Is there anything wrong with fanfiction-to-movie productions?
From the dawn of the movie industry, filmmakers have been using other media — books, plays, real-life events — as inspiration for their own art. While nowadays it may seem easy for some to roll their eyes and proclaim “Hollywood has no original thoughts anymore”, it’s important to remember that some of the most important cinematic works — The Godfather trilogy, All Quiet on the Western Front, even Shrek — began as written works. In recent years, however, a new breed of book-to-movie adaptations has dominated the conversation: films based on fanfictions.
With the recent release of After We Collided, which became a surprise box-office hit despite it being a limited cinema release during a pandemic, the topic of fanfiction-to-movie adaptations has once again crept into the general subconscious. The film is the sequel to After, which went straight to Netflix UK in July 2019; both movies (and the upcoming sequel) are based on books by American author Anna Todd. The basis of these novels is a Harry Styles fanfiction which Todd began publishing online in 2013; upon actual publication in 2014, the Styles character was changed to Hardin Scott, Liam Payne became Landon Gibson, and so on. After We Collided is only the most recent fanfic-to-movie adaptation over the past five years or so; I’m sure everyone on Earth is now aware that the mega-popular movie franchise Fifty Shades of Gray began as a Twilight fanfiction back in 2009.
Fanfictions are generally looked down upon in society, whether for the typical amateur status of the author, or the stereotypical idea that the current fanfiction field is dominated by teenage girls. However, if we take a loose definition of fanfiction to simply mean the retelling of existing stories, this form of media has been around for centuries: the vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays were not based on original ideas but reworks of old tales or stories by other writers. In this way, classic Disney films can be seen as being based on “fanfictions”: Sleeping Beauty was retold multiple times between the 14th and 19th century before being made into a film in 1959. The popularisation of the contemporary fanfic itself, however, is widely acknowledged today as having been born from the Star Trek boom in the 1960s.
What about the late 1990s/early 2000s trend of classic literature retellings in the teen film world: Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s the Man? These are, in essence, fanfics: altered retellings of existing stories. Clueless takes the basic storyline of Emma by Jane Austen: a wealthy, slightly spoiled young woman meddles in others’ love lives with good intention, eventually developing feelings for a brother figure, which only becomes vaguely uncomfortable if you think too much about it (Austen’s Mr Knightley is a family-friend-turned-brother-in-law, Paul Rudd’s character in the 1995 film is the protagonist’s ex-stepbrother). The same thing occurs with 10 Things and She’s the Man: the basic essences of the storylines of the original works (Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, respectively) are transported into a modern-day American high school. In reality, they’re not all too dissimilar to the After series — all of them take existing “characters”, whether fictional or a celebrity’s public persona, and place them into situations unlike any the original characters would find themselves in, situations that the film’s target audience (for all of the above, generally, though of course not exclusively, young women) can relate to.
In this way, it is difficult to comprehend why films like Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You are lauded both critically and by their target audience as creative takes on old stories, while films that found their starts in fanfiction, such as After, still seems to have some negative connotations attached to them. Disregarding the actual quality of the filmmaking (as most viewers would agree that it is not unfair to state that Clueless and 10 Things are generally better films than After, in terms of writing and acting), the sheer fact that After began as a story published online by a woman in her early twenties seems to hit a nerve with the general public. Fanfictions, and the films that use them as foundations, tend to be seen, at best, as “guilty pleasures”; something to be consumed discreetly and laughed off. While the technical side of filmmaking definitely plays a part in this reputation, it is nonetheless an interesting question to pose: does the inexperience of the original fanfic authors, as well as their typical age and gender, ensure people write off such films even before viewing? And if these fanfics began as published novels that were adapted into film (John Green was also in his twenties when he published Looking for Alaska, now a TV series; influential authors such as Mary Shelley and Françoise Sagan first published as teenagers), would there still be these connotations surrounding them?
Whatever the case, it’s beginning to look as if fanfiction-to-movie adaptations are becoming the next big thing in Hollywood. I guess it’s up to the general public, and individual viewers, to decide whether that is a good or bad thing.