When Maureen Hester goes to the movies, she usually heads to Regal Cinema in her hometown of Westborough. But she will avoid Regal and drive an extra 20 minutes to a Worcester theater to see “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“We probably won’t go to the movies as close to home,” said the 26-year-old, who plans to see the adaptation of the best-selling erotic novel with her sisters. “You don’t want to see anyone in town you know.”
The “Fifty Shades” trilogy recounts the romance between college senior Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, a young captain of industry who enjoys his sex with riding crops, bondage, and other forms of domination. Hester read the entire “Fifty Shades” trilogy about three years ago — a literary experience she would describe as underwhelming.
Nevertheless, “I couldn’t put them down,” she admitted.
Neither could the tens of millions of readers who snapped up the book — and its two sequels — making author E.L. James one of Barbara Walters’s “10 Most Fascinating People” in 2012. At the peak of book sales, two copies of the trilogy were selling every second, according to Vintage Books, which bought the publishing rights to the steamy series after James self-published it online under a pseudonym.
The film version, opening Friday, has also found an eager audience. Fandango, the movie ticket website, reports it “the fastest-selling R-rated film” in its history.
“ ‘Fifty Shades’ is a true phenomenon all across the country,” said Fandango chief correspondent Dave Karger in an e-mailed statement. “It’s a surprisingly hot seller in the South and the heartland, indicating that the anticipation for this film is across the board.”
And yet, for Hester and many other women, the anticipation is tempered with some embarrassment. After all, no one’s expecting “Fifty Shades” to break new cinematic ground.
“If I can get my hands on a wig, that would be good,” Hester said, half joking, about her movie-going attire.
Kelli Coviello said she feels a little sheepish in her desire to see the movie — an emotion that stems less, she says, from the sexual themes and more from the story’s domination fantasies that play out beyond the bedroom.
“I’m supposed to be that strong, independent woman managing a career, a household. But the whole idea of being swept away and taken care of — I don’t want to make another decision.”
The Ipswich mom who works in business development said the shame of watching “Fifty Shades” comes in seeing Grey buy Steele a wardrobe of clothes and handing her her ideal job.
“The bondage isn’t what attracted me to the book. It was someone making life easy for you,” Coviello said. “And I loved the fact there was a housekeeper.”
But Dr. Karen Ruskin, a psychotherapist who has a private practice in Sharon, said women shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to feel taken care of.
“Many women feel the shame because they’ve learned to believe they have to be independent and not needy. It’s not an either-or debate,” said Ruskin, author of “Dr. Karen’s Marriage Manual.”
“Many women want both, and that’s what’s so tricky.”
Hester agrees it’s hard to reconcile those feelings. The Worcester Polytechnic Institute student, who is studying biology, said her takeaway from reading “Fifty Shades” was one of distaste for the unbalanced relationship, and she isn’t sure the movie will change that.
“It’s not the dominance in the bedroom, it was that he took on that role in her entire life,” she said. “She was kind of a pushover and didn’t really question anything he said.”
Some women likened “Fifty Shades” to a guilty pleasure, akin to seeing “Sex and the City”: one best enjoyed with cocktails and girlfriends. Newly single Tricia Cromwell expects to go opening weekend — if not Valentine’s Day — with her group of gal pals.
“It seems like a good chick flick to get your groove back,” said the 35-year-old from Brockton.
Cromwell didn’t read the books, and she’s intrigued to see what all the hype is about. She wonders who will fill the theater seats beside her.
“Will it be a crowd ‘girl power,’ or women in mustaches and hats?” she said.
If she sees “Fifty Shades” at Showcase SuperLux in Chestnut Hill, she might run into Donna Paglia and her book club. The 49-year-old Wellesley mom, who expects the movie to be every bit the guilty pleasure the books were, is going with low expectations, especially for Jamie Dornan, the Irish actor playing Grey.
“We had our own voting to see who should play Christian,” she said. “The guy who got picked wasn’t even on our list.”
Paglia said she expects the post-showing conversation and accompanying round of cosmos to be more exciting than the film — which she is not the least embarrassed to watch.
“Maybe it’s our age or our confidence, but it’s a judgment-free zone,” she said. “[Anastasia] let him run the show, and I can’t imagine ever being like that so it’s hard to relate, but it’s completely entertaining.”
Then again, some women think “Fifty Shades” is so far-fetched, they’re skipping the film altogether. Quipped radio personality — and happily married mother of three — Sue Brady Hartigan: “It doesn’t do anything for me. If I have free time, I want to sleep for nine hours or drown my mind in TV.”
But if her perfect daydream came true? “Put me on an island with Benicio Del Toro,” she said. “Just for an hour. Then I’d want him to go away.”
Jill Radsken can be reached at email@example.com.