behind the scenes

How a Movie Based on Harry Styles Fanfic Managed Not to Include Harry Styles at All

Josephine Langford and Hero Fiennes-Tiffin in After. Not pictured: Any hint of Harry Styles or his punk-edited tattoos. Photo: Aviron Pictures

Back in October 2014, when producer Jennifer Gibgot sold Paramount Pictures the film rights to Anna Todd’s wildly popular and wildly erotic Harry Styles–inspired fanfiction, the author’s first novel hadn’t yet been released. After hit bookstores about a week later, became a best seller, was translated into 30 languages, and was eventually followed by four more novels in the series. A film adaptation seemed like the next logical step for everyone involved, and Gibgot was glad she got in early.

Over the months that followed, Gibgot grew close to Todd, who’d become a sudden rising star in the fanfic world. Gibgot began to feel a real sense of responsibility for After’s cinematic future, so much so that she started regularly DMing with the series’s rabid followers on Instagram — the “Afternators,” as they call themselves, who’d been fawning over Todd since she first posted sexually explicit One Direction fanfic online. The young girls often asked Gibgot why the movie hadn’t started shooting, and who would be playing their beloved Hardin Scott (the name Todd had chosen for her Harry Styles avatar in the book). Would they ever know? As months turned into years, Paramount seemed less and less likely to make real on its promise to resurrect sexy, damaged Hardin Scott. Why was it taking so long to bring the internet’s favorite X-rated teen romance to screen?

Frustrated, Gibgot made a desperate plea to a studio executive. “I just went to her and I said, ‘I know this is not your fault. I know that you’ve tried. But you have to give me After back if you’re not gonna make it,’” Gibgot says. “‘Because these girls won’t stop writing me and I feel like I’m really disappointing them. It’s kind of breaking my heart.’” In a surprising move, Paramount agreed — with a caveat: The company returned the film rights to Gibgot, but she had to find funding outside the major studio system.

Last Friday, five years after the initial sale of After, the movie finally hit theaters worldwide. Though it’s been battered by critics, After fans arrived at the box office as Gibgot knew they would. The movie outperformed expectations, delivering $6 million domestically in its first weekend and even more globally. Gibgot expects the film to reach $40 million worldwide by Monday. Theatergoers are proving eager to see what a meme that turned into a blog that turned into a novel that became a feature film actually looks like.

But what’s more interesting than the end result — a coming-of-age tale stripped almost entirely of its One Direction roots — is the saga of those five years that preceded the movie. The process of adaptation is always fraught; add in a million hypervigilant fans and it gets even trickier. To understand how a movie based on Harry Styles fanfic became a film that doesn’t mention Harry Styles at all, you have to go back to the beginning.

Hero Fiennes-Tiffin versus Harry Styles. “He doesn’t even have long, curly hair.” Photo: Getty Images

Long before After the movie, Anna Todd was a 24-year-old military wife in Waco, Texas, who just happened to fall down a One Direction rabbit hole. This was 2013, around the time of “punk editing,” which involved tattooing and piercing celebrity crushes with Photoshop, turning boyish teen idols hard-core for Tumblr. Todd searched the blogging platform Wattpad, home to user-generated stories about real and fictional characters, and noticed that no one had posted any fanfiction based on Punk Harry Styles yet. So in April 2013, she started telling the tale of an inexperienced college freshman named Tessa who falls in with a rough group of tattooed sophomores named Harry, Zayn, Niall, and Louis. (Tessa’s clean-cut friend from English class is, of course, named Liam.)

Todd posted the chapters of her fanfic under the username “imaginator1D.” In Todd’s story, her protagonist Tessa cheats on her high-school boyfriend with Harry Styles, fights with her mom, loses her virginity, and tries alcohol for the first time. She and Harry bicker, break up, hook up, and talk about Jane Austen. What started as a hobby turned into something else as Todd’s readership grew; by July of that year, her story had been read by millions. Commenters requested specific plot points, made related memes, and wrote their own fanfic based on Todd’s writing. In 2014, her posts reached 1 billion reads, according to Wattpad’s measurements.

That’s when the book deal arrived. A year into her project, Todd snagged a six-figure, three-book contract with the publishing house Simon & Schuster. Todd’s editor, Adam Wilson, worked to fix the typos and grammatical errors left in the original blog posts (Todd didn’t edit her work prior to posting). He changed the One Direction characters’ names, for legal reasons; Harry Styles became Hardin Scott — equally tempestuous, horny, and into 19th-century female authors. Wilson, with Todd’s help, also trimmed the story. Todd’s fanfic served an audience hungry for her characters’ “everyday schedule and what they’re doing all day,” Todd tells me. “There were times where Hardin and Tessa would be at the grocery store or something and it’d be a whole chapter on Wattpad that doesn’t really fuel the story.”

