BY MAX WELLS
125 million copies sold worldwide.
Fourth highest grossing female directed film of all time.
Fourth highest grossing romance film of all time.
As the conclusion of the notoriously successful and controversial Fifty Shades of Grey franchise quickly approaches with Fifty Shades Freed hitting theatres this month, fans are eager to see the final novel in EL James’ Twilight inspired erotica series on screen.
However, while many people have heard of James (real name Erika Mitchell) due to her success, not many know that her husband, Niall Leonard, penned the screenplays for both Fifty Shades Darker (2017) and Fifty Shades Freed (2018). Leonard says the decision to take over as screenwriter for the films came to fruition due to James’ frustration about the first film straying too much from the source material.
“The script for the first movie in the Fifty Shades trilogy went through many stages and variations, some of them straying quite far from the spirit of the original text, which Erika found frustrating. At the outset I had made a conscious decision to not get involved with the screenplay, as there were already enough cooks in the kitchen. However, when Universal commissioned the next two instalments Erika put me forward as the screenwriter.” Leonard says. “I was hardly known in the U.S. but I had lots of drama experience in the U.K., of course I knew the novels better than most screenwriters, and I had a pretty clear idea what fans of the books most wanted to see.”
As it is with almost every book-to-movie adaptation, fans always want their favourite scenes on screen. For Leonard, his goal was to stay as close to the original text as possible.
“My approach was to stick as closely as possible to the novel, which after all had proved immensely popular the world over. I didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken; that said, I tried not to be too precious either, and I condensed sequences and moved episodes about in order to make the story work best on screen. A few fans told me afterwards that the movies had almost all their favourite sequences, but not in the order they were expecting!”
While some may think couples in the workplace could cause problems, Leonard says his experience working with his wife was not only a fluid process but saved the film studio time.
“Before I started work I had promised Erika that I would never submit a draft without her approval, and from a purely practical standpoint this saved the studio a lot of time – instead of getting a draft from a screenwriter, sending it to Erika and getting her notes, then sending those notes back to the screenwriter, everything the studio saw had already been approved by E L James.”
Leonard says he felt a certain commitment to bringing the novels to the screen in the way his wife wanted. “It worked because Erika and I were already close, as close as a couple married nearly 30 years could be. Our approaches to writing were different, but then I doubt any two writers are the same. From the get-go this story was Erika’s baby, and I felt my job was to get it onto a screen in a form as faithful to the books and the characters as possible. I won’t say there were never any disagreements, but after so many years together we’re used to those, and we found a way of working round them and achieving a synthesis that we were both happy with.”
If anything, the Fifty Shades trilogy is known for being different or unusual. For Leonard, writing the screenplays was a different experience as well.
“Some of my previous adaptations have taken a lot of liberties with plot in order to heighten the conflict and the drama, but the Fifty Shades novels already had plenty of those. Apart from condensing and omitting certain subplots, the only significant changes I made were to eliminate reported action and find a way to show those scenes onscreen. And also to add a few one-liners of my own – but only where they were true to character.”
It’s been seven years since Fifty Shades of Grey was published, and now that the franchise is coming to a close, Leonard says the experience was a privilege to witness.
“To have had a ringside seat from the earliest stirrings of what became the Fifty Shades phenomenon has been an amazing, surreal experience, and the chance to take an active role in the movies has been an immense privilege, even if it did involve a lot of hard work. A worldwide multi-million bestseller is a hard act to follow, and I’ll be encouraging Erika to pursue some of the other wonderful stories she has been hiding in her desk drawer for the past few years. And of course like all writers I have my own unfinished projects, and now the trilogy is complete there’s no longer any excuse for putting them off.”
Fifty Shades Freed hits theatres Feb. 9.