In January’s The Boy Next Door, there was an early scene where handsome stalker Noah (Ryan Guzman) presents object-of-his-affection Claire (Jennifer Lopez) with a “first-edition copy” of The Iliad. Audiences guffawed. Foolish Noah, The Iliad was written almost 3,000 years ago! Nice try, you dumb, hunky movie.
Then, in February’s Fifty Shades of Grey, there was an early scene in which handsome stalker Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) presented his object of affection, lip-biting doormat Anastasia (Dakota Johnson), with an entire set of first-edition books. Sure, that was a plot point in the E.L. James novel Fifty Shades was adapted from, but wasn’t it so much more fun to read that moment as a trash-camp homage to The Boy Next Door? 2015 was off to such a rip-roaring, weirdly specific start, where it seemed like every movie sexcapade would first be kicked off by the ceremonial giving and receiving of classics you read in high school.
Well, if three examples confirm a trend, then we have officially reached Peak First-Edition, because in this weekend’s The Age of Adaline, there’s an early scene where handsome stalker Ellis (Michiel Huisman) presents his love interest, honey-tressed immortal Adaline (Blake Lively), with … yeah, you guessed it, even more first-edition books. What the hell is happening here? Has someone been sprinkling torn-up Thomas Hardy pages into Hollywood’s drinking water? Is there a romantic-drama Mad Lib slowly making its way from studio to studio? Or is all this first-edition worship just some elaborate attempt to sink the Kindle?
Here are three of our best guesses as to what’s going on.
1. It’s character shorthand.
What faster way to establish two important character traits — he’s rich, and she’s smart — than to have our stalker give our heroine expensive things that prove how well-read she is, and how attentive (and wealthy!) he is? Plus, it helps to set up the romantic fantasy: Unlike your husband, Christian Grey would never give you a birthday present as basic as a Best Buy gift card. Christian is giving you first-edition books, Gucci butt plugs, or nothing at all.
2. It’s thematically relevant.
These movies might be tomato-deficient camp dramas, but if they show you an Important Book, maybe new allusions can be drawn, and some of that prestige will rub off! Does the presence of The Iliad in The Boy Next Door means that it can be read as a metaphor, substituting the sacking of Troy by the Greeks with the sacking of J.Lo’s booty by a jock? Does Christian give Ana Tess of the d’Urbervilles so that we’ll compare the Fifty Shades plot to a Thomas Hardy classic and not Twilight fanfiction? And does Blake Lively go gaga for Daisy Miller in The Age of Adaline because that novella’s social-climbing heroine was basically the original Serena van der Woodsen?
3. It’s a sex metaphor.
The Giving of the First-Edition Books goes down the exact same way in all three movies: Our heroine has spent the first act trying to shake her attraction to the handsome stalker who’s oh-so-wrong for her, but he tracks her down at her home or place of work, hands her the expensive gift, and our lady lead reluctantly says, “I can’t accept this” … even though she really, really wants to. What if this is all just thinly veiled sexual negotiation? The first-edition book is his metaphorical penis, which he wants her to take. She refuses at first, even though we know that later on, she’s going to crack that thing open and enjoy every single word. But is this truly a progressive stance for filmmakers to be taking? Attention, Hollywood: Sometimes, “no, I don’t want your first-edition books” truly does mean “no.”