Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Confessions of a Closet Twihard

It was a beautiful, chilly July afternoon in South Dakota when my two year old staged the temper tantrum of the century. Our youth group was posing for a group picture in front of Mt. Rushmore and Miles, furious at attempts to prevent him from climbing the wall and hurling himself to his death in the amphitheatre below, protested so shrilly that he managed to clear all tourists from the viewing porch. He “expressed his disappointment” continuously as my husband dragged him all the way back to the parking garage, with my daughters and I following at a distance of about fifty feet.

“Someone should teach that kid a lesson,” a fellow tourist said to me, disgusted. “Yeah, someone should. I wonder where the mother is.” I replied.

Go ahead and judge me. It’s okay. Really.

I adore my son. Privately, I find many of his faults endearing. But sometimes I’m embarrassed to be associated with him in public.

That’s kind of the way I feel about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga.
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I only picked up a copy of Twilight because the girls in our youth group could speak of nothing else for weeks, and I wanted to know firsthand what had inspired this frenzy. I finished the book in two days. I ordered the rest of the books in the series from Amazon the next day. I told no one.

The Twilight Saga is not great literature. I cringed reading these books. I rolled my eyes. I laughed out loud at parts that weren’t supposed to be funny. And then I turned the page and kept reading.

Twilight bashing is a favored pastime of men, critics, the literary set, and particularly of male literary critics. How dare Stephenie Meyer girl-ify the sacred (er, profane) genre of vampire and werewolf lore? Vegetarian Vampires?! Sunshine Sparkly Vampires?! FOUL! Werewolves that transform at will?! FOUL! (Nerd alert: Actually, in book 4 we discover that the Quileutes are really shape shifters, not werewolves, so that makes it feasible)

Note to these guys: the whole vampire/ werewolf dynamic is just a plot device, the means through which Meyer builds characters with superhuman abilities, places Bella Swan in constant danger, and juxtaposes desire and restraint. This is not a vampire story. It’s a love story, a fantasy that appeals to a fanbase of teenage girls and former teenage girls. And since, to my knowledge, vampires don’t exist anyway…who cares?

For better or worse, these books make me feel half my age. And it’s not about the gorgeous guy characters or the fact that Bella is the center of the universe, the target of every villain, constantly being rescued by above mentioned gorgeous guys (pssst…this is like crack to a teenage girl). It’s because my teenage experience was so Bella-esque (except for the part where all the guys wanted to date me…yeah, that never happened). I wasn’t comfortable at dances. I was clumsy. The more hedonistic teenagerish pursuits held no appeal for me. I read Shakespeare and Austen because I wanted to. And I was thoroughly convinced of my own ordinariness. That’s the feeling Stephenie Meyer exploited to make me love her characters. Bella is the one person in the world whose thoughts Edward Cullen cannot hear. She is the lone mysterious female on the planet, so she captivates him. She doesn’t change a thing about herself, yet he loves her sacrificially. Why? Because he discovers what she does not see—that she is, in fact, extraordinary. She is pure, selfless, noble, and lovely. She is nothing like the rest.

Cha-ching!

Fellas, this is what most of us ladies long for. To be chosen above all others by a worthy man, just for who we are.

For this, I willingly overlook all the melodrama, the co-dependence, the poorly written prose, and Bella’s total lack of upper level thinking skills. I.e., Jake, the Quileute werewolf: “Remember that story I told you about “the cold ones” and the wolves? Well, I can’t tell you why I’ve transformed into a giant, half-naked, super-heated man-boy because it’s against the rules. Think, Bella…you know this…”

Spare me. Please.

I will also concede the fact that Meyer’s heroes, with their male model looks, superhuman strength, and complete devotion to Bella’s happiness, set a standard with which no man, and certainly no hormonal seventeen year old boy, could compete. In a sense, this is porn for girls, particularly in the case of Edward Cullen, who has frittered away the past century by racking up multiple graduate degrees, memorizing the complete works of Shakespeare, becoming fluent in several languages, and formulating the perfect product to maintain his signature hairdo. Oh, and he’s also a master composer and pianist, though when the lullaby he composed for Bella is brought to the screen in Twilight, it sounds exactly like an excerpt from a John Tesh CD. FOUL! But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Here’s the straight dope: My husband is a youth guy. I hang with teenage girls. And I have watched helplessly as young ladies I love have cheapened themselves, have given themselves away and been used and tossed aside…for NOTHING. They don’t know what chivalry looks like. They don’t believe they’ll be receiving any better offers. I want the bar set higher.

