Of all the movies to become obsessed over, why did this have to be the one to grab hold of me? For over a week now I can’t get this film out of my head and not because it’s good. No, my problem with this film is that it’s actually fixable and could’ve been watchable with some mild tweaks. Admittedly, they were mild tweaks that were never going to happen because E.L. James has complete creative control and she is the worst writer to currently be published but still, this was salvageable.
What follows is me going through the film, figuring out what elements could change to make it work. I will be spoiling large amounts of the story, but if you’re reading this then chances are you either saw the film already and are curious how it could ever be salvaged or you don’t plan on seeing it. Keep in mind that I’m only worried about the film. I am treating this like its own original work and not as an adaptation, mostly cos I’m not reading the damn books.
Before we get to that though, we have to deal with a fundamental problem that would require redoing the entire trilogy from the start.
Chemistry, Charisma and Casting
The hardest element of any film is casting, especially the casting of a romance film. Not only are you looking for actors who can play the parts but you’re looking for actors who are able to believably fall in love on camera. There’s a reason some romance films become classics. When Harry Met Sally works because Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan had the kind of chemistry that made their relationship believable. Dirty Dancing works because Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey allowed themselves to give into the parts and present a beautiful relationship that still resonates today.
Meanwhile, Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson can’t even look at each other when they’re getting married.
The opening minutes of Fifty Shades Freed is a microcosm of the foundational issue of this film. Namely, our leads can not comfortably portray that they are in love or even that they like being in the same zip code as each other. This happened throughout Freed and Darker. I’m assuming it happened during the original, but I haven’t seen that and you can’t make me.
Personally, I believe this film series was doomed when the original Christian Grey pulled out. If you recall, the original Christian was meant to be Charlie Hunnam. You might know him as Jax Teller from Sons of Anarchy or as Nathan Maloney from Queer as Folk, two series where Charlie showed how he can have chemistry with almost anyone. He was too busy with Sons of Anarchy and Crimson Peak, meaning it was impossible for him to do 50 Shades of Grey. Thanks to that schedule, he had to pull out. Apparently, that’s something he regrets to this day.
So why bring this up? Because the problem with this casting isn’t Dakota Johnson. Despite my complete and utter disdain for the character she’s portraying, she plays it well. She, somehow, actually turned Anastasia Steele into a relatively likable human being despite being saddled with such dialogue like “That depends on how hard you spank me”. The problem in this film series (besides the terrible writing, we’ll get to that) is Jamie Dornan.
For the record, Jamie Dornan seems like he’s a genuinely nice person and probably a great actor in other roles. I’ve heard good things about him in The Fall, even good actors have bad roles in their filmography. Let’s just admit that this is a bad performance by a probably decent actor. The amount of times he doesn’t even pretend to give a shit is staggering. Christian Grey is meant to be the most charming man on the planet, he has to be in order to get Anastasia to look past his unusual sexual kink. In this film, if I’m being kind, Jamie Dornan has the charm of a slightly damp patch of grass. You’re aware of its existence, but it has no actual effect on its surroundings. His line readings would make sense if Christian was an actual sociopath, but that’s not the intent of the character. When 50 Shades of Grey lost it’s original Grey, it lost about 50% of it’s potential to actually work. We can’t fix that with a rewrite, but it is a foundational problem that needed to be addressed. Also needing to be addressed, let us talk briefly about the other foundational issue before we get to the film itself.
Remove The Author
After 50 Shades of Grey was released to average reviews, the director Sam Taylor-Johnson was promptly fired and replaced by James Foley. This shocked people because the only thing that got praise from the original 50 Shades movie was the direction by Sam, who by all accounts made a visually interesting film that managed to inject some much-needed humour into the movie.
E.L. James is why Sam Taylor-Johnson was fired.
E.L. James is why this film series is so awful.
It’s been mentioned before by many people but let’s not forget the origin story of this movie. This is a Twilight Fan Fiction that got turned into a novel that sold inexplicably well. Because of that, E.L. James somehow got absolute creative control when Universal bought the rights to the property at auction. When I say absolute, I mean she got to pick details down to the wardrobe worn by characters. If E.L. James could’ve played Christian and Anastasia herself, she would have done it.
The idea of an author getting this much control over the adaptation is pretty much unheard of. Compare this to how J.K. Rowling handled the adaptation of her Harry Potter novels. She let the filmmakers do what they had to do, only occasionally steering them away from certain ideas because she knew they would contradict something in a book that wasn’t released yet. Her only demands were the casting of British actors and that she kept the rights to the characters. She worked with Steve Kloves on the script but allowed him a lot of room to rework the book into a form that would work on a film. She understood that she couldn’t control everything and so she only pushed for things that were essential to the upcoming plotlines.
