Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My thoughts on the Twilight series

This essay has been in the works for some time. I was inspired to read the series when my friend John Granger was challenged to compare the Twilight phenomenon to the Harry Potter series. Many have asked if Twilight is the new Harry Potter because both are fantasy series whose popularity increased over time and had crazed fans at bookstores' midnight release parties. Both John Granger and Travis Prinzi have weighed in on their thoughts on the Twilight series, but it has taken me longer to chime in with my response.

In my own humble opinion I see little similarity between the two series. The Harry Potter series is intricately plotted and layered with all kinds of obscure symbolism and rich meaning. The Twilight series appears far more straightforward with its strength on the romantic love story between the lead characters rather than having a complex plot structure with intricate mythological subtext and alchemical symbolism as the Harry Potter series does.

I have read the entire Twilight series as well as the online partial manuscript of Midnight Sun that was abandoned by Stephenie Meyer after it was leaked onto the internet.

I have also watched the movie a few times.

This analysis is a broad overview of the series and contains some spoilers. So those who have not read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and were considering either reading it or watching the movie adaptations are forewarned.

Some of the questions I see posed most often is "why is it so popular?" and "why is it less likely for men to like this series as well as women?" That last observation alone makes the Twilight series different from the Harry Potter series, because in my own experience I know many men who are just as obsessed as women with the series (as well as children.)

I believe the answers to the gender gap and the popularity of the series can be discerned by understanding the character of Edward Cullen and his impact on readers.

The other day I overheard a work colleague talking with one of her friends. They were discussing the Twilight series and this woman I didn't know proclaimed that Edward Cullen was her boyfriend. I suppressed a laugh because she would have no idea how much I have over-analyzed this series. If I discussed my thoughts with her, I might have lessened her ardor for him and the series, but then again, maybe nothing would.

That is because Edward Cullen is not only Drop Dead Gorgeous, he is perfect. He is so perfect that no mere mortal man could ever measure up to Edward's perfection as the ultimate fantasy male.

Edward has perfect hair, the perfect smile, perfect chiseled features, perfect six pack abs, and a perfect musical sounding voice.

Did I mention he was perfect? Stephenie Meyers wants to make sure her readers know how perfect Edward Cullen is by using the words perfect and perfection to describe him multiple times throughout the story.

Here are a few descriptions of him:

His hair was dripping wet, disheveled – even so, he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel. His dazzling face was friendly, open, a slight smile on his flawless lips. Page 43

He smiled widely, flashing a set of perfect, ultrawhite teeth. Page 50.

I was in danger of being distracted by his livid, glorious face. It was like trying to stare down a destroying angel…He paused and for a brief moment his stunning face was unexpectedly vulnerable. page 65

There's more. Much more. Bella Swan as the narrator is quite redundant about her adoration of Edward's physical features.

It is a wonder the filmmakers were able to cast any actor to play the part onscreen. Few living men would feel comfortable trying to measure up to that kind of advance billing. Even Robert Pattinson was insecure about showing his chest for the film because he did not think he could live up to the perfect Adonis-like physique described in the text.

But, there is more than just his good looks which makes him attractive. He is also aloof to the point of being unobtainable. The rare earth element unobtainium makes him even more desirable.

But wait - there's more. Edward is also a virgin.

Not your average run-of-the-mill, "I just haven't slept with anyone yet" virgin. Noooo. He is a Virgin in every way. Not only has he never had sex before, he has never even had sexual thoughts before.

He is pure.

Poor gorgeous Edward has the blessing/curse of being able to hear other people's thoughts. Every vengeful, spiteful, prideful, lustful, deceitful, inane thought someone has is easily discerned by Edward. He can try and ignore the thoughts of others as if it were merely background noise, but no one's mind was ever a mystery to him.

This changes when he meets Bella Swan and discovers he cannot read her thoughts. Even though she has is likely to have similar thoughts to other teenaged girls who are drooling over him, he cannot sense them. This makes her an enigma and she therefore fascinates him. She also has a scent that drives him wild.

Wild to the point of madness. Which makes him all the more dangerous. And Edward is a bad boy. In fiction, and sometimes in Real Life, bad boys = Dead!Sexy.

Bella and Edward clash, but Bella detects mixed signals on his part. This confuses her and makes Edward seem all the more alluring.

She becomes so enamored by his beauty that even after she discovers his Dark Secret, she does not care.

