This weekend the movie "Fifty Shades of Grey" will inspire thousands of adventurous date nights, animate umpteen giggle-filled ladies' nights — and alienate an awful lot of people.
E.L. James' trilogy of erotic novels — essentially a Cinderella story with spanking — has sold more than 100-million copies worldwide. The tale of a virginal college student swept away by a kinky billionaire industrialist has already offended cultural conservatives for its explicit sexuality, irked feminists for what some consider a portrait of an abusive relationship and even annoyed practitioners of erotic bondage and sadomasochism, who feel "Fifty Shades" depicts their lifestyle as a mental illness.
And yet "Fifty Shades of Grey" is poised to gross more than $60 million domestically this four-day holiday weekend, with advance ticket sales for the R-rated film on pace with those of PG-13 megahits from the "Twilight" and "Hunger Games" franchises, according to ticketing site Fandango. The soundtrack is No. 1 on iTunes, and chatter about the Universal Pictures movie has inspired a Lego parody and an array of amusing merchandising tie-ins, including a nail polish line, bath oils and a Vermont Teddy Bear complete with handcuffs and a mask.
"Rarely do you see dominatrixes and [Christian activist group] Concerned Women for America screaming and yelling about the same thing," syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage said by telephone in an interview. "On paper, everyone should hate this movie, but it's gonna make a lot of money."
The inspiration for all this ardor is a cinematic rarity — a lushly photographed, slickly marketed, studio-financed $40-million love story featuring adult sexuality from a female protagonist's point of view. For all the nudity and raunchy language in many contemporary films, scenes that actually make women's toes curl are unusual. The kind of fantasy romances that once fueled Hollywood hits from "Gone With the Wind" to "Pretty Woman" have become increasingly unfashionable as the industry devotes more of its resources to comic book and young adult literature adaptations.
But "Fifty Shades," which was greenlighted by a woman (Universal Studios chief Donna Langley), directed by a woman (British filmmaker and photographer Sam Taylor-Johnson), based on a book by a woman (James), from a script by a woman (Kelly Marcel), seeks to revive a genre that has gone limp.
"This appealed to me because it was a dark and tragic love story," Taylor-Johnson said. "The characterization and the journey of the two people was really fascinating to me — that you have this girl who embarks on a very intense relationship naively but in the end is the one holding the power."
The story follows mousy English literature major Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) as she interviews dashing young business magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her college newspaper. Christian tries to entice Anastasia into becoming his sexual submissive, wooing her with gifts, rides in the Grey Enterprises helicopter and steamy bedroom encounters.
Less explicit than the book, the movie's sex scenes arrive after a long buildup between the characters and are as close to pornography made for women as those in any cinema, with breathy Beyoncé songs, flattering lighting and frequent shots of Dornan's bare chest and rear. As played by Johnson, Anastasia projects more strength than the character does in the book, communicating via a skeptical smirk or look of pleasure a sense that she is the one driving the unusual relationship.
Projecting that strength was a crucial part of Taylor-Johnson's pitch to the film's producers when she was vying the for the job, she said.
The making of the movie represented several hurdles, including meeting fans' expectations while staying tame enough to secure an R rating, and translating pages of Anastasia's internal monologue for the big-screen. Taylor-Johnson and James tangled over certain issues — among them, what kind of dress Anastasia should wear for a dancing scene and how Christian's sex toys should be displayed.
"Any time there's something that popular, the challenge is to make sure you deliver on what the fans responded to," said producer Mike De Luca. "The question is, how do you turn something that works as a literary experience into something that works as a cinematic experience."
Cognizant of critics who fear "Fifty Shades" encourages abusive relationships, Taylor-Johnson also walked a line in shooting and editing some of the film's rougher sex scenes.
"Even though this relationship is about dominance and submission, I wanted to have it be an equal journey," she said. "So it was a fragile balance. I think that was because my perspective of keeping an eye on the politics of it. It's difficult because you're dealing with power, submission, empowerment and the journey of sexual discovery."
Reviews for "Fifty Shades" have been mostly negative. While many film critics acknowledge the film is superior in quality to its source material, they suggest it's a low bar to clear.
But some of the film's harshest criticism has come from women activists — at the London premiere Thursday, protesters carried banners that read "50 Shades is Domestic Abuse" and said the film romanticizes a dangerous relationship.
As unbowed by reviews as any comic book movie aficionado, "Fifty Shades" fans like Crissy Maier, 38, of Long Island, say they'll see the movie multiple times this opening weekend. Maier, a government employee who maintains a "Fifty Shades" fan site at LatersBaby.net for fun, attended a fan screening Universal organized in New York in conjunction with the "Today" show Feb. 6.
"It was so nice to watch it as a group," Maier said. "Everybody was screaming and laughing at the same things. It's become a community, and the backlash against the story has only made us stronger. The people who tell me the story's abusive and about domestic violence, they're saying to me that I can't distinguish between a book and reality and what's a healthy relationship for me."
Counting on those female fans to drive a hit, Universal is already at work on scripts for the second and third books in the series.
"For the fans who loved the books, this picks up steam as a shared experience with 300 other people in a theater," De Luca said. "And it's a great date movie, if you're a smart-enough guy."