Sex beckons. It sells books and films, and this Valentine's Day it'll sell both. As Fifty Shades of Grey makes the leap from page to screen, the biggest question has been "how will they do the sex scenes?" In the three-book series by E. L. James, the BDSM sexploits of its lead characters are essential to their evolution, as Dominant, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), reveals his vulnerability, and submissive Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) finds her strength. The film's challenge is to fit the steamy sex into the framework of an R rating. Within the craft of adaptation lies the art of seduction. Screenwriters must tease out the best parts, luring characters to confess their secret selves on paper so a director can breathe celluloid life into them for an audience's consummation. As a screenwriter, I could not help imagining how I would adapt Fifty Shades for film. It's a game writers instinctively indulge in when reading any book, but it can be especially titillating when it comes to erotica. Wanna play?
First, some ground rules: Each scene must be consequential. If the sex is gratuitous, the relationship at its core will seem superfluous as well. Also, while Ana and Christian may have all day to play, a movie lasts only two hours. Concessions to time and budget necessitate hard choices. Each tryst must advance the story, define character, avoid repetition (even for our quick-recovering hero) or twist the plot. With a devoted fan base, it helps to know what's fired their obsession. For my money, Christian's sexiest attribute is his imagination. If variety is the sentient spice of sex, Christian's a banquet. From the top of his toys to the tips of his fingers, he's a master of attentive invention, planning each encounter in delicious detail. (Some men women date these days can't even pick the restaurant.) As the object of the game is to make the sex scenes cinematic, both screenwriter and director must harness Christian's creativity. In that sense, the filmmakers are the Dominant, and we the audience their submissive: Our pleasure is in their hands. (Spoiler Alert: If you don't wish plot points blown, save this article for laters, baby.)
Where does he get those fabulous toys?!
When it comes to cool toys, Batman has nothing on Mr. Grey. Ana's initial entrance into his playroom should have the same impact as Dorothy, stepping from her gray Kansas home over the Oz rainbow. But before Ana can partake of the Red Room of Pain, she'll get a great first kiss ("What is it about elevators?") and an inaugural weekend (just change the word "slam" to "slide" and we'll all breathe easier). But Ana's true sexual indoctrination comes in her first Red Room "scene" which includes a variety of restraints, eclectic decor and some questionable activities with a riding crop (You want to put that where???). One way to condense the explicit sequence is to shoot it unconventionally. Standard shot progressions start with long shots, establishing characters within the setting, moving to medium over-the-shoulder points-of-view, culminating in close-ups to emphasize dramatic high points. Here, the reverse could have a similar effect:
Tight shots of Ana's cuffed hands...Christian's mouth at her neck...the crop kissing skin...her trepidatious-turned-rapturous responses...Then pulling back as Christian suddenly lifts a blissed-out Ana, her shackled wrists riding the iron rail above, as he whisks her from one end of the room to the other, the music building with their movement as he brings her to rest against the large wooden X. After all the tight teasing, a final long shot has the same impact as a climactic close-up. As his back blocks the view of her body, we see her legs wrapped around him, her upper arms on his shoulders. With a shift in music, we suddenly see Ana, asleep in the white room. As she stirs, bits and pieces of the rest of the Red Room's scene flash back...Her realization and his knowing smile as he binds her wrists with the cable ties...her hands clasping the bedpost...her braid wrapped around his hand...his other hand grasping her hip...All intercut with Ana, a sleepy afterglow smile on her face as she revels in the memories...Her giggle as Christian cuts the cable ties with "I declare this Ana open"..."Open" echoing as Christian coaxes Ana to "open your eyes," softly kissing her awake.
One excised infamous incident left so many readers stunned, it gave new meaning to the phrase "toxic shock," but the hotel bathroom sex scene is about overcoming insecurities. He guides her hands to touch herself in a mirror and, in the lovely bit of bathtub coupling that follows, she gets him to release her hands. Afterwards, they open up even further as they lie together in bed, languidly talking. But Christian has crossed the country to give Ana "more." In that spirit, their flight in the glider is the true sex scene of the sequence. A close-up of her ecstatic expression as they soar through the sky, and his delight at her joy, should have the same intimate euphoria.