For those unaware, Edward Cullen's Deep Dark Secret is that he is a vampire. However he is not in the Bela Legosi/Christopher Lee/Jonathon Frid/Frank Langella vein of vampires. Nope. Edward is basically a "defanged" vampire and has been rendered almost harmless.

This is the aspect of the series that I find the most problematic. If Meyer didn't like vampire lore, I feel she should have chosen another mythological creature or tried creating a new fantastical creature.

Instead, Stephenie Meyer made her "good vampires" so tame that they lack most of the trademark markers of the cursed Undead.

It is as if she went through a checklist to deep-six anything that made her squeamish. The italics denote my imagining Meyer's thought processes as she determined the rules of her Twilight universe vampires.

Drinking human blood? That is for the bad vampires, but ewww. Not for my hero. I'll make him a "vegetarian" subsisting on the blood of animals. Oh and allow him and his "family" to gorge themselves so they do not have to feed on a daily basis. A few times a month should do it - otherwise it might interfere with plotting. Edward will just have to suffer from thirst because he cannot leave Bella's side when her safety is threatened by the bad vamps.

Sleeping in coffins? Ugh. Creeeeepy. How about vampires never sleep? Yeah, imagine all the things you could get accomplished if you never slept.

Have them be driven away by crucifixes? Nah. That might imply they were demonic. Can't have that with my hero. Instead, I'll feature a gigantic crucifix in the vampire household as a religious relic.

Unable to walk about during daylight hours? Er, no. He just has to avoid the rays of the sun. I shall choose a setting that is overcast most of the time. Edward has to be able to be outside during daylight because otherwise the set up of my romantic couple meeting in high school would not work. And I have to make Bella be a high school student because I want her to be a virgin as well. It would be less likely for an attractive young woman to believably be a virgin by college age. I know, I'll come up with something no one would expect as to why vampires cannot go be seen in the daytime. Vampire skin is iridescent in sunlight like cut diamonds. Sunlight will make their skin all sparkly. :swoons at the thought: Sparkly vampires. Mmmmmm.

The sparkly vampires aspect is something that gave me the most difficulty in the series.

I normally avoid reading urban fantasy novels which have vampires in them. That is because of my tendency to nitpick to death aspects of vampire legend. I grew up watching "Dark Shadows" on tv as well as many vampire movies until I knew the Hollywood vampire lore by heart.

This was best exemplified by the George Hamilton spoof, “Love at First Bite.”

Vampires can’t see their images in mirrors, they sleep during daylight hours, they cannot not stand garlic or crosses, they have to be invited inside someone's home, can turn into bats, and it takes three bites to turn someone into a vampire. Three bites. If a woman who was bitten by a vampire did not receive three bites, she was safe.

At least that was the state of vampire mythology “Hollywood style” when I was growing up.

In high school, I had to write a ten page research paper. We could choose any topic under the sun. I chose vampire lore. Why? I thought it would be fun. I discovered that the Hollywood treatment of vampires does not necessarily follow the legends. You did not need three bites to become a vampire. You could be bitten once, survive the encounter and then when you died eventually you would then become a vampire. Or you could be bled slowly, survive multiple bites over the magic number of three and when you finally died you would become a vampire. I learned lots of weird vampire trivia that I dust off occasionally like parlor tricks to spice up conversations with people. I no longer have the citations, but many of them came from renowned vampirologist Reverend Montague Summers and his books The Vampire in Europe and The Vampire his Kith and Kin.

For instance once werewolves are killed, they will rise up to become vampires.

Frankly, once I discovered that particular bit of lore, I wondered why no one in Hollywood has used it. Come on, we are talking about a built-in sequel here.

You could become a vampire if a cat jumped over your coffin. So be sure to keep the kitties away from Aunt Martha when she is laid out to rest in the front parlor.

Other methods of becoming a vampire included excommunication and weirdly even the gaze of a vampire can sometimes transmit vampirism. Should a vampire gaze upon a pregnant woman, that cursed child is doomed to becoming a vampire after death even if they life a long full life.

Vampires also had an uncontrollable urge to count things, such as thorns or poppy seeds. So rather than making your room smell like a garlic factory, you could just throw a handful of poppy seeds outside your bedroom window rendering the potential night time visitor into the comical sight of a creature picking up individual seeds and saying, "one poppy seed, two poppy seeds, three poppy seeds, ah, ah, ah, ahhhhh."

