Madeleine Crutchley makes her fourth or fifth return to the realm of fanfiction this week, this time talking about the rise of fanfic movies and what they offer the world. Or don’t offer, really.
Christopher Nolan’s TENET has been speculated to be the ‘last Blockbuster’ in the wake of its international release into struggling, COVID-ridden theatres (which many scientists have labelled as the WORST place to be during a global pandemic). Many of my R-Pattz obsessed friends have been egging me to join them in a lewd and lustful watch of our beloved Twilight bad boy. While this is very much still on the cards, I had to disappoint my mates with some alternative plans for my first trip to the movies since early February. Instead, I dragged my best friend to a mid-week, mid-afternoon showing of After We Collided. We were easily the oldest people in the room, but it didn’t matter. I was insistent that we enjoy the filmic realisation of one of our favourite high school One Direction fanfics. My sincere apologies to the tweens and teens for our inappropriate levels of laughter.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in films that could be classified as fanfic movies. Famously, E.L James’ sexy, ‘scandalous’ and successful 50 Shades of Grey was painstakingly typed out on a Blackberry mobile (Editor’s note: WHAT???) and posted on Fanfiction.net under the account name ‘Snowqueen’s Icedragon.’ When the first film of the trilogy (yeah, unfortunately there were three of them) was released, reviewers tore apart the plot and prose, which had been sourced from the novel. You could see the production and widespread commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey as a bit of a turning point for fanfiction films. The film made $571 million worldwide, proving that these passionate fan bases and titillating tales had serious monetary value. Though, Fifty Shades was largely marketed to a slightly older age bracket than the fanfic films that have followed in the years after (there were rumours of raunchy Mums bringing cucumbers to theatrical showings). Now, production companies like Netflix, Voltage Pictures and Wattpad are targeting tweens and teens, pumping out coming-of-age Riverdale-esque garbage.
Fortunately, due to my lack of brain cells, fanfiction series such as The Kissing Booth and After have become some of my favourite ‘bad’ movies. I stumbled across the former after a very stressful late night study session. Looking for literally anything that would help my mind shut off at 1am, I clicked on the teen drama with low expectations. Upon reflection, I was probably VERY delirious, but at the time it was one of the funniest films I had ever seen. I giggled my way through the 110 minutes, feeling a major sense of familiarity. After a quick Google, I was surprised to learn that the film was based on a novel of the same name, extracted from a fictional story posted on Wattpad. I was even more surprised to find it was one I had binge-read on my cracked iPod touch during school lunchtimes. In the film, the virginal, clumsy protagonist, Elle, falls in love with her best friend’s bad boy brother, Noah, after they kiss at a – you guessed it – Kissing Booth. The two have to hide their forbidden love… for some reason? It’s unbelievably cheesy, with terrible dialogue, endless montages and effects that look like they’re straight out of the early 2000s. While this technically isn’t a fanfic film (the characters are all ‘original’), the Wattpad story has all of the hallmarks of a classic mid-2010s fanfic; an accidentally revealing outfit, an overly aggressive man, a toxic relationship and a high school prom. It’s entirely out of touch, in a way that’s endlessly entertaining.
After, I’m unashamed to say, was a film I religiously followed the production of on Twitter. Anna Todd, the author, started posting the original fanfic series on Wattpad after she was inspired by a punk edit of Harry Styles she saw on Tumblr. It follows the story of Tessa, a virginal, bookish college newbie, who is pursued by Harry Styles (he’s not an international boy band star in this, obviously) looking to win a bet to ‘take her virginity.’ As any true 1D fan will know, After was a major source of drama within the fan community. Fans argued endlessly over the toxicity in this story, as well as the depiction of their sweet Harry Styles. In this story he’s not just a bad boy, he’s unquestioningly manipulative and abusive. One of the plot points – brace yourself – is that he keeps the bloody sheets to show his friends. When I heard this story was going into production, for an M-rated film, much of my residual disgust was brought to the surface. The film itself is much more tame, barely rivalling the soft-porn gifs that would have partnered the chapters on Wattpad. Both the first film and the sequel, similar to The Kissing Booth, are bad in a laughable manner, with even more out-of-touch depictions of young adult life. There’s no way I could take either film adaptation seriously if I tried. However, seeing the sequel in a room filled with younger people made me reconsider the breezy attitudes that I was bringing to my viewing of fanfic movies.
Largely, these films are being marketed as fantasy escapes for younger teens. I’m not going to try and discredit the intelligence of those teens; like any other viewers, they have agency and produce negotiated readings. Like I’ve noted, many fans in the mid-2010s were calling out the grossness of After. However, fanfiction films do serve as a useful tool for finding out what popular fantasies can leak through into the mainstream. Most feature a young teenage/college age girl at the centre, who’s sexuality is awakened by a semi-sensitive, bad boy. There’s betrayal, secrecy, drinking, love, violence, sex, parties and proms. And often, they’re pretty misogynistic. In The Kissing Booth Elle is consistently slut-shamed, and in After women are made out to be bitchy and aggressive (catfight!). These aren’t aspects completely new to romance films; much of them are staples to the genre. I think that these fanfiction films come together in a bit of a Frankenstein-ing process. There are genre staples, including the mainstream misogyny and male gaze, that are interpreted and retold through the curious lens of teenage girls, which then go through studio sanitisation before wide release. They’re a fascinating reflection of consumption and production.
Most of these films have been critically panned, barely breaking over 30% on Rotten Tomatoes. They’ve also become the butt of jokes, with many, many commentary videos hitting YouTube, pointing out their incoherence. Since the release of 50 Shades of Grey, I’ve been sharing fanfic movies (and wine) with my friends in our guilty pleasure binge sessions. We laugh and cringe our way through them, in the same way that we have with The Room, Showgirls, Sharknado and Cats. However, the fanfic watch sessions bring me even more pleasure. We’re not just laughing at the fanfic, or the shoddy filmmaking; we’re laughing at ourselves. These stories, which we shared across our lunch boxes, were ones that we found genuinely compelling. I hope that these will become cult movies, specifically within communities of young people; it’s a chance for us to laugh, at the tired tropes, at the misguided production studios and at our younger selves scrolling through Wattpad, seeking any inkling of romance. None to be found there, kid.