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And now, a few thoughts about the Twilight movie franchise:

I think any time a book is adapted to the screen there are both gains and losses. I appreciate many of the changes that made Twilight and New Moon watchable (btw, I think New Moon far exceeds Twilight in terms of watchability). I flipped past whole chapters of New Moon, for example, because…yes, Bella, we get it. You’re miserable without Edward. You can’t breathe. There’s a hole in your chest…blah blah blah. Thank you, makers of New Moon, for sparing us some of this angst. The action and fight scenes were exciting under Chris Weitz’s direction. Sceenwriter Melissa Rosenberg made a good call by adding some violence to the Volterra sequences.

Some reviewers have suggested that this entire generation of fans will watch these movies again as adults and realize just how terrible they are. Of course they will. And they’ll keep watching them.

Consider Saved By the Bell. This show was horribly acted. They aired the episodes out of order. One week Zack loves Kelly Kapowski. The next week, it’s Stacy Carosi or that girl wrestler or (fill in the blank). They’re awful. But do I own every single episode, including the feature length specials? Yes, I do. Do I sniffle a little when Zack and Kelly exchange vows in Las Vegas? Yes, I do. My grandmother has a similar relationship with The Rockford Files. It’s pop culture, folks. Nobody ever said it would be anthologized and handed down to future generations.

The CGI wolves of New Moon were hilariously un-scary, which is just the way Matt (the youth guy husband) and I like it. The special effects in Twilight were equally bad. The scene where Edward runs up the hill to the meadow with Bella on his back is just plain silly. But then, the whole premise behind this saga is just plain silly. Once you make peace with that, the hokey moments (i.e. Jacob Black removing his shirt for the first time to reveal his anabolic steroid use) become your favorites.

On the other hand, the Edward and Bella of cinema are not the lovers who live in the pages of the books. These two are described in the book as old souls, and you can see why they would end up together. Bella does all the grocery shopping and cooking. She reads Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Shakespeare for fun. She cleans the house. She’s separate from the other kids because she’s just not into teenagerish activities. Kristen Stewart’s Bella, on the other hand, is a sulky, dreary, tomboy with some kind of nervous tic who is too cool for everything. For his part, Rob Pattinson captures the tortured aspect of Edward Cullen’s existence, and that’s about it. Meyer’s Edward is charming and eloquent and witty. He speaks (and thinks) like a man from another time. And he smiles from time to time, too.

Because I write for a publicity firm, I feel like I can spot focused, intentional messaging when I see it. Frankly, Meyer’s Bella is a politically incorrect model for teenage girls—too needy, too dependent, and too traditional in her domesticity. The Bella we encounter on screen presents the other extreme. She’s almost emotionless. She’s too cool to be vulnerable. She’s a vegetarian (not that I’m hating on vegetarians) who delivers lines like, “Take control…you’re a strong, independent woman.” This line was inserted for a reason, and I understand why. But in making Edward the undead James Dean and Bella the empowered, stoic feminist, the filmmakers have made the silly premise of this saga even less plausible.

In short, the movies are too cool to really tell the story. The real Edward and Bella are a couple of squares who get to know each other the old-fashioned way. We don’t witness this courtship in the film. Consequently, there is little magic between these two. When compared to the much more convincing onscreen chemistry between Bella and Jake (who also bests Edward’s physique and is not shown getting his butt kicked in Italy), viewers unfamiliar with the books wonder why this is even a competition.

All that being said, I will be pre-ordering the DVD of New Moon on Amazon. I can’t help myself.

4 comments:

Hayley said...

Thanks for clearing up the mystery of Twilight's appeal - I haven't read or watched any of it. You are an excellent writer!

William Moss said...

Those CGI wolves are hokey. But having come to terms with that, I am still team Edward. Even Jacob's pectorals can't sway my conviction that Bella makes a flippin sweet vampire.

Great review, by the way.

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