After learning the strange beliefs surrounding vampire legends, and after having watched Frank Langella as Dracula, I felt that I had no further need to see another vampire movie. To me, no one could ever out do Langella in his prime and I was afraid that I would simply nitpick over a Hollywood screenwriter twisting the legends into directions I would not care for.

Hence my reluctance to read urban fantasy and why some of Meyer's changes to vampire lore bugged me more than it would your average reader and/or movie goer. I dislike it when certain aspects are altered too far from what I consider to be the core vampire lore.

The biggest difference in Meyer’s character of Edward Cullen from traditional Dracula-like vampires is that Edward does not accept and/or revel in his status as a vampire. This ups the angst quotient. He is a vampire who deliberately goes against his own nature.

He is immortal and has been a vampire since his death at age seventeen from the Spanish influenza in 1918. The age difference between Edward and Bella disturbs some of the commenters on the Hogwarts Professor boards. I understood Meyer’s age choice due to the constructs of wanting a believable reason for Edward being a virgin. Impending death by flu was a convenient choice for Meyer since Edward would have died without trauma and it is a time period where we romanticize that men were more gentlemanly toward women and that women were more protective of their virtue. It is doubtful that a really good looking guy like Edward would be a virgin at age seventeen if he lived in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, etc. Then making him live without love for nearly a century increases the angst and Edward Cullen’s character is all about angst.

Edward lived with three other vampire couples for nearly one hundred years while he was alone. He did not realize that he was waiting for his soul mate Bella to be born. Once he discovered that his strange feelings toward this human were due to love, he began doting on her. Edward loved Bella completely, wholly, even obsessively. He loved the blush in her cheeks and the sound of her heart fluttering. If she were to become a vampire, those mortal things would disappear.

Edward loathed his own inhuman existence (oh, the angst!) and did not wish that upon the woman he loves. Instead his preference was to have his own version of courtly love with her. He kissed her and cuddled with her, but refused to go any farther lest he might lose control and possibly crush her skull, pelvis, etc., in the heat of passion.

This is a far different kind of relationship from the Classic vampire/human relationship typified by Hollywood movies. Generally we see a predator seeking to quench his thirst amongst humans and he discovers a woman he finds attractive. He wants her to satisfy more than just one appetite. He stalks, attacks and claims dominion over said prey. Then someone near and dear to the victim tries to rescue her from the fate worse than death. Stalking of the vampire begins and the end of the story is the destruction of the undead.

Not in this story. Because Edward Cullen is not Dracula. He has a conscience and actively denies his own true nature, which again drives up the angst quotient. He is a tortured soul. (That is if vampires have souls.) Because Edward is protective of Bella’s status as a living, breathing human he becomes the antithesis to “normal” vampires. This conflict of normal/abnormal vampire behavior drives the storyline in each of the four volumes and leads to showdowns with “bad” vampires in each book.

Another source of conflict in the story is the differences between what Bella wants and what Edward wants. Edward wants to simply love Bella and watch her grow old, die a normal death and then he would want to have his own existence end so that he did not continue on without her. Bella does not like that scenario. Because Edward not only has immortal life he has eternal youth.

He will always be gorgeous.

He will never get older, fatter and balder.

Being human and alive, Bella will grow older. Her body will start to sag. Her face will become lined. Her hair will thin and grow gray.

In Edward’s preferred future, someone will one day make reference to Edward and assume that he is Bella’s son or grandson.

To Bella, that is a nightmare.

She would rather die and become a vampire so that she can also have eternal youth and eternal beauty. Bella does not have a death wish, nor does she have a fascination with death as I have heard some people contemplate. It is simply Bella wanting to be Edward’s partner in every way and for eternity.

Edward in his sacrificial denial of self, resists Bella’s entreaties. He not only refuses to “turn her” into a vampire, but he continually refuses to satisfy her sexually. This aspect of the book is also a source of great discussion.

I have seen some parents think that Bella and Edward not having sex is something that is good for teenaged girls to read.

:Ahem: I think that this is a perfect situation for parents to read the books and then lead a discussion with their teenaged daughters as to what are realistic expectations from their teenaged boyfriends.

Know that once Bella and Edward openly profess their undying love for one another that they do not want to be apart from each other. This leads to Edward being a regular visitor to Bella’s bedroom. This is done without her father’s knowledge, let alone permission. Edward cannot sleep, but Bella sleeps in his ice-cold arms. She continually tests his resolve to not give into desire and consummate their relationship.

She is the sexual aggressor and he is the one holding out.

