Thursday, April 23, 2009

Finally chiming in on 'Twilight'

I am late to the whole Twilight phenomenon. I’m not sure why all four of novels and a film adaptation of the first novel barely registered on my radar. I do remember reading an article about the author in the local paper’s entertainment section last summer while we were on vacation in California, but that’s about as much thought as I gave it all. Until now. A good friend recently read the first novel—Twilight—in a book club and sent the novel to me to see what I thought (so, girlfriend, this one’s for you). Bottom line? Twilight is pretty much what I expected—but it also raises some pretty interesting issues.

For those of you not in the know, Twilight is the first of four young-adult novels that introduces 17-year-old Isabella “Bella” Swan and her romantic and adventure-laced relationship with vampire Edward Cullen (a 17-year-old looking 70-year-old vampire). Bella has moved from her home with her mother in Phoenix to the Pacific Northwest to live with her father, a police chief in the small, cloudy town of Forks. At the high school, she finds herself irresistibly drawn to Edward, who lives with a small group of other vampires who’ve decided only to drink animal blood (what Edward wryly refers to as being a “vegetarian”) and live together as a family. When another vampire—this one not so “vegetarian”—passes through the area and sets his sights on Bella, Edward and his family set out to protect her and her family.

Apparently, the novel is extremely popular with teen girls—and I can see why. I think Marjorie Kehe hits the nail on the head at The Christian Science Monitor when she writes “old-fashioned love stories still sell.” And at its core, that’s what this novel is. Kehe links to an interesting article at Salon.com, in which Larua Miller says we can blame the popularity of this modern spin on the old gothic-style romance on Lord Byron, “the original dangerous, seductive bad boy with an artist's wounded soul and in his own time the object of as much feminine yearning as Edward Cullen has been in the early 21st.” Heh. I read Byron both as an undergrad and grad student—and Miller’s right, he still holds his own two centuries later.

But, if the information about influences on Twilight author Stephanie Meyers is to be believed, it would seem Edward shares more in common with another aloof and desired literary figure, that fictional but nonetheless dark, brooding and completely enthralling Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice—a novel with which Meyers says Twilight has loose ties. Indeed, Pride & Prejudice (along with Jane Eyre, with the suffering and dark Edward Rochester, and Wuthering Heights, home to another famous literary “bad boy” Heathcliffe) is even mentioned in Twilight itself.

The connections to such old-fashioned romantic novels explains in part the draw of the novel beyond teenage girls. Miller quotes one woman from an online group made up of adult fans called “Twilight Moms”:

"Twilight makes me feel like there may be a world where a perfect man does exist, where love can overcome anything, where men will fight for the women they love no matter what, where the underdog strange girl in high school with an amazing heart can snag the best guy in the school, and where we can live forever with the person we love," a mix of adolescent social aspirations with what are ostensibly adult longings.
However, I didn't find Twilight’s Edward as alluring as Pride & Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy or Bella as strong in character as Elizabeth Bennett. Nor did I find the story as rich and rewarding as Austen’s work. I can’t help but wonder if those Twilight Moms might find Austen and the Bronte sisters’ stories even more enthralling and satisfying? Granted, we probably need to work a little harder with Austen and the Brontes than we do with Meyers, but sometimes really great stories require that.

Though the novel has obvious connections to Austen and Bronte stories, I find Twilight more in line with more traditional Gothic novels such as those by Ann Radcliffe, where the heroine is more helpless and the flawed hero more ideal and powerful. Such stories, Miller explains, still touch on something familiar today:
The traditional feminine fantasy of being delivered from obscurity by a dazzling, powerful man, of needing to do no more to prove or find yourself than win his devotion, of being guarded from all life's vicissitudes by his boundless strength and wealth—all this turns out to be a difficult dream to leave behind.
So, while Pride & Prejudice Meyers’ novel may not be, it does touch on something that resonates—heh, at least with the female side of the species. I must admit that I can understand the appeal, though I think, in the end, it is an appetizer to a better thing.

Another interesting note regarding this series is that they aren’t nearly as dark in their gothic-ness as many other vampire novels (i.e., think Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire). In fact, Twilight is notably absent of sex, bad language, drug use and even light on the violence. According to an interview with Meyers with UK’s Times Online, this was more a result more of who she is rather than intention:
Meyer insists that she does not consciously intend her novels to be Mormon propaganda, promoting the virtues of sexual abstinence and spiritual purity; but she acknowledges that her writing is shaped by the values she learnt from her family and the church. “I don’t think my books are going to be really graphic or dark, because of who I am,” she said. “There’s always going to be a lot of light in my stories.”
It is partly this aspect of the series that garners some respect among Christians. In Campus Life’s Ignite Your Faith, Stacy Lingle notes additional aspects of the novels that believers can not only take note of but also learn from. At Christ and Pop Culture, Carissa Smith also notes some similar aspects, even as she notes some concern on the prominence of such an intense romantic love in the novel.