E.L. James did not grant that same permission. As far as E.L. James was concerned, it was her way or the highway. This goes down to details like the ending of the original film which apparently was going to end with Anastasia saying the word “Red”, a suggestion by the director who thought it was more interesting from a story standpoint to have Anastasia use her safe word on Christian as the climax of the film. E.L. James was having none of it, demanding the word be “Stop” because that’s the word that’s in the novel. This kind of argument is why Sam was fired from the series and why E.L. James continued to control every element. If they wanted this movie to stand a chance, E.L. James needed to have no power or at least minimal power over the work in question. She is not now, nor has she ever been, a good writer. Giving her control of a $50 Million dollar movie franchise that already has to deal with the stigma of being based on these widely reviled novels was asking for disaster. Keep in mind, the one movie in the series to do over 150 million at the domestic box office is the original and that’s in no small part due to Sam Taylor-Johnson creating a work that actually got enough critical praise to lure the sceptical viewers in. When it was just E.L. James, no one had a reason to stick around.
Those are the two big issues that this series should’ve dealt with from day one, but they weren’t so we now have to wonder just what they could’ve changed to make the third one a more satisfying climax.
Anastasia Does Know Who She Married Right?
“You own this?”
Within a few minutes of the film starting, Anastasia asks Christian this simple question. What she is referring to is a private plane that Christian is using to take them on their honeymoon. So what’s the problem? They’re married by this point and Anastasia is aware that Christian Grey is richer than Jesus. Anastasia is also aware that Christian owns some kind of aircraft since the last movie’s climax involved Christian almost dying in a helicopter crash.
Why does she not know what he owns?
This feels like it’s meant to be a way for the audience to relate to Anastasia by allowing her to be our surrogate once more. She’s shocked and impressed at this info because we’re meant to be impressed. The only problem is that it makes no sense from a character standpoint because… well, it’s the third movie. They’re married. If she somehow didn’t know that he owns a private plane then clearly, they shouldn’t be getting married.
How do we fix this? Simple, it requires a mild line change. Instead of “You own this?” (a line that is naturally followed by Christian saying “WE own this”) have Anastasia say “We’re taking your jet?”. Instantly that changes things, we still get the feeling of shock on Anastasia but now the shock is that she get’s to go on his private jet instead of the ‘shock’ of him owning one. Anastasia now has information that she should have as his wife and we get a little look into how their sub/dom relationship works. This could then, obviously, lead to Christian saying “OUR jet” and boom, the moment at the start of the film that makes a lot of non-fans cringe is gone and the alteration is so slight that I can’t see how anyone could be upset by it. This happens a few other times where Anastasia seems shocked by the wealth she now is a part of because that’s how they want the audience to feel. By simply making her appreciative of it instead of surprised by it, it fits the character more and doesn’t treat the audience like they’re idiots.
Boom Boom Boom Boom
The movie’s actual drama starts while our main couple is on their honeymoon when Jack Hyde breaks into Christian’s office in order to steal some documents and set a small fire. It’s a scene that is as irrelevant as it is anticlimactic because it has no actual purpose to the plot. If we’re being generous, maybe it puts the Grey’s on edge for a little bit, but that’s all it does. They already knew Jack was a menace just based on the last film, they even worry just what he might do but a fire that barely has any purpose isn’t interesting.
Why not just blow up the office?
Seriously, what difference would it actually make? Would we lose some important character? Would there be an essential plot point we couldn’t do? Would Christian magically lose all his money and thus lose the only thing that defines his character? No, but you know what it would do? It would give them a reason to move out of the apartment.
The scene shortly after this is Christian showing Anastasia a home he just bought, a home they don’t ever use again after this scene and one he has no reason to buy since his apartment is actually fine at this point and nothing bad has happened in it. So let’s blow up his office and provide some actual stakes here. Let’s give them a reason to worry about their lives, which is what this film tries to do but doesn’t do well. By blowing up the office while Christian and Anastasia have a reason to actually leave their honeymoon, a reason for them to worry, a reason for them to band together, a reason for Christian to hire bodyguards and even a reason for them to move out of the apartment. Speaking of that apartment.
The Break In
So one of the most important scenes in Fifty Shades Freed is after Anastasia has gone out for drinks with a friend. She’s been told, explicitly, by Christian to go straight home from work and violates that order so she can go for a drink. She comes home and goes to her room, while the bodyguard waits in a different room far away. Promptly after her reaching into a drawer, Jack Hyde pops out of the darkness to hold a knife to her throat. His plan is to kidnap her and it doesn’t work. He’s pretty quickly subdued by the bodyguards and taken off to jail. I have no problems with this scene, it presents the villain well and made him somewhat intimidating. So what’s the problem?
Christian sexually tortures Anastasia for going out for a drink.
