Is The Idea of You Harry Styles Fanfiction? Robinne Lee Implores You to Look Again.


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Robinne Lee moved to Paris to escape Hayes Campbell, knowing he’d inevitably follow. The actress and author of The Idea of You—now a buzzy Prime Video film starring Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine—had formed Hayes from an amalgamation of her own relationships and desires. To shape the book’s 20-year-old romantic lead, a singer in the fictional boyband August Moon, Lee pulled pieces from across her life: Her husband, film director and producer Eric Hayes, inspired the character’s name (and no small number of his one-liners). Ex-boyfriends reached out after the book was published in 2017, and claimed Lee had shaped Hayes in their image. A former New Kids on the Block member—with whom Lee had worked to produce a girl group years earlier—informed the logistics of Hayes’ claustrophobic fame.

In interviews, Lee has repeated her long list of celebrity inspirations ad nauseam, among them Prince Harry, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, and the ’80s pop rock group Duran Duran. She’s insisted that, like balls of colored Play-Doh blended into brown, there’s no longer any chance of extracting a singular source behind Hayes Campbell. “I don’t understand why these questions keep coming up,” Lee confides when we meet over Zoom ahead of the film’s release. Still, fans and readers and critics insist on calling The Idea of YouOne Direction fanfiction.” Instead of Hayes, they recognize a thinly veiled Harry Styles.

The Idea of You by Robinne Lee

<i>The Idea of You</i> by Robinne Lee

The Idea of You by Robinne Lee

Credit: St. Martin’s Press

Lee has learned to keep her comments on Styles succinct. She told The Guardian that Styles’ influence over Hayes was “very little.” She told Entertainment Tonight, at The Idea of You’s film premiere, that “a lot of people want to think it’s Harry Styles. There’s a little Harry Styles in there, but there’s a lot of other people that I actually know and have had experiences with who went more into making Hayes Campbell than Harry Styles.” She’s happy to admit a real-life boybander planted the seed of the idea that’d become The Idea of You, but she isn’t eager to share whom, because the initial idea expanded considerably as she got to work writing. Lee has realized, in the years since The Idea of You became a “sleeper hit” during the pandemic, that she can’t spend all her energy “get[ting] in arguments with everyone on social media.” If readers want to see Styles fanfiction, then so be it.

The story started as a joke anyway. At a political fundraiser in March 2014, Lee was standing in a friend’s kitchen with her husband when she decided to tease him: “I’m thinking about leaving you and our two kids and running off and following a guy in a band, but he’s like half my age.” Hayes—the husband, not the character—laughed and told her, “You know what? That would make a really good book.”

“It was as he said it that I could see the entire thing, beginning, middle, and end,” Lee says. “I knew I could make it really good. And I could make it a very honest, genuine love story, but with deeper undertones because I’d had all these experiences leading up to it.” When she sat down to write, Lee herself was on the brink of so-called “middle age.” An actress known for her work in Seven Pounds and, later, the Fifty Shades trilogy, she found herself encountering more and more roles that described female characters as “mom, 40, somewhat attractive, but on the downhill.”

“I wanted to rail against that,” Lee says. “I thought I could write this story about this woman turning 40 and—just when the world, the media, and our culture is telling her she’s no longer sexually viable or desirable—she’s having the biggest sexual awakening of her life.”

And so she designed Solène Marchand, the 39-year-old French gallery owner with whom the much-younger Hayes falls in love after one of August Moon’s concerts. Elegant, poised, and well-connected in the art world, Solène is decidedly not lusting after a boyband member who can’t even order his own White Claws—until, of course, she’s jetting around the world with Hayes, hoping against hope that their May-December fling expunges the infatuation from her system. Instead, she and Hayes realize the opposite: Their romance is real and extraordinary, just as the rest of the world wakes up to their secret…and takes Solène to task for her “cougar” instincts.

Ahead of that fateful spring in 2014, Lee had been working on a book about an interracial couple, but she’d struggled to sell it, having been told by an editor that “we already have an interracial relationship that we’re putting out this year,” per an interview with Lee in Refinery 29. When she sat down to write the first draft of The Idea of You, she finished in the span of a month. She envisioned it not as a contemporary beach read but as a modern Lady Chatterley’s Lover, “eloquent and beautiful and well-written with social commentary and something beyond the storyline, beyond the sex,” she says. (Even though, yes, there’s plenty of sex.) But her publisher, St. Martin’s Griffin, understood the value of marketing the romance angle—particularly the “boyband” of it all—and even the film adaptation of The Idea of You takes a considerably more traditional rom-com approach than the book itself. (This includes changing the book’s ending to something more hopeful.)

nicholas galitzine and anne hathaway in the idea of you

Alisha Wetherill

Lee herself did not work on the Prime Video project, but, “I would’ve liked to have been involved,” she says. “There were a lot of salient points of the story that did not make it into the adaptation,” she adds. Lee would have liked to give “Solène more agency and represent her as a more powerful character,” and admits, “There were a lot of things that were omitted that I’m not thrilled about.” But as an actress and producer herself, she understands the creative shifts required to transform a work from one medium to another. Lee thinks Hathaway’s performance as Solène, in particular, “was amazing—stupendous, in fact.” Galitzine is “super talented and very charming.” Director Michael Showalter “did a really great job.” But the movie is “a completely different entity” from the novel, Lee continues. “I feel like my book is my baby, and this is its second cousin. There’s some DNA, but not really.”

To be clear, she’s not ungrateful. She loves how many readers have relished The Idea of You as a book; how many older women have seen themselves reflected in Solène’s journey; and how many more will discover the story as the film lands. Lee’s always been deeply involved in her own book publicity: She frequently responds to message requests from fans on Instagram, runs a private Facebook group for Augies (a.k.a. August Moon fans), and sells hoodies and tote bags branded with the words “Hayes” and “August Moon” on her website.

[The movie is] a completely different entity. I feel like my book is my baby, and this is its second cousin. There’s some DNA, but not really.”

But despite her love for it, the novel—and, really, Hayes Campbell—remains “the thing I cannot get away from, for better or worse,” Lee says. Two years ago, she left the U.S. for France, eager to escape the chatter surrounding her age-gap boyband book and the fact that “people are going to think what they’re going to think” about it. After The Idea of You first published, she endured years of brutal writer’s block, and has only just completed a draft of her next novel. She’s looking forward to when this renewed wave of The Idea of You publicity is over, and she can return to writing in her beloved Parisian cafés. There, “I try to think of myself as part of the literati,” she says. “It’s been much healthier for me to be away from the noise.”

She doesn’t provide a summary of her next book, but teases it will be “less escapist” than The Idea of You, “sexy in parts,” with “more serious issues,” and “it’s definitely going to be controversial.” She hopes she won’t have to do nearly as much work “explaining” it.

On May 2, the day The Idea of You hit Prime Video, Lee released an article in Time titled “Reducing The Idea of You to Fan Fiction Is Another Example of Dismissing Women’s Art.” And while no one should automatically consider fanfiction “reductive”—it’s a powerful art form with many talented writers under its umbrella—there’s an understandable agitation in Lee’s words. Pretending that women’s fiction, or fanfiction itself, is somehow less substantive because of its inspirations is a trap, and a comically obvious one. There’s a reason why Hayes Campbell sticks around in the cultural consciousness—and in Lee’s life—and it’s not because he’s a carbon copy of Harry Styles. It’s because Lee’s conviction in creating him is so palpable. As she puts it: “I love what I’ve created. I think it’s very special. It’s very personal. There’s so much of me. I think looking into [the book] is looking at me, in a way that feels very revealing.”

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