While the graphic sex will invariably be trimmed, it's the witty banter of the emails that will be most missed. (No one goes to the movies to read a laptop.) The best way to salvage them is to make them cinematic. Picture this: As Ana begins to type, our view is drawn through her computer's screen into the Hall of Mirrors that in Fifty Shades Freed haunts her dreams. There, Christian will find Ana in seductive attire. (Think Roy Scheider and Jessica Lange in All That Jazz). Flirty and confident, this Ana can say to Christian the things she can't in reality until, after the teasing retort "It was nice knowing you," she shuts her laptop, bringing us back to the Ana in sweatpants. When she finally dons the same stiletto/lacy thigh-high/miniskirt number near the trilogy's end, it will signal her embodiment of her fully-realized erotic self.
Like that? Too bad. There just isn't time for Ana's alter-egos. Gone will be Ana's Subconscious and Inner Goddess (goodbye half-moon glasses; so long meringue with some salsa moves). While the mirrors make a nice metaphor and capture their essence, Ana will be stronger wearing all her multi-facets. The emails that matter ("How many Cosmopolitans are you going to drink?") can be said in phone calls (see the end of My Best Friend's Wedding) or uttered aloud along with her originally unspoken thoughts ("Ask him what?...How was your water?"). Beyond the lip-biting and eye-rolling, a proactive Ana levels the power-playing field.
In Spellbound (directed by Alfred Hitchcock; written by Ben Hecht), Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, playing psychiatrists, share a breathless first kiss which gives way to the vision of doors opening. In a later dream sequence, surrealist images designed by Salvador Dali symbolically illustrate the mystery's clues. One has to take chances in art to break new ground. Whatever your feelings about the Fifty Shades series, there's no doubt they've revolutionized erotic novels for women. The genre's books have literally grown in size with their expanding audience. Now the film has the opportunity to break new ground. (Can't wait to see the merchandise tie-ins!) The Tallis gives the filmmakers their best chance.
In the book's climactic sex scene, Ana, wearing only an eye mask, lies bound to the playroom's red bed as Christian uses a fur mitt and suede flogger to heighten the sensitivity of her skin in preparation for his lips. As Christian plays her body to the tune of Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium, Ana's senses of sight and sound are subjugated in service to feeling. Like the moviegoers in theaters watching her, Ana is literally in the dark as Christian, hitting all the right notes, brings her into a new sentient world. We'd like to go, too. To do so, we'd have to experience it from her point of view, behind the mask:
Imagine, a black screen. Out of the void, an outline of Ana forms, her body heat radiating infrared. Our heart beats with hers as the music climbs and dips. Suggestive shapes in splashes of lush color intercut with Christian as Ana matches the sensation on her skin to his instruments. Rolling fades of the real and imagined float in and out, shifting from languidly long dissolves to quick edits with the rhythm of each stroke and strike. Swirls of light, licking the darkness, give way to Christian, working his way down, down, down. More voices swell the celestial choir, punctuated by Ana's breaths and moans, until the kaleidoscopic blend of visual, auditory and kinesthetic stimulation pushes her over the edge ("as the music reaches its climax I fall...free fall...") into an orgasmic oubliette, tunneling to flickering images of Christian and Ana, fully entangled, riding cosmic waves of shimmering stardust.
As Ana emerges from subspace ("I come back from wherever I've been...") the eye mask is removed, bringing Christian's face into focus. He has given her a precious gift, immersing her in a symphony of sensation. With the right tone, we'll fall into it with her (see Vertigo). Off key, it risks crossing into cult camp (see Rocky Horror), where 3D glasses in the shape of eye masks (insert "springs free" joke here) and touch-cards of faux-fur and suede to be felt up on cue await. Either way, simply showing the scene from the outside doesn't do justice to the inner experience it is. With Ana as our avatar, we're along for the ride, because as everyone who's read the books knows, the BDSM is just the MacGuffin - the kinky means to the love story's end.