Indeed, I share some concern over that as well (not to mention that I find it just a little creepy that a 70-year-old vampire is hitting on a 17-year-old girl—but that might be a “mom” thing). But, to be fair, Twilight is definately not alone in its portrayal of romantic love. Many films and novels—from romantic comedies to Christian romantic fiction to gothic-romances—build an image of love that is unsustainable and, if left uncontemplated, can create unrealistic expectations—as well as a rather self-centered focus—of what it means to love. Smith notes, however, that she’d have to avoid a lot of worthy stories if she were to hold that up as a reason not to read Twilight—and I agree with her on that, too. Like everything else in life, we just need to be more aware of and think through what we read, watch and take in around us—not only to weed out those things that aren’t true about life but also to glean those things that are.

And Twilight does have truth about it—and I resonate most with its theme that we all have a choice of what to do with the life we’ve been given. Often quoted from Twilight is Edward’s response to Bella’s question of why he and his family have chosen not to feed on humans:

He hesitated before answering. “That’s a good question, and you are not the first one to ask it. The others—the majority of our kind who are quite content with our lot—they, too, wonder at how we live. But you see, just because we’ve been . . . dealt a certain hand . . . it doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to rise above—to conquer the boundaries of a destiny that none of us wanted. To try to retain whatever essential humanity we can.”
This is a very human struggle being voiced by a vampire—which is one example of many of how this novel uses both human and vampire characters to explore what it means to be human, why we make the choices we do, and the consequences inherent in the paths we walk, both good and evil. And the story and characters are written well enough to make me think about what I might do if I were Bella or Edward. And, in my opinion, while it may not be one of the best stories, this makes me stack it in the category of a good one.

I probably won’t read the rest of the series (the Wikipedia summaries were enough for me), but if you are looking for a light and fun read, you might consider Twilight. But you might also want to pick up Pride & Prejudice, because I’m telling you, Edward’s got nothing on that Mr. Darcy.


Note: I haven’t seen the film, but you can read Ken Brown’s review at C. Orthodoxy or a review at Christianity Today by Todd Hertz.


(Images: Wikipedia and Barnes and Noble)

10 comments:

Ken Brown said...

Sigh. Somehow I pushed the wrong button and deleted this comment the first time, so here goes again:

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the book was better than the movie, but it sounds like it was. Still, I think your comparison with Pride and Prejudice helps explain a major part of what disturbed me about Twilight. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is a strong and well-rounded person who becomes more of herself as she falls in love with Darcy. In Twilight, Bella hardly has any personality to start with, and becomes progressively less interesting as the story progresses (at least in the film). That's a terrible image of love to be feeding to our teenagers. Moreover, as far as human love is meant to give a picture of our relationship with God, that's also a distortion of the latter. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

"I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call 'me' can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.... Sameness is to be found most among the most 'natural' men, not among those who surrender to Christ. How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints" (Mere Christianity, pgs. 225-26).

And on the other side, while both Darcy and Edward are flawed but selfless, there is a big difference between a man needing to overcome his pride to be with the one he loves, and a man whose primary attraction to the girl he "loves" (who, by the way, is a fifth his age), is that he wants to suck her blood.

It is one thing for Pride and Prejudice to show that both Darcy and Elizabeth are flawed and in need of redemption. If Twilight had gone that route, I wouldn't have had a problem--I'm happy to see the monster redeemed--but here the monster is the redeemer, and the one who needs redemption is seeking it precisely by wanting to become a monster herself, which is about as troubling a picture of salvation as I could imagine.

You've read synopses of the later books, right? Do they modify that picture at all? Is Edward himself redeemed in the end? Please tell me Bella doesn't become a vampire herself!

Ken Brown said...

Oh dear. I just read the synopsis for Breaking Dawn and it sounds like everything I feared and worse... ugh!

