Like many features derived from short stories, Secretary is less an adaptation of its source than a new narrative extrapolated from it. In the Gaitskill story, the narrator stops working for the lawyer after a sticky encounter that's the basis of one of the film's most memorable scenes, then passes up an opportunity to scuttle his bid for public office by refusing to spill the beans to a reporter who wants to bring him down. The moral—basically, that it's okay for women to enjoy getting spanked—is perfectly valid if hardly groundbreaking. Same goes for that of the film version, which argues that there's someone for everybody and that great sex with someone you love can be better than therapy. But because Shainberg and Wilson refuse to mock Lee and Edward's offbeat desires and don't shy away from presenting sex as the messy, sometimes scary enterprise we're all familiar with, the message rings true, and Gaitskill's point gets reinforced in the bargain. Secretary is very much a fantasy—even more so than in the '80s when Gaitskill published her story, now that sexual-harassment suits are an established part of the landscape—but its candor and generosity make it one that many will be eager to believe in.
Secretary was directed by Steven Shainberg; written by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the story by Mary Gaitskill; produced by Shainberg, Andrew Fierberg and Amy Hobby; and stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.