In the last two weeks, the Fifty Shades of Grey series has been in the news again. Everybody has heard of this immensely popular erotica series, the debut of British author E. L. James, which famously started out as Twilight fan fiction. The original trilogy came out in 2011 and 2012:
- Fifty Shades of Grey (356 pages, published in May 2011)
- Fifty Shades Darker (532 pages, published in September 2011)
- Fifty Shades Freed (579 pages, published in April 2012)
This trilogy is basically a “love it” or “hate it” series of books, but let’s start with the overwhelming success of the books. In August 2012, the first tome became the best-selling book in the UK since records began. Yes, that means that, with its 5.3 million copies sold (3.8 million physical books and 1.5 million ebooks), it was more successful than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. By June 2015, it had sold over 125 million copies worldwide and been translated into 52 languages.
Basically, Fifty Shades of Grey redefined publishing. Authors, publishers and critics everywhere dislike the series because of the terrible writing. Feminists don’t like the female character, the BDSM world thinks their lifestyle is unfairly portrayed. Advocates for women’s rights and against domestic abuse feel like the series glorify abusive relationships and conservatives everywhere hate the fact that it has put kinky, dark erotic literature into the mainstream. And yet, the success of Fifty Shades is undeniable. With over 125 million copies sold, E. L. James being named Forbes’ highest earning author and all three books being made into movies – it’s clear people love it.
E. L. James’ trilogy single-handedly revived the genre of erotica and put it well into the mainstream. What used to be a genre that people were ashamed to admit they enjoyed (which is especially true for the darkly erotic BDSM subgenre), has now ended up firmly in the mainstream. It showed publishers that erotic novels still have an audience, maybe even bigger than before, and that people will like what they like. And on top of that, the trilogy got a whole lot of people reading again – which the entire industry can only applaud, right?
All of this has caused many people to try to define the success of Fifty Shades. I think it’s mostly due to great timing, a bit of luck and good marketing. Let’s face it, Fifty Shades is a copy of Twilight and everybody knows it: a handsome but tortured guy with a secret who falls in love with an ordinary, plain girl. Both Bella and Ana are written as a blank slate (very few clear characteristics and looks barely described) so that anybody can identify with them. The message is that there is one extraordinary and handsome hunk of a man out there for everybody who will love and adore you just the way you are. And both men just happen to be guys that are bad for you, who have a defining secret and who can only be changed/saved by your love. And that is what I mean with great timing: Twilight had just come off its enormous success so people were ready for something similar.
A little bit of luck is always necessary of course, and by good marketing I mean that the publishing and promotional team made a lot of good decisions. The books were published quite close to each other, which is great to build upon the success of the previous books. It is normal to wait about 18 months before publishing a sequel, which is no problem for die-hard fans, but it will lose you a lot of readers who don’t feel like waiting so long. You also risk your book having been completely forgotten by the time the next one comes out.
And finally, I wanted to discuss the movie adaptations for a minute. The first movie Fifty Shades of Grey was released on Valentine’s Day of 2015, and similarly to the books it was negatively received by critics but it was a box-office success. When the movie adaptation was announced, it caused a lot of buzz. For weeks, conjectures and rumours flew about who would be chosen to portray Ana and Christian – roles that ended up going to Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. The movie was rated R which means that viewers need to be 16 or older to get to watch it. The slogan “sex sells” proves to be true because by March 2015, the movie had topped $500 million globally to become Universal Pictures’ most successful R-rated movie of all time.
And like I said before, the official trailer of the second movie, Fifty Shades Darker, just came out on Facebook this week. You can watch it here below (all rights to Universal Pictures). The movie will be released to cinemas worldwide on Valentine’s Day in 2017, exactly 2 years after the first movie. And fans don’t need to worry about the box office results of the second movie, as the third one has already been filmed. Fifty Shades Freed will be released again on Valentine’s Day, in 2018 this time.
Personally, I read Fifty Shades because of the commercial success, and I wanted to know what the fuss was about. I was no fan of the first one, but I did appreciate the romantic storylines in the second and third book. I agree with most critics that it’s horribly written and the relationship between Ana and Christian is seriously messed up. But as you all know, I love a happy ending, and barring all the sex-scenes, the entire Mrs. Robinson thing, and Christian’s need to punish, I do like their relationship.
I almost hesitate to ask, but what did you guys think of the books and or movies? Did you love them or hate them?