Again, this type of thing makes Edward Cullen into the perfect romantic hero. At least for virgins who would like to retain their virtue and “good girl” reputation.

Normal teenaged males with raging hormones will not be interested in simply cuddling if they are invited into a teenaged girl’s bed.

There’s the romantic fantasy of having someone like Edward Cullen proclaiming his undying and unconditional love, being protective, generous, and not taking sexual advantage of a vulnerable girl and then there is the reality of real live boys/men who cannot measure up to such idealized standards.

The strength of the Twilight series lies not in complicated plots, but in showing the depth of feeling between two characters who love each other unconditionally. It is the raw emotion between Edward and Bella that drives this series and created so many dedicated fans. Because there is a desire to love someone in a similar unswerving manner and have that kind of depth of passion returned.

But no human man can ever live up to the romantic ideal of Edward Cullen, which in my opinion is a bigger reason to classify this series as romantic fantasy more than the vampirism.

Your thoughts on this series are welcomed, as well as your questions.


Terry Odell said...

I have to confess I haven't been caught up in the Twilight phenomenon. I haven't read the book, had no desire to read the book, nor see the movie. I got through 2 Harry Potter books, but did Netflix the movies, which were more entertaining (and that's unusual, since I think there have been two movies I preferred to the books they were based on.)

As to the immortality conflict: I did love the Highlander TV series (cut my writing teeth on Higlander fanfic). I guess my reaction to it in your essay is along the lines of BTDT.

Thanks for the insightful analysis. I have a better feel for what I've missed, but still have no desire to join the crowd. I'm just not into any of the current paranormal trends.

Linda C. McCabe said...


Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I'm unfamiliar with the Highlander series, but I understand the fanfic phenomenon. Writing Harry Potter fanfic for me is what really gave me the impetus to try my hand at writing fiction. I wanted to flesh out various theories I had and see how they would work on paper.

FWIW, should you have some beach reading time this summer and feel inspired to possibly try another HP volume, the series gets really good at the third book. To me, the first two volumes are tight and almost cartoonish. It is in the third installment that that the tone gets darker and more adult. Themes of loyalty and betrayal become important and some mysteries of the past are revealed.

The fourth book has a body count that is almost Shakespearean. It includes four contemporary deaths, (two shown on the page, two deaths are off the page like Rosencranz and Guldenstern in Hamlet), and many historical ones are detailed in the narrative.

One of the aspects of the HP series that impressed me the most was how J.K. Rowling embedded subtle clues to future volumes in earlier books. For example, the name Sirius Black was tossed off twice in the first chapter of the first book. Hagrid had borrowed his flying motorcycle. There isn't any mention of Sirius again in the rest of the book, nor at all in the second book. Sirius Black happens to be the titular character in the third book The Prisoner of Azkaban. There are many such instances of her doing that type of thing and that was what drove the intense speculation about what future volumes might contain. The online fandom scoured the past volumes for clues and spun wildly inventive theories.

As for the HP movies, I have enjoyed them, but recognize the many compromises that are made in condensing a novel into standard length movies. The third book is one that while I enjoyed the emotional heart of the movie adaptation, I was disappointed that the climax of the story lost too much explanation. I do not feel that the story's complexities and plot twists were encapsulated in the brief screen time. Instead it was sacrificed for action/adventure sequences.

Penny Linsenmayer said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this series, and I agree with your over-arching conclusion regarding the comparison between Twilight and HP not standing up to much scrutiny. Twilight is not a Hero's Journey novel at all, and the series was certainly not written according to any alchemical formula.

But, I do think you missed the biggest point of the series actually. When you listed out the specific ways in which Meyer departs from traditional vampire lore, you noted that she made Edward a vegetarian vampire out of squeamishness -- not wanting to make her Hero the stuff of a horror movie. But that's not it at all. I think this series is mostly an exploration of a theme that Meyer explores more overtly in her stand-alone adult sci-fi novel "The Host" -- the question of what it means to be human and the nature of the human soul. Edward (and his family) are making a conscious *choice* to seek out a diet that fulfills their survival needs but satisfies their own moral stance against taking the life of another human being. She also goes to great lengths to illustrate her vampires' struggle against the ever-present temptation to indulge in the more satisfying food of human blood (most particularly in Midnight Sun of course). It doesn't seem to me that Meyer could have effectively had Bella Turned into a vampire if, in doing so, she was in fact surrendering her soul. I found it all very Dumbledorian -- it is our *choices* that define us. If a vampire has no soul, then a vampire should have no emotions and no ability to distinguish right from wrong, a vampire would then be an attractive equivalent of Rowling's dementors, yes?