In the scene that is possibly the most disturbing sequence I’ve ever seen on film (And I’ve seen Irreversible and Antichrist in a double feature, my bar is pretty high for disturbing scenes), Christian drags Anastasia to the red room within 24 hours of her attempted abduction. He takes here there and uses a vibrator on her, turning it on for a few brief seconds before pulling it away. Clearly, Anastasia is not enjoying this at all, it actually distresses her enough that she screams her safe word and berates Christian with the line “The Red Room is not for revenge”. Christian justifies his actions by saying it’s to make Anastasia feel the way she made him feel when she went for drinks against his wishes… you know, on the night she was held at knifepoint. It’s a scene that makes Christian worse than Jack as far as I’m concerned. At least Jack is meant to be the villain, Christian is meant to be someone we like and here he is torturing his partner because she dared to have a drink with a friend while he was out of town. How can this be fixed? One line needed to be added.
Have Anastasia ask to be taken to the red room on the night of the assault.
You have to change literally nothing else about the sex act, you can have Christian do the vibrator thing but this time he’s doing it because Anastasia needs the familiarity of being submissive to Christian. One of the things about BDSM that seems to go ignored (especially by this series) is that it’s a power play where the submissive is willingly giving up their power and they can take it back with a safe word. They are, in reality, the most powerful person in the relationship. Instead of using the red room as punishment, have it turn into a place Anastasia goes to feel safe. She does that later on in a very stupid scene where she hides out there overnight after an argument, but if the writers of this script (And this book but, again, E.L. James is the worst of all writers) wanted to make this relationship actually romantic, they’d find a way to make the BDSM aspect work for both characters instead of just be about Christian. Plus we get rid of the sexual torture aspect which really shouldn’t be in this alleged romance film.
I actually got told by someone who read the books that the scene in the novel is even worse with Christian demanding she take back her safe word after he unties her. I’m not going to read the books to confirm this (I saw the movie, I’ve suffered enough) but that tells me that someone knew that this character was just a vile disgusting person and tried to tone him down… and failed. Seriously, seeing Anastasia terrified by her partner and screaming about how “That wasn’t love, that was revenge” kind of kills the mood.
Vacation, Need A Little Getaway
After the sexual torture, there’s an extended sequence where Anastasia and Christian, along with a bunch of their friends, take a trip to Aspen. It serves no narrative purpose and really just offers a chance for the much talked about Ice Cream sex scene between Anastasia and Christian (A scene so disgusting that Vulture literally called a gynaecologist to ask “Could he put that there?”). It’s only real purpose is to “Give Anastasia more freedom” and it really doesn’t. The problem with this scene is just that it has no purpose and actually pulls focus from the main plot, it’s a cheap diversion that offers nothing of quality other than maybe reminding us that they have friends.
Why not just delete this scene?
The scene itself is a 5-10 minute time sink that is really there for no other reason than to give them a reason for that weird sex scene so why is it here? What makes more sense from a story standpoint would be to go straight to the next scene where Jack is given bail. The pace of the movie is thrown by this scene because we have huge tension with the attempted abduction, a creepy sex scene, romance and then panic at Jack being released. However, if instead we go from the red room scene to Jack being released, you can keep that tension up and even get to cut from Anastasia cuffed to Jack cuffed. I’m genuinely shocked they didn’t do that, this seems like the only movie you could do that kind of editing joke in and they drop the ball.
Here’s To You, Mrs Robinson
After the sexual torture, there’s this scene where Anastasia announces that she’s pregnant with Christian’s child. Apparently, she didn’t keep taking her birth control, which is a depo shot which apparently is a very old form of birth control according to that Gyno that Vulture talked to. In response to this news, Christian chucks a hissy fit because he’s not ready and runs off to see his former dominant Elena Lincoln. Elena doesn’t actually appear in the film (Though she’s in the trailer, cos lying about the content of your film is fun) but Christian apparently spends the night talking to her off screen, something Anastasia finds out about when Elena texts him and makes it seem like an affair.
So… why can’t they talk about abortion?
This is based on something that video essayist Lindsay Ellis pointed out on Twitter
She’s right, they never mention any alternatives to having the child. They really don’t even talk about the pregnancy again until the end of the movie and no one tries to make this work. Adoption isn’t mentioned, abortion isn’t mentioned, the concept of Christian growing the hell up and acting like an actual adult is never mentioned. Why can’t our adult married protagonists have an actual goddamn conversation about the realities of getting pregnant? Why does Christian have to run off to talk to the woman who he literally hated at the end of the last movie and basically cast out of his life, in favour of just talking to Anastasia? This is only here to create a false sense of drama before the Jack plot comes back but it’s pointless. What would work better is for them to talk about it like adults, explore their options and come to an agreement to have the baby. Why? Because in a later scene, something will happen that’ll have an actual emotional impact if they both actually care about the life of that baby.