Even with the edits, the published version ran 582-pages-of-truly-racy-prose long. So when Gibgot, a fan of Todd’s work since Wattpad, sold the film rights to Paramount, the idea of turning the bawdy best seller into a 120-page screenplay felt especially daunting. Screenwriter Susan McMartin’s agent sent her the book in 2015. “I was in Paris with my 13-year-old daughter and my 85-year-old mother,” she says, laughing. “And I’m sitting there reading this book as if I’m reading a dirty porno.” Poring over lines like I can feel my eyes widen and hear my own gasp as Hardin’s manhood comes into view. Wow, it’s big. Much bigger than I expected. How am I going to even get it into my mouth? felt odd in that company — and yet she couldn’t put it down.

McMartin had 24 hours to prepare to sell her cinematic vision of After when she got back to the States. Her pitch to a room of producers — including Todd and Gibgot — centered around her respect for the original text. She was hired immediately to finish the script within seven months, checking in with Todd throughout the process. For McMartin, the hardest part of the adaptation process was translating the sexual awakening at the original story’s core for a PG-13 screenplay. “[Todd’s] book is much more 50 Shades of Grey,” McMartin says. “It’s a young version of a kind of steamy, steamy romance novel.”

Right away, McMartin felt the presence and pressure of After’s outspoken internet fandom. “They’re dying to know, ‘Who got hired to write our movie?’” she says. So she started communicating directly with the Afternators just as Gibgot had, tweeting at them and posting videos to her Facebook page. She received a public blessing from Todd on Instagram — in the form of a selfie and an emphatically exclamation-pointed caption sent out to the author’s hundreds of thousands of followers. When McMartin sent in the second draft in early 2016, Todd posted a photo of the screenplay for her fans. “I can’t even explain to you how much I love the script,” Todd wrote on Instagram. “I was terrified it wouldn’t be like the books, but it soooo is.”

For almost two years, however, the film sat idle at Paramount, never moving from the script phase into production. After much frustration, Gibgot seized the After rights back in November 2017. Immediately, the producer found three different financiers who were interested in funding the film; she went with CalMaple Films, a nonmajor studio captivated by the best-selling status of the book and its masses of internet-native devotees. (Similarly, when it came time to find a distributor last year, Aviron Pictures jumped at the chance; it helped that The Kissing Booth, another Wattpad story, had recently become a hit on Netflix.) CalMaple agreed to start production right away.

With funding secured, Gibgot, Todd, and the project’s many producers went about hiring a director. Enter Jenny Gage, who’d directed the much-loved Brooklyn teen documentary All This Panic and pitched a vision of an authentically young After cast helmed by strong female actresses. “I had been reading scripts and the female characters always felt like the second characters, you know?” Gage says. “This one was front and center Tessa’s story. It was a coming-of-age sexual awakening all through her point of view.”

Remember: Prior to Gage’s hiring, screenwriter McMartin had made a point of staying loyal to Todd’s story. “Fiercely loyal,” she wrote to me via email. But Gage believed some big changes needed to be made to McMartin’s script — there were too many male characters and not enough focus on Tessa’s personal growth. So she hired screenwriter Tamara Chestna to take over for McMartin, before eventually writing a final draft of the script along with her husband, Tom Betterton, who was also the film’s director of photography. “Once the director came on she brought in a new writer, and then she and her husband also did their own rewriting,” McMartin explained. “I had no say in the outcome.”

The couple came to the After adaptation in reverse order, reading McMartin’s script, then Todd’s book, and only later learning of its fervent online fans. But they swiftly realized that they were entering into a project for which readers had been fantasy-casting for years. “There were so many characters [in the preexisting script] and we’d say, ‘Maybe we should get rid of one?’” Gage says. “And it’d be like, ‘No, you can’t, because the fans will go crazy.’” In fact, a friend of Gage’s had seen a particularly well-made fan trailer on YouTube and mistakenly assumed that the director’s version would be a remake. “From the very beginning, there was this idea, driven a lot by the fans, that it was gonna be very old-school, arch, broad, Riverdale,” Betterton says. “That was the casting the fans had pushed forward.”

Early on, fans homed in on an actor named Daniel Sharman to play Hardin (a petition “Daniel Is Our Hardin” appeared in February 2018). In the years leading up to production, the Afternators — and even Todd and McMartin — tweeted regularly at Sharman (along with Indiana Evans of Ash vs. Evil Dead and Gregg Sulkin of Runaways). But Gage and Betterton wanted someone younger for their leading man; they wanted to appeal to teenagers in 2019, not 2013. In the end, it was less important to them that Hardin look like Harry Styles at all.

