Twilight In The Garden of Good And Evil?
Is there any franchise as harshly and consistently maligned as Twilight? Fifteen years on from the first book, protagonist Bella is still lambasted as ‘lame’ and a ‘poor role model‘, whereas the Cullens are ‘stupid sparkly vampires’. In addition, various other interpretations insist Twilight is an advertisement for the Mormon faith.
But however you fall on these issues, there’s no doubt about it: Twilight is here to stay. Love it or loathe it, the notion of a human falling in love with a vampire is an iconic story. At its foundation, it’s a modern tale of star-crossed lovers akin to Romeo and Juliet, a pre-sold concept every high school student is familiar with … No wonder it was so popular amongst teenage girls!
With Halloween around the corner, I thought I would revisit Twilight as my first ‘Book Versus Film’ article in many months. As it’s 2020, I thought I’d check out not only the first book in the series and its movie adaptation, but also Midnight Sun, the re-telling of the original from Edward’s POV. Ready? Then let’s go …
The Book – Twilight
Selling over a hundred and sixty million copies, the Twilight saga is a cultural phenomenon. The story kicks off when misfit high school student Bella Swan moves from sunny Arizona to a rainy Washington state, where she meets Edward Cullen, an enigmatic and handsome teen. She is soon captivated by him. Though Edward struggles to stay away from her, Bella discovers her feelings are reciprocated.
It is soon revealed Edward is a vampire whose family does not drink human blood. Bella is not frightened by this, but fascinated. Head over heels for him, she enters into a dangerous romance with her immortal soulmate who it appears will do anything for her, even kill.
I first read Twilight back in 2005 when it came out. Meyer also makes some additions to the vampire myth that whilst not always successful – like the aforementioned ‘sparkling’ – feel original. I LOVED the idea vampires have ‘venom’ like snakes. I also loved the contrary ideas that they’re super-strong and yet their limbs break off like tree branches, but can be stuck back on just as easily! There’s also some suggestion that, not needing to breathe, vampires can swim forever or even walk along the bottom of the ocean to other countries when travelling.
Like many feminists, I was a bit creeped out by some aspects of the story, especially Edward’s habit of coming into Bella’s room uninvited to watch her sleep. He also seemed capricious a lot of the time, his moods turning on a dime. This rarely seems to bother Bella though (an important distinction). She also manages to hold her own with him and doesn’t take any crap from him, or his family. I was especially amused by her irritation with Emmett’s grudging acceptance of her plan to escape James!
Like many other readers I found Bella and Edward’s relationship very compelling and dare I say it – considering Edward is a vampire! – realistic. The mutual obsession teen couples go through is deftly illustrated in the first book; they fall for each other hard and cannot imagine ever being with someone else. There’s also an angsty element to the book that again is supremely authentic: teenagers feel everything so deeply and that’s woven expertly here.
Edward and Bella’s love is in jeopardy from the offset, of course. Since the Cullens are living in plain sight (Carlisle is even a doctor at the local hospital), Bella is a threat in that she can expose the family at any time. However we don’t find that much out about Edward’s adoptive vampire ‘parents’ Carlisle and Esmee in the first book, plus moments in which his ‘sisters’ Alice and Rosalie and his ‘brothers’ Jasper and Emmett appear are all too fleeting. That said, every time they appear they feel like a ‘real’ family, with the psychic Alice and her beloved Jasper the real stand-outs for me. I also loved the notion that vampires can only play baseball during thunderstorms because otherwise they’re so strong, humans can hear the CRACK of the bats against the ball for miles.
So the Cullens are established as mostly friendly and helpful and not much of a threat to Bella. That said, Meyer repeats far too much that Edward ‘could’ kill Bella if ‘he loses control’ in my option. Even so, Edward feels like a complex character with plenty under the surface. His backstory is compelling, with us finding out he’s actually over one hundred years old, having been near death in the 1918 influenza pandemic. Carlisle was a doctor on that ward and seeing the young teenager with no one left, ‘resurrected’ Edward as a vampire. Whilst some feminists say this makes Edward a kind of paedophile being so much older than Bella, Meyer goes to pains to remind us Edward is a virgin and was never interested in sex or even romance until he met Bella.
In contrast, it’s hard to understand from Twilight what Edward really sees in Bella. She spends what feels like an inordinate amount of time cooking and cleaning, whereas Edward doesn’t eat regular food and appears to have zero interest in household matters so presumably doesn’t look for that skill in a life partner! Bella seems quite mature for her age – admittedly a plus when you’re a 107 year old virgin looking for love – plus she’s quite open-minded (also handy if your boyfriend is a vampire!). Beyond that, it’s hard to see what’s so special about her in the first book.
