– then Fifty Shades dies, and it dies real quick. Which is something Universal is hopefully considering in their current screenwriting talks with James.

Although there is one potential upset here. The books were crammed with unsettling relationship boundaries and pubic hair soaked with Ben & Jerry’s, and they still made like a bajillion dollars (or however much money 100M copies sold gets you). So if Universal ends up with a four-hour bizarro sex epic, the same mass audience that bought it in print might just see it on film anyway. If that’s the case, I look forward to Fifty Shades Freed being the craziest goddamn sex movie history will ever see.

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