I had little to no experience with vampires of film, literature or legend prior to reading Meyer. Since then, I have read quite a few of what are called paranormals, many of which really are just traditional romances where the Hero happens to be a vampire (or in some cases, the Heroine). Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series (HBO has adapted it into "True Blood") is excellent -- her premise is to set up vampires as a metaphor for the gay community once they "come out" to the humans (after synthetic blood is developed so that they no longer must feed on humans, though they still prefer it). Her vampires are a legally recognized minority -- and it's a great blend of sex, horror, humor and greater themes about tolerance. And she too explores the nature of humanity through her vampires. Anyway, Meyer not sticking to all the traditional vampire elements didn't bother me, because I didn't know what those were to any great extent. Vampires of literature apparently have long been a blend of whichever elements of vampire legends worked best for an author. Having read quite a few paranormals now, Meyer's approach is not that untraditional. The "sparkling" aspect is a new one, best I can tell, but for the most part, authors pick and choose which aspects of the myths they want and discard those they don't want.

I am actually surprised that you didn't spend much time analyzing Bella's character. I do think Bella has strengths, although her weak spots sorely tested my patience in Eclipse.

As you know, I enjoyed the series and have gone on to enjoy other paranormals.

Terry Odell said...

Linda - your response to me brings up an interesting point. You say the HP series gets "good" with Book 3. However, I'm not likely to give an author that much time to hook me. I'm anal about finishing a book I start, although I'll admit to some sitting by my beside with the bookmark stuck about halfway through, to be finished 'some day when there's nothing else to read.'

On another note - the one movie where I thought the 'tightening' worked very well was Hunt for Red October. It might have dropped a lot of threads, but it ended up hitting the most important ones. That's one movie I can watch repeatedly.

Leslie said...

I must say that I definitely enjoyed reading your review of Twilight far more than the actual reading of the book, more for the way Meyer wrote than the story at hand [which I found a touch watery at best]. Like you said, Bella is rather repetitious in her descriptions of Edward, but really she's rather strong on descriptions in general--the CD skipping, the way his skin is so perfect the way his hair is caught in the wind, and so on and so forth.

Recently a friend, who has not read the books, was jokingly told never to read them by her mother who says that she will want a perfect husband like Edward rather than her current one--yet another problem I found within the texts. Yes, I believe that the raw emotion is an attraction to the series, but also to the romantic vision that Meyer created in bringing together this angstridden young man with his angstridden young love. It brings together a slew of romantic ideals, the self-sacrifice, the purety, and even the impossible nature of the basic arrangement.

But it bothers me.

I love stories. I love books. If you check out NWNP, you'll find that I'll read most anything, pop culture, quality or no, but perfection in a character, if you'll pardon me, is boring, and I found Edward to be boring.

And Bella is, if you are familiar with fanfic terminology [I admit, I've written my share in the past], a complete Mary Sue. She's strong when she needs to be, weak when she needs to be, molding completely against Edward.


I hope I've not been too harsh.

When it comes to vampires, the only true exposure I've had have been reading Bram Stoker's Dracula and the film Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, but after reading some of your notes on vampire lore, I feel quite drawn to do some research of my own. Thanks for opening a new reason to buy books.

And thank you for the Count reference. That made my day, and it's barely started. If you'll excuse me, I must find a way to get the song "Bella Legosi's dead" out of my head.

Linda C. McCabe said...

Thank you for stopping by and for giving a link to my blog on yours. I'll have to troll more there later when I get a chance.

Yes, I do know about Mary Sues. I wrote Harry Potter fanfic, so I know all about Mary Sues and Gary Stus. The only thing that lessons Bella from Mary Sueism is her clumsiness. To me that seemed slapped on and not truly a part of who she was. Let's just say I wasn't convinced Bella was really clumsy.

Small nitpick.

Speaking of inspiring you to read something...I have a book recommendation for you. I finished reading this before I wrote my essay on the Twilight series and it did influence me. It is Beyond Heaving Bosoms: the Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. It's funny and it takes apart the romance genre in ways that will make you snort liquid through your nose if you make the mistake of trying to take a drink while reading.

Seriously, it is wickedly funny.

Feel free to stop by again sometime.

Leslie said...

Thanks much for the title--I added it to my wishlist on Amazon [read: my buy when money is available list on Amazon].