Carmen Andres said...

that bella is so consumed by her attraction to and love for edward has been a point of criticism in several reviews i've read (though, as i mentioned, that's definately not uncommon in the romantic genre itself). some critics go further and say that bella loses her sense of self in that attraction/love. i'm not so sure--at least, in the book. it's written in first person from bella's point of view and so we have a stronger sense of who she is and what she's thinking. she can be pretty resourceful and independent (though i must admit, i actually got a tired of all the swooning, heh).

as to the whole vampire thing, well, i'm going out on a limb here and suggest that meyers presents a significantly different take on vampires than the one the genre has generally presented in the past. in the world meyers creates, being a vampire in and of itself doesn't make them monsters; it's how they use the power and whether they give into the parts of them that are broken that does that--and that's a very human struggle and reality. in some sense, you could say that the vampires in meyers world are humans tweaked in such a way as to allow us to explore the ways we deal with temptation, addiction, and power and how those things affect how we love and view others. in some ways, the vampires are like the Cylons in BSG or Hellboy in del Toro's films. is it a "bad" thing to be a Cylon or Hellboy? in the context of their stories, i don't think so. one of my favorite quotes from hellboy concerns how the choices we make are what makes us who we are--not where we came from. now, i'll grant that vampires are a little harder for us to separate from the long line of literature and lore associated with them. but in meyers' world, they are not the same.

and as for the whole redemption thing, i'm not so sure we can slide edward into the redeemer position. in fact, i'm pretty sure they are all struggling with how to live and find redemption. without giving it too much thought, my first inclination is to say that love, compassion and self-sacrifice are being explored for their redeeming abilities. but that's without giving it too much thought, heh.

i'm not sure if any of that will ease your "yuk" factor, heh. but that's my thoughts, for what they're worth.

and thanks for taking the time to repost, ack - what a pain!

Ken Brown said...

Hmmm. I can see how the difference in perspective (first person to third person) could make a difference in how much of a personality Bella has. After all, if most of what we know of Bella comes from interior monologue--which doesn't translate to film at all--she's bound to seem flatter and less interesting, regardless of the quality of the book.

As for the vampire thing, though, I'm gonna have to disagree. My problem is not with Edward being a vampire who chooses to live selflessly. That's excellent--and I like the comparison with Hellboy--and nothing I would dispute. In fact, if that were all Meyers did with it, I would be happy with her twist on the genre, which would indeed provide a nice picture of our own struggle with sin. As I mentioned in the post linked in my first comment, I think we are all "good monsters," struggling against our own worse natures, and the best stories should recognize that such a battle can only be won through self-sacrifice and love. As far as Twilight explores that theme (and it does to some extent), I'm happy to cheer.

The trouble, however, is that Twilight (at least, in the film) is not primarily about Edward's struggle with temptation, but about Bella's. She is, as you noted, the character we are meant to relate to, the one through whose eyes we see the world, the one to whom Edward offers the apple in the trademark scene. And her story runs in almost the exact opposite direction. She is not a vampire seeking redemption; she a human being who actually hopes to become one. It's like if someone told the story of the Garden of Eden through Eve's eyes, and we get to see from her perspective why she wanted so badly to eat the fruit. As a tragedy, that might work, but as a romance? What kind of story are we telling if in the end when she finally does eat the apple (in Breaking Dawn) it is not presented as a disaster at all but as the glorious climax, after which she goes off to live in blissful eternal life with her newly acquired sin nature and the devil who tempted her to take it?

Sounds about how Satan might tell the story...

Carmen Andres said...

interesting point. and that makes me think that the novel contradicts itself--or rather, the author's intent contradicts the story itself.

here's what meyers says about the apple:

The apple on the cover of Twilight represents "forbidden fruit." I used the scripture from Genesis (located just after the table of contents) because I loved the phrase "the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil." Isn't this exactly what Bella ends up with? A working knowledge of what good is, and what evil is. The nice thing about the apple is it has so many symbolic roots. You've got the apple in Snow White, one bite and you're frozen forever in a state of not-quite-death... Then you have Paris and the golden apple in Greek mythology—look how much trouble that started. Apples are quite the versatile fruit. In the end, I love the beautiful simplicity of the picture. To me it says: choice. if we take her at her interpretation and follow it through to the end of the series, then oh my goodness, it appears she’s doing exactly what you said. it seems as if meyers is suggesting that eating the apple leaves us better off than not eating it (which is an argument i've heard often, actually).

but, first off, i'm not so sure the fruit in Eden is as meyers explains it. some think the fruit was the actual experience of evil rather than simple ethical knowledge, something God wanted to protect us from. others think there was nothing in the fruit itself that was evil, but it was the act itself (of not trusting God) that brought on the knowledge or experience of evil.

but in the story itself, becoming a vampire (as meyers herself has set it up) isn't about becoming evil or acquiring a sin nature (even though she's used the symbolism she has). becoming a vampire is just another aspect of the human condition. admittedly, in some parts of the novel, it's likened to addiction, but in others it's more akin to the costs of being gifted, powerful or different, and those things aren’t bad in and of themselves (though some would argue that power is—and i would be inclined to give them some ground—but ultimately it is what we do with power that matters, not having power itself).
so, if being a vampire isn't equated with evil and sinful nature (because there are equally sinful human beings), then why use an apple as a symbol of the temptation?

i’ll have to mull this over some more, unless you can come up with a great response so I don’t have to :)

Carmen Andres said...

egads, blogger messed up my paragraphs - there's meant to be a line break between meyer's quote and my comments (which begin with "if we take her at . . .). sorry.