Please is such a pliable word; it both begs and gives (as in "please, please me"). Its root within the word pleasure implies its multiple meanings: Ask and ye shall be satisfied. For Ana, it's the go-to plea of arousal. But when she asks Christian to show her "how bad it can get," there's nothing pleasing about it. If the Tallis is the high before the fall, the belt-whipping Christian gives Ana is the brutal bottom. While sensual spankings leave her butt a quick-fading pink, James is curiously mum on whether the belt bruises. (Any activity that requires that much Advil and Arnica, can't be good for you.) But Christian's promised not to hurt Ana and, while this is not a sex scene per se, it is part of his sexual persona. The film must maintain our sympathy for both characters.
But how to do it. (Double spoiler alert.) Reportedly, there was a debate: Should Ana say "stop" or "red"? Either word would carry the baggage of the belt with it into the next two films, potentially undercutting future scenes. (Remember the ground rules: no repetitions.) In Fifty Shades Darker, during a risqué billiards bet, Christian tells Ana to say "stop" because "lovers don't need safewords." If that point's been enacted here, it becomes moot later. Fifty Shades Freed fares better. When Ana cries "red" during an erotic wand revenge scene, the painful memory it recalls of her leaving him could raise the bar on Christian's panic. To have Ana invoke her safeword mid-belt is almost irresistibly ironic; she finally masters the game only to end it. It's also visually evocative of the room she's come to equate with desire, but now must give up. Still, there's a better choice. The word "no" would enforce Ana's power and show that Christian, despite the BDSM rules, can honor it, preserving our empathy for both of them, while saving the impact of the other words for the sequels.
The books began as Twilight fanfiction. The film might as well end that way. For the Breaking Dawn, Part I finale, Bella suddenly opens her vampire-red eyes, followed by a smash cut out to black. With the bite of the belt, Ana has her eyes opened as well. The hard-limit-line she draws there ultimately changes Christian's predilections. (It's fiction, just go with it.) It's a turning point for both of them and their epiphany makes a fitting cliffhanger. In a tale about the transmutability of power (erotic and otherwise), the playroom is the epicenter. Their split there is the dramatic dénouement. The problem comes in Fifty Shades Darker when Ana can't resist hitching a ride with Christian to her friend Jose's photography exhibit. It's tough to see her cave so quickly. It's also not very cinematic. Here's what is:
Heartbroken, Ana goes to Jose's show alone where she's stunned to see the photos he's taken of her, dominating a wall. Before them, mesmerized, stands the man in gray himself. Christian turns and sees her, their electric connection drawing them together. "What are you doing here?" she murmurs. "I came to see you," he says. (His Heathman photos are also there.) "Nothing's changed," she utters sadly. But the determination and yearning in his steel eyes feed his words: "Everything's changed." How'd she get there? Who cares? (Rent-a-car or borrowing Kate's, with a call, Christian can dispense with either.) It's their renegotiation during the ride home that reunites them. By the third film, in a scene only alluded to in the book, Ana can clue Kate in as flashbacks of Ana and Christian's insatiable hits show us what Ana can only hint at, catching everyone up to sensuous speed.
Get the picture? Now it's your turn to play. Just like Christian, use your imagination. With the next film comes Christian's conversion to vanilla (yum) and a tabletop romp (there isn't enough cranberry juice in the world...). Writing a screenplay from a novel is akin to writing fanfiction; one original inspires another. When adapting a trilogy, each movie must work on its own as well as when binge-watched back-to-back. I can't wait to see how screenwriter Kelly Marcel and director Sam Taylor-Johnson have done their Fifty Shades. I hope it draws a clear line between BDSM and abuse. I hope Universal theme parks put a Red Room right next to Ollivanders wand shop ("The toy chooses you!"). Most of all, I hope it starts a cinematic renaissance of more movies of all kinds made by women for women to enjoy. For that to happen, while sex scenes entice, there must be something at stake for the characters to connect to us. In romantic movies, as in life, it's the journey to each other that remains. Because in the end, sex beckons, but story stays.
Discover more sensual first kisses in movies, film's most romantic dances and cinema's most amorous songs. Check out another super Valentine's heartthrob. Take a playful peek at writers looking for love. Learn why Twilight's Edward Cullen is so seductive. Read how screenwriters adapted The Wizard of Oz. For more on the author, follow Devra on Twitter @devramaza and visit DevraMaza.com.
Photo Credits: Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey, courtesy of Universal Pictures/Focus Features.
Seeing Red: What's your favorite Fifty Shades of Grey scene?
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