A while ago, I posted on Don Jon, which some writers feared might be rated NC-17, but did qualify for an R, and an 18 certificate in the UK (I missed it at the cinema so the review will have to wait for the DVD). A forthcoming adaptation of the bestselling novel by E. L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey, is likely to face a similar issue. Don Jon is, according to its writer-director-star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, not about porn, and the same is true of Fifty Shades of Grey, because it is porn. This is not me being moralistic, it’s just a description: Fifty Shades of Grey is a titillating tale of sexuality that provides in-depth, graphic description of sexual organs and activities, all rendered in terms designed to arouse the viewer and give them a ringside seat for all the action. Come the movie version, we may have an even better seat.
Or will we? Will the film be presented coyly and with discretion, not treating the viewer to explicit sexual scenes? If so, it runs the risk of alienating its primary fanbase, as the major selling point about the book is its sexual explicitness. But including even some of the graphic detail risks the dreaded NC-17 rating, barring any viewers under the age of 17 from seeing the film. This is a pretty severe and fairly rare rating, usually only awarded to films with strong sexual material such as Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007), The Story of O (Just Jaeckin, 1975) and Wide Sargasso Sea (John Duigan, 1992). NC-17 films tend to perform poorly at the box office, because of the restricted audience that can see them and the limited number of theatres that will exhibit them. Lust, Caution, for instance, earned $4.6 million at the US box office from a budget of $15 million, while Wide Sargasso Sea’s domestic gross was only $1.6 million. As a result, when the MPAA awards an NC-17 rating, the distributor often appeals the decision or makes edits to obtain an R rating. If it fails, the film has a better chance of profiting from DVD and download sales, as indeed do many less restricted films.
I hope this does not happen in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey. I hope that the film retains the sexually explicit content of the book and receives an NC-17 rating, and receives wide distribution that helps it become a hit (although if the screenwriter could make the relationship less abusive, that’d be nice). An NC-17 blockbuster could be a major game-changer, especially if it leads to a cycle of sexually explicit films that are also widely circulated and do well commercially. As long as audiences for sexually explicit material are marginalised, such material will remain taboo and niche. To have a mainstream NC-17 hit would be a refreshing step towards acceptance and away from hysteria, especially considering the reaction to the novel.
E. L. James’ book attracted a great deal of controversy for a variety of reasons. Some lambast it for being a terrible book, violating rules of literature that are apparently universal and self-evident (i.e., arbitrary and undefined). Taking the same privilege, I found it tedious, repetitive and obvious, a 520-page book that could easily have been 300 pages. The sex scenes were, I admit, provocative, but there’s only so many times I will read descriptions of arousal and intercourse before I start shouting ‘Get on with the plot!’ The book also has some very problematic depictions of relationships and gender, but there is also a questionable aspect to the criticism. Fifty Shades of Grey has been ridiculed as ‘mummy porn’ – a label the author has protested against and described as ‘lazy’, suggesting that ‘mummy porn’ is a foolish piece of smut for horny, middle-aged women who should clearly know better. The gender politics of this criticism are problematic in themselves – if women of any age (or men for that matter) want to read about sexual activity, why shouldn’t they? Is it especially offensive to our sensibilities that woman of a certain age have sexual identities? Sadly, there is this view and, while I did not enjoy the book myself, I applaud anyone, especially the apparent key audience, who read it in public and are not embarrassed. There is nothing wrong with sex, nor with erotic fiction, and if mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, sisters, brothers or anybody want to read this, the truly dubious behaviour comes from those who judge themselves better than others.
As to the possibility of mainstream success for the film of Fifty Shades of Grey, I am not advocating giving young audiences easy access to pornography – that would be redundant with all the free porn on the Internet (no, I will not provide links). What I want to see is the mainstreaming of sexually explicit cinema. Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is probably not going to manage this, as Von Trier’s credentials/reputation as well as the subject matter will likely confine this to art cinema regulation. The distributors of Fifty Shades of Grey, Focus Features, might believe there is a big enough audience to make it into widespread circulation, and hopefully with the explicit material left in. Just as adults need not be embarrassed about reading or indeed watching sex, it would be very refreshing for sexually explicit cinema to be released outside specialist cinema exhibition.