It is happening. The possibility of a 50 Shades of Grey film adaptation is no longer mere speculation. Sam Taylor-Johnson has been hired as director and a release date has been set for August 1, 2014. This is going to happen. Now is, perhaps, my last opportunity to pen down my thoughts on how a film adaptation of E.L James’ baffling contribution to literature ought to be handled. As with my advocacy for Loki’s death in Thor: The Dark World, this is not a prediction of what the film will be but rather what it should be. While there is no formula to predetermine the financial and critical success of a film (especially after the failure of The Lone Ranger), I can predict with confidence that a straight adaptation of the novel will be, by all standards, a disaster. The only chance this film has of being a success is as a comedy- a very, very dark comedy.
The fundamental problem with a straight adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey is that it’s guaranteed to receive the same criticism as the novel. 50 Shades of Grey is a cultural phenomenon in the vein of Twilight and Justin Bieber in that it is a massively successful joke. Granted, the novel does have a large and unironically enthusiastic fan base, but the world at large seems dumbfounded by its success. Critics hate it, feminists revile it, and the rest of us are in stitches from the hilariously bad writing. When Gilbert Gottfried and George Takei go viral just by reading excerpts from your book, you know you’ve created something that cannot be taken seriously. And any adaptation that fails to understand this, that retells 50 Shades of Grey without irony or self-awareness, will likewise be the butt of a world-wide joke.
In order to be successful, or at least quality, the movie needs to acknowledge the flaws of the book and the only way it can do that is through humor. Of course, in a world sick to death of the Scary Movie franchise and it’s offshoots (Epic Movie, Disaster Movie …) and other equally uncreative parodies like Vampires Suck, the notion of a satirical adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey is enough to make most movie goers shutter. However, this shouldn’t be taken as an indictment against satire itself but against … well, lazy satire. Satire, when done well, cuts to the core of what makes the source material so flawed and yet so beloved. Galaxy Quest and the Austin Powers films don’t offer a beat-by-beat rehash of Star Trek episodes and James Bond flicks. Rather, they pay tribute to their origins by creating a fun and engaging story with memorable characters while still pointing out the underlying flaws of the source material. Jason Nesmith loses his shirt during a fight scene because that’s what happened so often to Captain Kirk. Dr. Evil insists on killing Austin Powers with an “unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism” because Bond villains always used overelaborate methods to try to kill 007.
A 50 Shades of Grey movie, if done properly, would include the erotica and eye candy that fans want out of an adaptation while still poking fun at the things that make 50 Shades of Grey so detestable to everyone else: the story’s archaic take on female sexuality, Anastasia Steele’s’s passivity and incessant self-doubt, the number of Narcissistic Personality Disorder symptoms Christian Grey exhibits, the mere fact that Grey is a millionaire entrepreneur and helicopter pilot at age 27 and the romanticization of Grey’s controlling behavior. A voiceover could deliver some of the novel’s worst lines (“I close my eyes, feeling the build up … pushing me higher, higher to the castle in the air” -pg. 400; “Holy fuck. This is wrong, but holy hell is it erotic” -pg. 136 ). Above all else, a good adaptation would have to question, either explicitly or implicitly, what it is about a man like Christian Grey that women find so appealing.
While I have a general sense of what a satirical 50 Shades of Grey adaptation would be, the only specific detail that I have for it is that Zachary Quinto play Christian Grey. Grey needs to be two things: sexy and psychotic. Quinto has already demonstrated an aptitude for both. Though not as conventionally attractive as Henry Cavill, Matt Bomer or Ian Somerhalder, Quinto does have a handsome face and a body worth objectifying. More importantly, though, his distinct facial features, particularly his eyebrows, can make him look utterly terrifying when the need arises, as demonstrated repeatedly on Heroes and American Horror Story. Furthermore, he’s already played different aspects of Christian Grey in previous work. He played a business man in Margin Call, a character who’s irresistible to women in Star Trek (no, seriously) and a psycho with a secret torture room in his house in the second season of American Horror Story. Furthermore, his work on So NoTORIous, Dog Eats Dog and Funny or Die proves that he’s capable of delivering the sort of comedic performance necessary for satire.
Of course, this isn’t the approach that the actual film is going to take. Taylor-Johnson is going to find a way to adapt E.L James’ novel into R-rated drama that’s intended to be taken seriously. After re-reading and reviewing E.L James’ material, though, I can’t see how she’s going to pull it off.