Ken Brown said...

Interesting thoughts,and I wonder how much of the difference in our perspectives merely reflects the fact that I've seen the movie and you've read the book. It sounds like the book may present a more nuanced picture than the film.

In any case, I've also heard it claimed that the fall was really a good thing rather than a bad. In fact, I've got a book that makes a very intriguing argument that Genesis 2-3 is actually a tragi-comedy, but if so, I suspect it's more the kind of humor one finds in a foxhole--laughing at death when we have no other defense left. To go further and claim that the fall wasn't really a fall (something no one in a foxhole is likely to accept!) seems to me to make a mockery of the horrific violence that humans have committed upon one another throughout our history. But I digress...

I tend to think "the fruit" is simply a symbol of our constant demand for power and autonomy. We don't trust and rely on God but insist on "finding out for ourselves." We are prideful and self-focused, and try to set ourselves up "like the gods," maintaining the delusion that we "shall not die." And that is precisely what, traditionally, a vampire represented. Self-focused and prideful, he takes eternal life for himself at the expense of others. The problem is not his power, but the means by which he gets it and the end to which he puts it. He is a parasite by nature, as all of us must be if we try and set ourselves in opposition to the only true source of life.

So as far as Edward, who became a vampire by no choice of his own, seeks to overcome that parasitic nature--to be selfless rather than selfish--he is to be praised. That's a story of redemption and sacrifice that I could embrace. But as far as Bella wants to go the other way, to steal for herself an illicit immortality at such a heavy cost--that is not noble, however romantic it might seem (and vampires have always been romantic).

Now if I were writing the story, I too would have had Bella and Edward get married in the end, and have their baby, but instead of the birth almost killing Bella, such that Edward must make her a vampire to save her, I would have made the half-human/half-vampire itself provide a cure. I would have made their love save him from his need to feed on blood rather than the other way around, and I would have ensured that the process would leave him mortal, so that Bella and Edward together would have to decide whether to live together forever as vampires, or to live out a normal life as free human beings. I would have insisted that their love prove itself in genuine sacrifice, with the apple firmly handed back to the snake unsampled.

But that's just me...

Carmen Andres said...

okay, this is helping me work some things out.

a strength in meyers books is that vampires are not an aquiring of sin nature but another aspect of being human--like you put it: "Self-focused and prideful, he takes eternal life for himself at the expense of others. The problem is not his power, but the means by which he gets it and the end to which he puts it. He is a parasite by nature, as all of us must be if we try and set ourselves in opposition to the only true source of life." and that helps us reflect on how we are all, in some sense, vampires and invites us to examine ourselves to see where we selfishly seek to get what we can from others out of need or desire (to drain their life for our own, so to speak).

but your rewrite of the ending puts into perspective one of the problems with the books. some of the critics i've read have lamented the fact that in the ending to the series everyone gets what they want. with all the setup and symbolism of cost, there is no sacrifice or cost paid. there are no consequences. in other words, it doesn't ring true. not that everything must end tragically, of course. but the cost of the apple has been removed instead of like you pointed out, "their love prove itself in genuine sacrifice, with the apple firmly handed back to the snake unsampled."

interesting discussion, ken, as always. i'm still mulling over exactly how to articulate bella's temptation, perhaps placing romantic love above all else? which when romatic love becomes the end, then love is lessoned, isn't it. it becomes a selfish, addicitive love rather than a true, sacrificial love--a love that truly seeks the best for others above oneself.

Ken Brown said...

If nothing else, a book that can spark this kind of discussion can't be all bad! ;)

Thanks for the conversation!

Philip O'Mara said...

Looking forward to reading them.
It’s time to read a great new romantic comedy, entitled Classes Apart.
This is an adult sporting comedy that follows the fortunes of Paul Marriot, the secretary of the Barnstorm Village Sunday soccer team and coach of a school cricket team in Yorkshire, England. The story describes the remarkable camaraderie between the players and supporters of this little club and their desire to achieve success. The team had previously been known more for its antics off the field, rather than their performances on it.

During his time at the club he meets and becomes involved with Emma Potter, who is the sister of James Potter, a major player for their bitter rivals Moortown Inn. Thus, begins an entangled web of romance and conflict. He also begins working at Derry High School, a school with a poor reputation of academic success, where he becomes coach of the school cricket team. Here he develops an amazing relationship with the children and they embark on an epic journey.
www.eloquentbooks.com/ClassesApart.html