Racy bestseller’s difficult transition to the big screen

In-fighting and a refusal to compromise marked the making of Fifty Shades of Grey, but will the movie live up to the book? asks Tony Earnshaw.

Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey

Footage of the makers of Fifty Shades of Grey on one of America’s biggest television networks shows a group of somewhat awkward individuals offering stilted, halting interviews.

It’s the relative calm before the storm – the anticipation and expectation of the film version of a literary phenomenon that set cash registers and bedrooms equally aflame.

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The must-read red-hot book of 2011 has become the must-see red-hot movie of 2015. And behind it is author Erika Leonard, aka E L James, who saw her novel shift more than 60 million copies thus making her, albeit briefly, one of the biggest and most important writers of the modern age.

It was James who created business magnate Christian Grey, a damaged playboy with a penchant for sado-masochistic sex who snares and seduces Anastasia Steele, virginal student turned willing partner in Grey’s peculiar games. Their relationship, charted in Fifty Shades of Grey and continued in Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, proved to be catnip for film studios. After all, 100 million sales can’t be wrong. And if they’ve bought the books they’ll pay to see it played out on screen.

Universal won the bidding war and in doing so gave complete creative control to James. What’s more James is said to have wielded her might with relish. Stories leaking out of Hollywood allude to her uncompromising nature and refusal to back down on matters of the script, casting (over which she had power of veto), choice of director (ditto), tone (ditto) and sexual content (ad nauseam). It’s been emotional. Frustrating. Intense. The spats are said to have been about issues of explicitness versus subtlety. James wanted the former. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson opted for the latter. Who won will be determined by the obsessive fans who have read and re-read a book that, regardless of perceived quality, continues to set (female) pulses racing with its ground-breaking, taboo-busting, flagellatory tale of slavery-cum-romance and a “red room of pain” filled with instruments of sexual domination.

James is on record as saying she is “delighted, absolutely delighted” with the movie, its stars and content. She would be: she approved it.

Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson plays his submissive conquest and Achilles heel. He is the Belfast-born singer, model and actor and star of TV’s The Fall. She is the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. Her grandmother is Tippi Hedren, star of Hitchcock’s Marnie.

It was perhaps a given that relative two unknowns would take the leads in any movie of James’s book. Established stars wouldn’t touch such a hot potato. Yet the film has already been criticised for not going far enough with its sex scenes, of which there are many. James is said to pushed for harder sex scenes. Taylor-Johnson preferred intimacy and refinement.

The director, whose last film was the Liverpool-set Nowhere Boy, about the early years of John Lennon, talked through the mechanics of the sex scenes with her stars. It was, she says, vital for her actors to bond before getting down to the steamy scenes that punctuate the book – and the film. Dornan calls it “a really smart move,” adding: “We did all the red room stuff in the final week of production. By that stage Dakota and I had built up a real trust, an understanding of each other and how we approach work.”

Fifty Shades of Grey (18) is on saturation release nationwide.