On Christian and Ana…and Scarlett O’Hara

Casting the characters for the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey was always going to be fraught–with such a passionate and vocal fan base. I wonder how E.L. James braced herself. I picture her taking a few belts of scotch, one of the producers is on the phone, the screenwriter’s on speaker, she presses ‘tweet’ on her computer with the same nervy determination of a president pressing a doomsday button.

“There. Okay…here we go.”

They knew there’d be dissenters, but even I was stunned by the negative reactions, most laced with the language of betrayal and heartbreak. A petition even went up on Change.org, garnering thousands of signatures overnight, calling for the casting of fan favorites Matt Bomer and Alexis Bledel, as though these actors had been waiting in the wings for fans to change the filmmakers’ minds.

Casting is a top secret, highly political dance. Having only been involved on a TV level, (and only reality TV at that), I can only imagine what strings are pulled, schedules are shuffled and favors are promised at that level in Hollywood to secure any stars in any movie, let alone a franchise as big as this. I do know this: if they weren’t perfect for the part, if they didn’t blow away the director AND Ms. James—who had full say in the selection—they wouldn’t have been chosen.

For the record, I think they’re both excellent choices, precisely because they are not what I expected. These are risky choices. But this is a ballsy franchise. After all, the book itself is popular because it took readers places they didn’t expect, made them consider things they’d never considered before and charged their imaginations in ways they couldn’t do on their own.

Charlie Hunnam and Dakota Johnson are perfect for the parts precisely because they’re not imprinted on readers’ imaginations. Fans, instead of rejecting these choices should consider rejoicing in a chance to experience the thrill of the book all over again—with new eyes, new reactions and new experiences.

I hope the filmmakers take comfort in this: America went into paroxysms when it was announced that their beloved Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone With the Wind” would be played by an unknown British stage actress named Vivien Leigh. She’s not American! She’s too pretty! She has dark red hair! She’s too old! No!!! Fans of the book wanted Bette Davis who would become synonymous with ‘Southern Belle’ after “Jezebel” was released in 1938. But that’s precisely why she wasn’t cast; she’d already played that part. Too many people had imagined her as Scarlett. There’d be no surprise. Fine, fans said, what about Katherine Hepburn? She’d be perfect. She’s thin, imperious, head strong! That too was a no-go, mostly for a perceived lack of chemistry between her and Clark Gable. Even Lucille Ball was considered. The producers remained firm: Vivien Leigh was their perfect Scarlett. The proof would be on the big screen.

And it was.

Can you imagine anyone other than Vivien Leigh in that role? I bet fans will be saying the same thing about the actors playing Ana and Christian. Which brings me to my final point: not many actors or actress would welcome the baggage that comes with taking on these iconic roles. Yeah, maybe your favorites weren’t cast in the film, but how do you know they even wanted the parts? They might be doing their own private celebratory dance and breathing a collective sigh of relief. I say keep an open mind; this cast has just added a few more interesting shades to the story.