For many moviegoers, this Valentine's Day will be all about a woman named Anastasia "Ana" Steele (played by Dakota Johnson) and her long series of sexy, fantastic adventures. See, Ana is the protagonist of the internationally bestselling book Fifty Shades of Grey, the first in a trilogy. Hers is a tale of romance and frustration, but the history of the series is filled with conflict.
Here's how a story that started out as fan-fiction posted on a Twilight message board became the biggest movie of the month
What is Fifty Shades of Grey?
Fifty Shades of Grey is an enormously popular — like, 100 million copies sold worldwide popular — trilogy of stories about billionaire Christian Grey and Ana Steele. The three books in the series are named Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed. The trilogy has been translated into more than 50 languages. In its first six weeks on the market in the US, the first book sold 10 million copies. And that's in the publishing world of 2012, with a crumbling book market and the disappearance of bookstore chain Borders
The books are written by E.L. James, the pen name of Erika Leonard. Leonard was a West London executive before she turned to writing. She's now one of the most successful authors on the planet. In the United Kingdom, 50 Shades of Grey is the best-selling book of all time outselling even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Combined, the Fifty Shades books total more than 1,500 pages, most of which are positively dripping with sex, power, and money.
What are the books about though?
At its core, the Fifty Shades of Grey series features one of the most typical romance plots: falling in love with someone who doesn't seem right for you. Ana is not the sort of woman Christian typically pursues — she's young, she's naive, she's incredibly bossy, and she's not nearly as submissive as he'd like her to be. Christian, older and much, much richer than Ana, enjoys violent sex, something Ana has never experienced.
We'll get back to the problems with the books' violent sex in a moment. For now, though, let's examine them as literature.
I've heard the books are sexy — or are supposed to be. How sexy are they? Can you give me some quotes?
Sure. Here are a few:
"No, Anastasia it doesn’t. Firstly, I don’t make love. I fuck … hard. Secondly, there’s a lot more paperwork to do, and thirdly, you don’t yet know what you’re in for. You could still run for the hills. Come, I want to show you my playroom."
"I moan into his mouth, giving his tongue an opening. He takes full advantage, his tongue expertly exploring my mouth. I have never been kissed like this"
"He's naked except for those soft ripped jeans, top button casually undone. Jeez, he looks so freaking hot. My subconscious is frantically fanning herself, and my inner goddess is swaying and writhing to some primal carnal rhythm"
These quotes are terrible!
But Fifty Shades isn't trying to win a Pulitzer, and it shouldn't be judged as such. Fifty Shades is, for the most part, wants to give its readers a sexy, fun time. On that score, it delivers. These books keep readers turning pages. Even when the prose is atrocious, it's never enough to keep you from reading on.
That's a skill that's often derided in publishing, but it's a skill nonetheless. Stories aren't just the quality of their writing. They're also about, y'know, how well you tell the story. Ideally, an author manages both good writing and good storytelling, but we frequently celebrate writers who are beautiful craftspeople but whose books feature boring or even nonexistent plots. Why do we so rarely celebrate the inverse of that — writers who might not possess beautiful prose but know how to tell a cracking yarn?
For instance, the first book in the trilogy is more than 500 pages; I read it in two days. Though I mocked the plot and found some things completely unrealistic (like the apparently-still-existent jobs in the publishing industry), the pages flew by. My experience is not unique. Millions have been entranced by this story of two people who don't want to be right for each other but actually are.
What are the book's origins?
The origins of the book stretch back to a Twilight fan-fiction forum where James posted under the name Snowqueen IceDragon. In its original form, Fifty Shades of Grey's main characters were Edward and Bella from Stephenie Meyer's hit young adult series Twilight.
It's notable that the Twilight series is largely about repression of sexual desire, about keeping oneself away from something even though you (and the reader) want it so very much. Fifty Shades's origins as a fan work, then, point to a complete reversal of that book's thematic intentions. This is a series about giving in to desire, about indulgence. And Twilight fans responded. The original forum posts were said to be reviewed over 37,000 times and read by who even knows how many more.
"I haven’t read it. I mean, that’s really not my genre, not my thing," Meyer told MTV News. "I’ve heard about it; I haven’t really gotten into it that much. Good on her — she’s doing well. That’s great!"
In 2011, Leonard revised the drafts, renaming her main characters Ana and Christian. (Christian is also now just a billionaire, instead of a vampire; that James had to change him only a little bit is actually kind of funny.) After a long process of shopping the book around, a small Australian publishing house agreed to take on the project, and now, it's the internationally bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey series.
Fifty Shades of Grey was also an ideal book to rise in popularity after the creation of e-readers. It was the first book to sell one million copies on the Kindle, and that might be due to how easy it was to avoid the embarrassment of buying and carrying an erotic book by simply reading it digitally.
