This week sees the release of After, a romantic drama that’s being sold widely as the younger and less kinky version of 50 Shades of Grey. The film stars Josephine Langford and Hero Fiennes Tiffin (nephew of Ralph and the young surly Voldemort in the flashback scenes of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) as college students who fall into a torrid and passionate affair. Even if you knew nothing else about the film beyond that, it still feels like a curious project to give a major cinematic release to, especially in the middle of April in-between several much-hyped franchise titles like Shazam!, Hellboy, and Avengers: Endgame. Where’s the market for a movie like this, especially after the diminishing returns at the box office for the 50 Shades series and the dwindling popularity of YA adaptations on the big screen. It’s an odd one, to be sure, and that doesn’t even touch upon the elephant in the room of its origins. Yes, this is the One Direction fan-fiction.
After started life as a fan-fiction of the same name, written by Anna Todd and posted on Wattpad. The story was about an innocent and sheltered young woman who goes off to college and has an affair with notorious campus bad boy Harry Styles. Todd’s story became wildly popular in a ridiculously short amount of time. A year and a half after she started posting it, Todd’s story had a whopping half a billion views and was over 2,500 pages long. It didn’t take long for that to catch the attention of Wattpad themselves, who were looking to get into the legitimate publishing game. Todd soon landed a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster, and soon the story, split into three books, was a New York Times best-seller.
Its success was not without controversy. The sticky problem of turning fan-fiction into ‘original’ work has been an oft-discussed and deeply contentious topic in fandom circles. After EL James opened up the floodgates by turning her Twilight fan-fiction into a genuine publishing phenomenon, plenty of fic writers followed in her footsteps, and not just in the Twi-world. But this was real person fan-fiction (RPF), which is a whole other minefield of ethically murky topics to tackle. This wasn’t a fictional character Todd was playing around with: This was a real then-19 year singer who already had to live under the intense scrutiny of the public eye while surrounded by one of the more zealous fanbases on the internet. Harry Styles has been stupidly famous since he was a teenager and dealt with all the panic and awkwardness that accompanies such levels of celebrity. Being the subject of fan-fiction is par for the course with celebrities (side note but can talk-show hosts and panel moderators please stop forcing people to read fic written about them? It’s awful and cruel and embarrassing). It may be something you’re aware of in the margins of your celebrity life but not something that directly impacts you. But this? Well, After changes things considerably on that front.
After is an agonizingly long book that I couldn’t finish. It’s poorly plotted and staggeringly unoriginal, bereft of characterization beyond buzzwords and full of language that swings from perfunctory to overtly florid. It’s a novel where I had genuine difficulty understanding what fans of the series saw in it. I got the inherent appeal of 50 Shades of Grey, as awful as that was, because at least it made sense in terms of being an accessible story with BDSM elements for people unfamiliar with that area of erotica. Twilight has its many faults but you couldn’t accuse Stephenie Meyer of skimping on the feverish intensity or commitment to her characters and their romance. With After, there’s nothing here that you can’t find in better romance novels, and their grammar would probably be greatly improved as well.
The main problem of After is that it seems to have no reason to exist beyond its prior status as Harry Styles self-insert romantic fan-fiction. Not that you would ever be able to tell if was One Direction fic if you came into this story without that knowledge. The characterization of Harry Styles/Hardin Scott can be summed up as ‘sexy douchebag’. He’s cruel, he’s emotionally manipulative, he’s verbally abusive, he treats women like crap, and he’s possessive much in the same way Christian Grey is. He’s what happens when your only reference point for a bad boy romance is warning guides on domestic abuse. Understandably, plenty of One Direction fans were livid at After for this re-imagining of Styles, and some even started a petition to denounce the film.
It’s a characterization of Styles that hasn’t aged well. Granted, it wasn’t much good when the story was written, but it’s especially misguided and uninspired now that Styles has blossomed into a charismatic solo singer who proudly embraces femininity through fashion and music. He dresses as Elton John for Halloween, wears shocking pink suits, admits that Stevie Nicks’ music makes him cry off his mascara, and proudly sticks up for the interests of his adolescent female fan-base in interviews. Overall, he’s blossomed into a charismatic and seemingly very well-adjusted man who is way more interesting as an object of one’s affection than your stock sh*thead ‘hero’ who treats women like dirt.
That, however, probably wouldn’t have enticed as many readers as what Todd created from her perception of Styles as an erotic ideal. The bad boy allure is a control fantasy at its most primal and one that’s especially enticing if you’re a young woman trying to figure out this whole empowered female sexuality jam. Greater scholars than I, not to mention far better fan-fiction writers, have debated this romantic dynamic for years, its pros and cons, and the right of young women to have safe spaces to explore what makes them tick. Using fictional characters and real people as avatars for exploration is commonplace and worth encouraging when done within the proper parameters. Of course, that conversation becomes all the stickier when profit enters the picture and a publisher is proudly marketing your work as an easy way for readers to imagine themselves getting it on with Harry Styles.
I have no idea if Styles himself is aware of the existence of After. I imagine avoiding it has become increasingly difficult given how much money it’s made, not to mention how he has had to publicly deal with other fandom problems like Larry shippers. I mostly hope he doesn’t know this exists, if only to avoid the painful awkwardness of it all. As for the film of After: Will it succeed? The marketing has studiously avoided making any connections to One Direction, unlike the book, wherein Simon & Schuster tweeted out links for readers to check out an excerpt of the book with the headline, ‘If You’ve Fantasized About Harry Styles, This Book Is for You.’ Maybe people just want to see a steamy romance, or as much as a PG-13 rating will allow. Will it be real enough for the people who want their fantasy fulfilled? Probably not, but then again, the book barely did that.
Header Image Source: Aviron Pictures