The thing I remember most about reading Fifty Shades Darker, E.L. James’ follow-up to the insanely successful Fifty Shades of Grey, was how trite and strange the story had become, as if James took the best of what she recalled from random Bond movies and Law & Order episodes to craft the central conflicts for her second erotic novel.
It strayed when she introduced a blackmailing boss named Jack. It wobbled when she had Anna stalked by Christian’s former lover, Leila. It deviated in ways no bajillion-copy-selling book should from the very essence of what made its predecessor surprisingly brilliant—the S&M.
James’ first book was like a car wreck of sexual angst you couldn’t look away from, whose victims—main characters/burgeoning lovers Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey—somehow managed to escape, mostly unharmed. Never before had such a taboo subject been the highlight of our collective public discourse or had a story line entranced an entire planet with its sweetly sadistic charm.
Fifty Shades of Grey accomplished the unthinkable: It made us root for moody Christian Grey to get over his mommy issues and cheer on Anastasia Steele as she abandoned her prude-ness for the sake of true love. [Cue: In the Name of Love covered by Adele featuring that dude from The Weeknd and also some Jonas brother just because.]
There was a fantastical element to James’ initial literary adventure, maybe even something inspirational, too, in the idea that this love Christian and Anna shared would last despite the uh, unconventional boundaries threatening to break them at every turn. But once demure Anna was OK with the ropes and chains by novel numero dos, what was a mega-hit author to do?
Steal from other writers, of course. And why not? James had already done it once before and things turned out pretty OK for the former local TV producer-turned literary billionaire. (In 2012, Time magazine named her among “The World’s 100 Most Influential People.”)
Like it or not, the entire premise for Fifty Shades of Grey was fashioned from the dregs of Stephenie Meyer’s goopy teen fiction series, Twilight. Except instead of a lovelorn vampire reluctantly falling for the shy girl in his chemistry class, we get a lovelorn CEO who can’t control his urge for innocent Anna and … other things. Before it set the erotic fiction genre aflame, Fifty Shades began as a tiny ember of Twilight fan fiction posted on FanFiction.net.
When frequenters of the online forum deemed her work way too inappropriate, James created 50shades.com, a place to post her Twilight-inspired S&M fan fiction as a series she titled, Master of the Universe. (Back then James, whose real name is Erika Mitchell, used the less-catchy pen name, Snowqueen Icedragons.)
After popularity for the story of Anna and Christian soared, savvy James pulled her serial from the website in May 2011 and self-published the whole shebang as an e-book via a tiny online writer’s community, The Writer’s Coffee Shop. One week following publication of what she now called Fifty Shades of Grey, the e-book was downloaded more than 30,000 times. Come March 2012, James closed a seven-figure deal with Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House, and went on to sell an outrageous 10 million copies of her book in the first six weeks then 70 million copies by the year’s end.
(As a completely unrelated but totally related side note, the book kicks off with this opening line: “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.” Well to that I say, if you don’t scowl at yourself in the mirror, who the heck are you scowling at?)
Egregious grammatical errors and redundancy aside, the plot was compelling, the characters intense and the book, once over, left readers wanting more. Enter Fifty Shades Darker and the third installment, Fifty Shades Freed, as well as the pitiable other book I forget the name of that told the whole narrative from Christian’s point of view. Yeah, I bought it. Moving on …
So the Hollywood bigwigs, for whom S&M meant Sales and Money, were quick to turn the best-selling books into movies; Fifty Shades of Grey, starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, was released Feb. 13, 2015, grossing $571 million worldwide. And with the second movie about to hit theaters on Valentine’s Day (aww!) of 2017, it’ll be interesting to see how this cinematic adaptation of the Shades sequel fares.
Judging by the trailer, its shadowy, action-film vibe is kind of working for me—much more so than the sterility of the first film—and I have no doubt the studio has another half-billion blockbuster in the works. Maybe it’s because Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson dropped out for this one and James Foley took her place, boasting a diverse resume that includes romantic dramas, action flicks and thrillers. Or maybe I’m just feeling benevolent and want to give Anna and Christian’s love story another whirl. Who knows. Whatever the reason, I’ll let you watch and decide …