Part of Fifty Shades's success is the story of its origin in fan-fiction. As the New York Review of Books wrote in 2012:
Leonard’s excursion in the genre provided her with a captive audience of thousands of positively disposed readers, creating a market for her books before they ever carried price tags. But fan fiction is inherently collaborative and by convention resolutely anti-commercial, attributes which make its role in the evolution of her work both highly unusual and ethically fraught.
And yet part of the ethical problem with Fifty Shades of Grey stems from those origins. Fan-fiction, by its nature, borrows ideas. Characters are taken from an original work, and plot suggestions are taken from fellow fan-fiction aficionados. Thus, a fan-fiction success is a collaborative effort.
Jane Little, who runs a blog about romance novels called DearAuthor.com, compared Leonard's original fan-fiction series to the final series using a plagiarism detection software. She found the texts, to be almost identical — 89 percent of the books' content was exactly the same, and a major part of the 11 percent difference was the renaming of the main characters.
Knowing that leads to the question of whether James truly deserved to profit off of books that were so heavily influenced by others, but it doesn't change how incredibly popular these novels were and are.
What's wrong with how the books portray BDSM?
BDSM stands for bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism. It's a sexual preference that is becoming more and more prominent in mainstream media, and Fifty Shades has done much to make that so.
But for people who enjoy responsible BDSM, Fifty Shades of Grey is a problematic text. The books poorly portray the way this kind of sex works and how participants remain safe.
In the books, Ana is portrayed as a doormat with no voice and no interests in anything on her own. Meanwhile, Christian Grey's interest in BDSM sex stems from his emotional baggage, which implies that this desire is not a normal or natural one, but one that stems from childhood trauma.
"There are any number of reasons why people engage in BDSM, but for James to so flagrantly pathologize the BDSM lifestyle as strictly a way for fucked up people to work out their emotional issues, is beyond the pale," Roxane Gay wrote for The Rumpus. "It is not an accurate portrayal of the community. It sends a wrong and unfair message about kink."
But the books have also served to attack the BDSM community on another front. The response to Fifty Shades of Grey after its release was often mockery of BDSM sexual expression. There were jokes made about the "absurdity" of using whips as a stimulant and plenty of derogatory comments made about why anyone would want this kind of sex. Those conversations, of course, largely didn't include members of the BDSM community.
But even beyond the books' problematic depictions of BDSM, many have raised an even more troubling thought: that the books subtly endorse violence against women.
As Sophie Morgan wrote for the Guardian, "One of my big frustrations with the success of Fifty Shades of Grey is that there is so much of the main relationship that plays into the misconception that a sexual relationship based around BDSM is, at its core, an abusive one."
So do the books glamorize violence against women?
The main claim here stems from the fact that the series doesn't make any effort to explain or contextualize the violence against Ana, nor does it lay out some of the key concepts of BDSM sex, such as "safe words."
But the books' problems extend beyond the bedroom. Christian Grey is a stalker who continually tries to repress Ana's individuality. The sloppy way E.L. James approaches BDSM relationships makes this physical violence all the more confusing. If the hitting is part of a consensual BDSM relationship and the stalking is made out to be a romantic, does that make it okay? In some instances, sure. Many genuinely prefer a little pain with their pleasure, and a stalking scenario could be part of a consensual relationship, if both partners have agreed to it.
The problem with the 50 Shades of Grey narrative — and it's one that lies beneath every single plot of the book — is that Anastasia Steele is not one of those people. She doesn't like BDSM sex, and though she often derives immense pleasure from it, her heated interactions with Christian after many of their encounters remind readers that she doesn't really want to be his submissive at all. The book awkwardly dovetails power plays between the two with sexy fun times, and that means it struggles to make either stand out.
Ana suppresses her own opinions to appease Christian and ignores her own wishes so he will be happy. Ana allowing her body to be used by Christian however he wants lies at the core of abuse.
In a pivotal scene, after Ana has done something to upset Christian, she pleads, "Please don't hit me." That fear, that internalization of violence you don't want, is the definition of abuse. That, more than the bad writing, is why these books deserve criticism.
Should I see the movie?
Despite all of the criticisms and controversies, Fifty Shades of Grey is an incredibly popular franchise for a reason. The story, though not always believable, is compelling, and the sex, to many, is hot. Plus, Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan (who plays Christian) are very attractive people, and director Sam Taylor-Johnson has made interesting films before.
Having seen it, the movie succeeds in a few ways where the books fail: it gives Ana a stronger personality and, because it hasn't had to deal with the problems of later books in the series yet, Ana is able to stand up for herself and what she wants. If that sounds appealing, go check it out.
The movie premieres on February 13, 2015. Here's the preview:
Correction: The photo credits for this article originally credited the film to Fox Searchlight, rather than Universal, which is handling US distribution.