Twilight, or, ‘Is this it?’

by TheLitCritGuy


When I first started considering dipping my toe into the murky waters of internet criticism I asked a few friends and acquaintances what I should tackle. One of the most frequent suggestions that I received was that I should take on one of the biggest literary successes of the 2000s – the global phenomenon that was Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ series. The first book in the quartet, published in 2005 was a huge success commercially, spawning a generation of fans tediously known as ‘Twi-hards.’

Now, when I say that these books became a huge success I mean HUGE. The facts and figures surrounding the ‘Twilight’ series are really only comparable to the Harry Potter series so, brace yourself, because here come some seriously big numbers. As of October 2010 the series had sold over 116 million copies worldwide and had been translated into 38 different languages. The books were the biggest selling series in the world until recently and the series spent 235 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller lists and the film adaptation series has grossed over $2 billion dollars worldwide. These are some seriously impressive figures but for all of the devotion the series has inspired there seems to be an equally vicious backlash, you only need to spend thirty seconds on google to see that this series has been incredible divisive in popular culture.

So, it’s time to see what all the fuss is about and whether I’m going to become one of the people who love it, or one of the people who are reduced to some level of inchoate rage. Let’s start with the book and as per usual I’ll give a rundown of the plot but without any major spoilers though if you don’t already have at least some inkling of what the book is about then you are definitely in the minority of people who read/are alive at the moment.

The plot of the first novel follows the life of teenager Isabella ‘Bella’ Swan who moves from Phoenix, Arizona to the small town of Forks in Washington. So far, so familiar – a move from one different culture to another, so you can expect a fish out of water style slice of small town Americana right? Well no – Bella starts going to high school and immediately falls in love with the broody, mysterious teenage heartthrob Edward Cullen. So you can expect a melodramatic bit of teenage romance? Well – not really. It turns out that Edward is a 104 year old vampire. Who wants to kill her and drink her blood, but resists these urges thanks to the power of the attraction between the two of them.

That, some minor plot twists aside, which I leave out here for brevity sake, is pretty much that. Boy meets girl, Boy and girl fall in love, Boy wants to drink girl’s blood. Now, much has been made of the author’s background as a Mormon and whilst I disagree with the idea of judging a work by the author but here it isn’t exactly a stretch. The thinly veiled abstinence/blood drinking analogy that Stephanie Meyer draws in the romance between Edward and Bella is blatant to the point of propaganda and the whole book feels didactic and heavy handed in its approach to teenage romance and sexuality.

This same easy moralising comes through in the film, thanks to the fairly faithful adaptation that the film uses. Interestingly, during the three years that the book spent in film development quagmire, there was a version of the script floating around which could have made a difference to the mostly critical mauling the film took on its release. Unsurprisingly, the studio chose instead to go with a script that is extremely faithful to the book, eliminating the risk of angering the fans who were needed to turn out to make the box office healthy enough to justify the sequels. So, shot in little over two months the film was released in 2008 and became one of the biggest selling DVD’s ever when it was finally released.

Let’s be clear, as a film, this is not very good – it is slowly paced, obvious and highly difficult to care about if you are new to the world of the novels. As an adaptation, this is probably one of the most faithful I’ve ever dealt with. As a romance, obviously much of the film’s success depends on the two leads; Kristen Stewart as Bella and Robert Pattinson as the brooding Edward Cullen.  The rest of the ensemble is largely forgettable although Taylor Lautner has a star making turn as the shirtless Jacob Black and Anna Kendrick as Bella’s first friend in Forks is worth watching. It does rest with the duo leading the film though and for me this is where the film fails and fails hard. Stewart pouts nicely as Bella Swan but her character is written as such a cypher that there is literally nothing for her to do aside from being the vessel that the audience can live vicariously through. As a result she spends the film looking bored but gazing adoringly at Robert. As for Pattinson, he too is basically a cypher. The film and the book make him out to be basically a god amongst men, but the book and film are both so in love with the character of Edward Cullen it feels more like watching a man up on a pedestal rather than an actual real character. He’s all sparkling skin and brooding eyes but he never feels like anything other than a fantasy and whilst I understand a bit of escapism every now and again but I struggle to engage or care about the relationship depicted.

Ultimately though, this isn’t that bad and to be honest that kind of disappoints me. If this really was an absolute abomination I wouldn’t feel bad about smacking this adaptation around some. If anything though, the film is far too well made for the source material it uses. The cinematography is good, the setting and costuming all work well and the director clearly has a strong aesthetic sense. A film version of Twilight didn’t need this amount of money and this kind of quality behind it – and the fact that it has is kind of commendable. The director, judging from her previous work, has a thing for re-working Gothic fairy tales, and I get the impression she was trying to do the same to the Twilight series.

In short I can’t say anything venom filled towards this book and film because it provokes no strong emotional reaction in me, beyond utter boredom. This is really the worst sin of the book – not that is dark, or edgy but that the oh-so-dangerous romance it tries to play out is so painfully, so utterly anodyne – painfully vanilla in fact. And that is why this SUCKS – it is just so so so so so so so so so BORING. When approached like that it makes the whole series make a lot more sense. To be honest it is almost an achievement – to take the concept of vampires, forbidden love and the brewing storm of hormones that is teenage life and to make all of that boring, is actually kind of impressive. More importantly, it is also crushingly disappointing.

The romance genre used to be actually interesting – passionate and dangerous. Romance novels used to be things that had risk to them, ‘Lady Chatterley…’ was banned and burned in some places as dangerous to society. Jane Austen novels were some of the most sophisticated and well-rounded writing produced ever in the Western canon – and they were romance novels. The romance story, as told through the centuries has always been popular because it’s a story that is designed to get people emotionally and passionately involved. These stories should be big, bold passionate affairs and from the setup of Twilight this could have been one of them. But instead, the romance becomes safe, bland and mass marketable to young people who are searching for stories that will help them make sense of their formative years.

Is this what YA fiction is now? I hope not. If literature is where we learn about the world the lessons of Twilight are not ones that should be passed on. Now, I am no expert on YA fiction and I won’t dare assume that just reading Twilight will make me an expert but surely, SURELY this is not all fiction has to offer the young and impressionable – those searching for answers and that comfort of knowing that you aren’t alone in a world that seems confusing and full of conflicting messages.

I don’t hate Twilight – it is far too dull for that. I just wish it was better at what it tries to do and had the courage to try and pass on something genuine to the readers who need to hear it.



PS For more eloquent and impassioned writing on YA fiction and sex – read this