One of the first actors they auditioned was Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, the then-20-year-old nephew of Ralph and Joseph Fiennes who’d played Young Voldemort in the sixth Harry Potter film. “Immediately, we fell in love with Hero. We found him week one into casting and we cast for six months,” Gage says. “With Hero, the producers were not onboard. At all. And I kept saying, ‘Trust me.’ They weren’t convinced of his looks.”

At one point, Gage and Gibgot met with a casting director and producer at Creative Artists Agency to try to find their Tessa. Gage posted a photograph of the meeting for Female Filmmaker Friday. In the frame was a printout with possible actresses accompanied by postage-stamp-size headshots. “You couldn’t see anything!” Gage says. “But the fans had gotten a magnifying app …” “Enhance. Enhance. Enhance,” Betterton says, laughing. When fans didn’t see the name of their favorite, Indiana Evans, there was public uproar. The producers eventually chose Julia Goldani Telles of The Affair anyway, but then she dropped out last July due to scheduling issues. So Josephine Langford became the film’s Tessa. (Langford, the younger sister of Katherine Langford of 13 Reasons Why, who had read for the part and been on Gage’s short list for some time, didn’t officially land the starring role until two weeks before filming began.)

Needless to say, this iteration of #Hessa wasn’t the one fans dreamed up — on the screen or in the script. Hardin had rough edges that both McMartin and Chestna attempted to smooth in their respective adaptations. Todd’s heartthrob drove a muscle car and knew passages from Wuthering Heights details that the screenwriters happily maintained — but he was also domineering; his flirtatious teasing could come off as abusive, and his tendency to police Tessa’s whereabouts could feel controlling. Gage and Betterton worked to update his story and the story around him, cutting a frat-house scene that almost escalates to sexual assault. Tessa’s roommate Steph became gay (and a Juul smoker), and one of the One Direction boys was written as a girl.

Most importantly, Gage’s team considerably altered the shocking twist that ended Todd’s original Wattpad tale. In Todd’s version, the #Hessa love affair is revealed to be yet another modern take on The Taming of the Shrew — a dirtier and dead-serious 10 Things I Hate About You. On the book’s brutal final pages, Hardin’s laughing friends explain to a shell-shocked Tessa that he’d brought them the bloody sheets from their first sexual encounter to prove he won a bet. The film muddies Hardin’s culpability in the entire Shrew-ish story line, allowing the leading man to walk away with his humanity à la 1999’s Patrick Verona.

Todd, always in close contact with her fans via Twitter and Instagram, prepared them for most of these changes. She was aware that parts of the way she wrote Hardin and Tessa’s relationship needed revisions in 2019; Todd was in her early 20s when she first envisioned it, after all. She and Gage, who’d had many dinners and phone calls throughout the process of crafting their leading man, both stressed that they loved working together and almost always found a middle ground.

Nonetheless, the two had divergent visions for Hardin: Todd’s was a brooding, X-rated, malevolent version of Harry Styles; Gage’s is still brooding, but decidedly kinder and PG-13 — he doesn’t even have long, curly hair. “That definitely was difficult because I know, with Hero, he didn’t want that to happen,” Todd says, referring to the nice-guy makeover in After the movie. “I didn’t want that to happen. Josephine didn’t want that to happen. But that’s one of the things that the director wanted to happen. So we were all kind of going against one person who happened to be the director. It was a little hard to find the middle ground with that.”

Adaptation, like translation, is a tenuous negotiation between originality and originalism. Like much of YA fiction, After follows a teenage protagonist who is thrust into an uncomfortable situation and then forced to grow up quickly. But Todd’s story has no werewolves, vampires, wizards, or chronic disease. It’s not postapocalyptic; the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance. It’s about a conservative college freshman, a bad boy, and a tumultuous first love. The reason it first gained purchase was because it was also a One Direction story; part of the hook was letting the readers date Harry Styles.

In the end, the film loses all of its One Direction connections and much of its Hardin Scott. The leading man becomes something like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photo of Harry Styles; it’s still nice to look at it from afar, but a little confusing when you get real close. The question is, what else could’ve been done? A faithful adaptation of the #Hessa relationship from 2013 would’ve felt like an unseemly portrait of a toxic relationship today. It also would have garnered a film rating that would have prohibited its target audience from seeing it. Perhaps translating Harry Styles to Punk Harry to Hardin Scott to the silver screen was always a quixotic endeavor.

“I think that it’s kind of a blanketed general statement to say, like, ‘Oh, we’re changing it just because of this moment in time.’” Todd adds. “I think that’s maybe on the other side of extreme. Are we dumbing down Game of Thrones because of 2019? No. I didn’t want Hardin to just be a headline of ‘Oh, he’s a mean guy!’ or ‘He’s this’ or ‘He’s that.’ So I was happy to take away some of his personality. But I do feel like it did get lost a little bit in translation sometimes to where he just comes off as one-sided.”

The Making of a Movie Based Entirely on Harry Styles Fanfic