So after the bail is made by Jack a few things happen. The first is that he contracts a former partner to be his accomplice by blackmailing her, the second is that he kidnaps Mia and holds her to ransom for five million. Now there are many problems with this, the biggest being that no actually one cares about Mia. I’m sorry but she is a non-entity in this series, she’s Rita Ora and that’s all she has going for her. I genuinely did not even realize the person kidnapped was important until three characters state that it’s Christian’s sister. We also never see the kidnapping which would’ve been dramatically interesting.
So why can’t Anastasia be the one who was kidnapped?
The movie has so many problems with trying to make us care about side characters when, really, it’s a movie with three main characters who we are meant to care about, followed by a set of warm bodies who may be played by a famous person, possibly. Kidnapping a character we do not care about in the slightest means that the entire last sequence lacks anything resembling tension. Not only do I not care about Mia, I don’t know why anyone would. But Anastasia? I care about her. It’s not like Jack had many problems breaking into her home so why couldn’t he just kidnap her?
On top of this, it’d give Christian something to do in the final act. They make a point about showing that his stalker ways have had a benefit and allowed him to track Anastasia when she was kidnapped but honestly, he does nothing at the end of the movie. His moment of ‘Heroism’ is turning up after the cops do the actual work which is not a satisfying conclusion for the character. What needed to happen was that Anastasia needed to be kidnapped by Jack and Christian had to come in to save her, the tension would be even higher because the pregnant Anastasia would be in the hands of a sociopath who might just kill her for fun. Also, it makes sense for Christian to produce the 5 million reward since it’s his money. We’d get to avoid the awkward bank scene where the bank manager should have major problems giving the money to Anastasia but doesn’t because he’s bad at his job.
Kick The Baby
During this climactic scene, there is a moment that’s meant to horrify us. Jack kicks Anastasia in the stomach. It’s a genuinely brutal moment of him almost beating her to death before the cavalry comes in. It’s a dark moment that has some emotional weight… for like 5 seconds cos that kid is fine. They literally make a point that somehow Anastasia’s life-threatening injuries didn’t in any way harm her baby.
…………why didn’t they?
This is possibly the moment I feel worst about suggesting but let’s be honest, the film needs some actual dramatic weight in it and the fact of the matter is that Jack Hyde is a large man and he kicked Anastasia hard in the stomach, the fear of her losing that child lasts 5 seconds. Either actually go for it, or at least show everyone worrying about it long enough for it to matter. Give Dakota Johnson the chance to show everyone how good an actress she can be by having her worry about her baby, because she really doesn’t get a chance to do that. If she actually lost it, it’d be a dark ending for sure but at least then the characters will be forced to go through something, we could see them grow and mature… or we could just make it easy and have this story have literally no impact whatsoever.
We’re Gonna Need A Montage (Or Are We?)
One of the moments that every review of this movie has talked about is how it ends. The movie ends with Anastasia walking into their apartment and seeing Christian at the piano. She then proceeds to have a flashback montage of their relationship up to that moment which is the most pointless of all montages. It’s literally just trailer footage spliced together over shots of Anastasia looking wistful at Christian before she adjourns to the red room, beckons him in and presents herself willingly to him. It’s meant to be a romantic moment but it becomes laughable because of how it’s set up with the stupid montage.
So why not just have Anastasia take Christian to their bedroom?
I know that this is a BDSM movie but the entire throughline is that Christian loves Anastasia more than he loves BDSM, even though we almost never see that. Every scene they have with the exception of the virginity loss is, in some way, a kinky scene. Why can’t we end this on an actual romantic love scene between the main characters and show them with actual growth? There’s nothing special about Anastasia going into the red room anymore, we’ve seen it too many times for it to have an impact. What we have almost never seen is them just loving each other, why can’t the film end on that instead of another shot of Anastasia as a piece of meat for Christian to enjoy?
So… Could This Work?
In theory, there is nothing wrong with this kind of story, a BDSM love story can absolutely work and has worked in the past. This needed to have a writer actually look at the script and fix the boring parts, remove the abuse and make an actual love story with a lot of kinky sex. E.L. James was never going to do that, she is not a good writer and would not be able to pull off an actual love story.
Could my version work? Maybe, maybe not. This piece is mostly just a way to explain the very specific problems with the story of the third movie but this shows how easy it is to spot the problems and to offer solutions. I worked all this out within a few hours of seeing the movie, it took one viewing to understand where they needed to change things in order to make the film work as a decent drama. I know for a fact there is stuff I left out, from the email argument to stupid lines of dialogue but this piece is long enough as it is, and I’d have to watch this film a second time and that is just not going to be happening.
If I can work this out, how did no one at Universal? Fifty Shades Of Grey is not a bad concept for a film, but the execution is awful and. hopefully. now I never have to think about this movie again
… until my ‘Worst of 2018’ list, anyway.