The ’50 Shades’ Casting Controversy: Why Fans’ Outcry Is Wrong … and Bad for Movies

220px-50ShadesofGreyCoverArtThe filmmakers toiling away at the inevitably profitable enterprise of turning the surprise-blockbuster S&M novel 50 Shades of Grey into a movie announced they’d cast their two lead roles this week. Apparently Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, is set to play the innocent maiden-type, and Sons of Anarchy stud Charlie Hunnam has signed to play the dude who awakens her sexually with handcuffs and stuff. Whatever, most of us say. Pretty standard stuff: Hollywood makes film version of huge novel, casts vaguely known, fantastic-looking actors who will likely become huge stars because of it. We’ve gone through this drill in everything from the Harry Potter books to Twilight to Hunger Games.

But this time, fans are apparently drunk with the power of the internet and, I suppose, some kind of deep feeling of ownership over this particular book. Maybe it’s because the book was originally self-published fan fiction, which makes them feel like the author, and thus anyone else who makes a version of it, has no more authority over its worldly expression than readers themselves do. Maybe they feel like they made this a phenom, which, technically, is true. Maybe it’s just the get-what-I-want-now culture of the Internet. For whatever reason, they took to the web in force yesterday to protest this casting more vociferously than anyone is protesting, say, the United States going to war with Syria. They even started a petition on Change.org, which has historically been reserved for protests of real social and political injustice. Incidentally, the fans who started this petition specifically demand White Collar‘s Matt Bomer and Gilmore Girls‘ Alexis Bledel as their leads.

I didn’t read the book and I don’t plan to see the movie, but this particular internet tantrum got under my skin. Movie-making is not a democracy, and there are good reasons for this. I think most of us agree that crowd-sourced art is not a great direction to head in. One Russian duo of artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexandir Melamid, did an experiment: They used a poll to determine what Americans liked and didn’t like in art, then made a painting they called “America’s Most Wanted.” The poll showed clearly that Americans liked the color blue, natural landscapes, historical figures, women, children, and large mammals on mid-sized canvases. So Komar and Melamid gave them what they wanted: a “dishwasher sized” painting of a family near a blue lake and mountains, some deer and George Washington nearby. It’s amazing, obviously, but not really in a good way.

Singular artistic visions tend to say more and mean more.

When Lost was at its height, and then soaring and stumbling and time-traveling toward its much-anticipated conclusion, its producers repeatedly emphasized that they had a vision for this thing. They were in control, they insisted. They knew what they were doing. Trust them. Stay with them. They had good reason to believe fans wanted them to have a vision, to give them not only a fun ride but a satisfying piece of work in its entirety. Whether or not they truly had a solid vision from the start, only they know; but I appreciate the relationship they had with their fans that made them want to earn viewers’ trust. We need to trust the creatives we choose to give our time and attention.

The 50 Shades controversy says something else: that fans don’t trust, or want to trust, the people who are working to create a film vision for the book. Author E.L. James appears to be on board with the casting, and she’s the one who Tweeted the news originally, so it’s odd that her fans would be the ones to revolt. But more to the point, what would happen if we only cast people already famous enough for fans to demand them in roles? One of my favorite feelings is seeing a new movie or TV show and thinking, “Holy crap, who is that?” I remember this feeling most vividly from seeing Four Weddings and a Funeral in the theater: I made my mom wait through the credits with me so I could see, and memorize, Hugh Grant’s name. More recently, I felt that way about Taylor Schilling in Orange Is the New Black. I immediately Googled her and had another sublime moment of discovery: Oh, that poor thing, she was the lead on that Mercy show (about nurses, I think) that was on a few years ago, and she was in the ill-fated Atlas Shrugged movie. Good for her. She’s finally found her thing.

We’d never have another breakout star if casting happened on Change.org. Let’s go ahead and let the producers do their jobs, and focus on, say, gay rights in Russia when we’re starting high-minded petitions. Just an idea.

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One comment

  1. The outcry is due to the fact that the author painted a very clear picture of what these characters looked like. Looks, in this case, were very important to the story. If you haven’t read the book, you wouldn’t know that. The actors cast look nothing like what was described in the book. Not. At. All. Fans will determine if the movie will sell….or not.

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