Is ‘The Idea of You’ Harry Styles Fan Fiction?

Hayes Campbell, the dreamy protagonist of the new rom-com “The Idea of You,” has a bit in common with the mega pop star Harry Styles:

  • In the movie, Hayes, played by Nicholas Galitzine, is a member of August Moon, a boy band with tons of very ardent teen and tween girl fans. Styles was a member of a boy band called One Direction. You’ve probably heard of it.

  • Hayes is British. So is Harry Styles.

  • Hayes eventually quits his band and starts making soulful pop rock. So did Harry.

  • Hayes likes to date older women, and his relationship with a gallerist named Solène Marchand (Anne Hathaway) is the backbone of the film. Harry, too, has been involved in tabloid-documented relationships with older women, most famously, the actress and director Olivia Wilde.

So does “The Idea of You” come off as an act of fan fiction? Bizarrely, no, even if the shadow of Styles does loom large over the whole project.

Plenty of headlines have already described the movie as “Harry Styles fan fiction,” though Robinne Lee, the author of the 2017 novel on which it is based, is typically coy in interviews about whether the pop star inspired her book.

“Inspired is a strong word,” Lee has said. The author, who is also an actress with degrees from Yale and Columbia Law School and perhaps best known for her appearances in films like “Hitch” and “Fifty Shades Darker,” has described encountering “the face of a boy I’d never seen in a band I’d never paid attention to” and thinking it was “art.” After the novel became a viral sensation, Lee told Vogue in 2020, “This was never supposed to be a book about Harry Styles.” In a piece for Time published this month, Lee argued that “assuming a novel with a fictional celebrity in a relationship must be based on an existing celebrity — in this case, the internet has decided, Harry Styles — is unimaginative at best and sexist at worst.”

She is certainly less explicit about a pop star connection than Anna Todd, whose “After” series of novels started explicitly as Styles fan fiction on the platform Wattpad and have since been turned into a film franchise. (It’s a path that might be familiar to fans of “Fifty Shades,” which started as “Twilight” fan fiction.) However, unlike “The Idea of You,” the “After” series has nothing to do with a boy band. The Harry of “After” is a college student named Hardin, but when the first novel was published in 2014, the portrayal outraged some One Direction lovers with the way it turned Styles into a bad boy manipulating a young woman. One 14-year-old Styles fan told The New York Times then: “The way Harry in this book is portrayed is disgusting.”

On the other hand, Styles fans have embraced “The Idea of You” as text that can feed their obsession. Kayla Kleinman, a social media manager at Bookshop.org, was not a Styles devotee when she first read the novel, but became one after finishing it during the pandemic. She felt “emotionally attached” to the book, and wanted the experience of reading it to continue, she said in an interview. So she sought out Styles’s music. “In my head it felt like a continuation of the story even though I very much knew that they were not,” she said. “But to me that next step was being like, ‘OK, I’m going to dive into this world as a thing to entertain myself.’” Now Kleinman has even gone to Harry Styles concerts with a friend she made from an “Idea of You” Facebook group.

The novel, it’s worth noting, does more to distinguish between Harry and Hayes than the movie does. In Lee’s version, Hayes is a boy from a posh upbringing who put together August Moon himself. In the film, which was adapted by the director Michael Showalter and his co-writer Jennifer Westfeldt, Hayes is cast in the group after auditioning, not unlike the way Styles was on the British version of “The X Factor” before being selected for One Direction. (That said, the book features considerable discussion of Hayes’s dimples, which feels like a direct reference to Styles’s looks.)

But while these changes align the Hayes onscreen with the Harry of reality, they surprisingly don’t make the movie indebted to Styles. Rather, they just make it more grounded than Lee’s novel, which sometimes comes across as a list of detailed descriptions of the furnishings of luxury hotels along with copious sex scenes.

The film understands that the fantasy of a Harry Styles type is a potent one. Styles has earned the affection of millions not just because he’s attractive and has a nice singing voice and ambitious glam-rock style. There is an idea perpetuated by his fandom that he’s accepting and, most of all, kind. (He even recorded a song, released after the “Idea of You” novel, called “Treat People With Kindness.”) That kindness is filtered through the new film.

As the movie opens, Solène, divorced and on the verge of turning 40, steps in when her ex (Reid Scott) has last-minute plans that prevent him from taking their teenage daughter, Izzy (Ella Rubin), to Coachella. Izzy (a middle schooler in the novel, but aged up here) is no longer enamored with August Moon and is now into female singer-songwriter types, but her rich, inattentive dad has paid for a meet-and-greet with the band.

Solène then meets cute with Hayes when she accidentally wanders into his trailer, thinking it’s a public restroom. He’s charmed and starts to pursue her by visiting her gallery in the reliably hip Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles, where he looks upon her with wonder as she explains the art to him.

Hayes, as played by Galitzine, is something of a perfect man. He’s handsome. (Duh.) He’s talented. The August Moon of the film has its own songs, which means that those crushing on Hayes don’t have to imagine him singing One Direction tunes, and in any case Hayes wants to pursue a deeper kind of musicianship. He’s persistent without being aggressive, charming without being saccharine. Yes, he’s younger than Solène — aged up from 20 to 24 in the film — but he doesn’t fetishize her age. He’s just entranced by her smarts and beauty.

Galitzine seems to understand that a movie like this works only if the audience can see how in love he is with Solène, and to accomplish that he cedes the floor to Hathaway. While the Solène of the book namedrops designer clothes, Hathaway makes her earthy, someone in a period of re-evaluation after having a child too young with an ultimately disappointing husband. Her caution in embarking on a tryst with Hayes is met with a dose of self-deprecation that doesn’t feel forced. You see her bloom in Galitzine’s gaze and also her pain when she realizes that a relationship in the public eye is going to take a toll on her daughter.

By the end it doesn’t really matter whether Hayes is based on Harry Styles because the cute boy isn’t really the point anyway. It’s how that cute boy makes the heroine feel. And if she’s in love, then so are we.

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