So whilst most of the characters, thematics and worldbuilding of the piece are layered and nuanced, plot-wise it feels much more of a slap-dash affair. Though I enjoyed the ‘will they/won’t they’ aspect, it got old fast. What’s more, the ending with the vampire threat of James, Laurent and Victoria seems to come out of the left field and far too late, almost right at the end of the book.Hearing the Cullens playing baseball, antagonist vampires James, Laurent and Victoria run to the clearing and ask to play as well … Only to discover the Cullens have a ‘pet human’ (Bella), whom they want to eat.
Edward and the others are forced to act and face down the new vampire trio and protect Bella, before going on the run. Edward, Carlisle and Rosalie take James on a wild goose chase through the forest, whilst Alice and Jasper take Bella to Arizona. James does not fall for this trick and tracks Bella to Arizona, where he attacks her. When Bella is bitten by James, Edward must save his love by sucking out the venom without killing her. Of course he manages to stop before draining Bella dry, proving he is not the ‘monster’ he thinks he is and showing Bella is right to trust him.
Twilight – The Film
As an adaptation, Twilight is epically faithful to the source material. Unusually, a female duo take control of the movie, but this makes sense when the army of Twilight fans are predominantly female too. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke and written by Melissa Rosenberg (who’d previously been co-executive producer on teen favourite The O.C), the story is in expert hands.
So it should surprise no one that Twilight took a big fat vampire-sized bite of box office revenue when it came out in 2008. The first movie grossed $37m on its opening day and accounted for $400m of the total $3.3bn for the whole franchise. It’s the smallest takings of the bunch but very respectable for a 2008 world that hadn’t seen multiple billion dollar earners courtesy of the likes of Marvel yet.
What was surprising that for a teen movie, a good chunk of its reviews were respectable too. Though many critics could not resist bashing the movie, even those who didn’t like it were forced to give grudging kudos …
“The two hormonal teenagers sizzle like sausages in a frying pan. The supernatural stunts don’t disappoint. Neither does the deadpan wit.” (The Times)
“Some will find it all too polite, but compared to rival blockbuster exercises in explosive CGI mayhem, its character-based index of longing and protectiveness at least provides a viable alternative moodscape.” (Time Out)
“Ten years after its release, Twilight stands as a powerful, darkly stylish depiction of teen female desire.” (Refinery29)
The aesthetic is gorgeous, with Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson born to play these roles. Everyone looks effortless sexy with amazing styling; the movie it feels like an early 90s music video for most of it.
Whilst it’s Bella and Edward’s story, the female characters dominate the frame over their male counterparts, even lesser characters like Jessica (Anna Kendrick). There’s also a considerable amount of diversity in contrast to the book, with many secondary and peripheral characters cast as black and asian actors. The rainy, dark town of Forks brought to life as surely as if it had stepped straight out of the novel.
Also in contrast to the book which was *all* from Bella’s perspective, we see more of Edward’s POV generally. Occasionally he branches off without Bella, usually to give us more of a sense of his family, especially Carlisle, Alice and his brothers. This is a welcome change, since I felt it was frustrating to see so little of them in the first book. It also introduces more chance for action: we are left in no doubt that Edward has super-human strength when he stops the truck from crushing Bella. We also see the others doing incredible things too, such as James running at super-human speed after Edward and Bella in their own vehicle, or Emmett jumping through the trees and landing in the truck’s flatbed behind them as they escape.
The big change in the movie is to the antagonist function of James, Laurent and Victoria. Rather than have them simply ‘turn up’ out of nowhere for the baseball game towards the end, the movie seeds the trio’s dark presence from around the end of Act 1, getting nearer and nearer to Forks. On their way, they attack and kill a number of Forks residents. Since Bella’s father Charlie is police chief for the town, this ties his character ‘in’ to the story in a much more authentic way too, as in the book he kind of ‘floats around’ the periphery of the story. It also adds to the Quileute Nation’s worry about ‘The Cold Ones’, especially from the POV of Jacob. He is somewhat under-used in the first book and more of an ‘Expositional Jo’ character, there simply to tell Bella the history of the Cullens and the tribe.
Twilight – ‘Midnight Sun’
A long-anticipated re-telling of Twilight, Stephanie Meyer’s Midnight Sun has been in development so long that apparently Robert Pattinson used her unpublished manuscript to inform his character work in the movies twelve years ago. Published at long last in August 2020, it sold one million copies in just ten weeks. Though critics were largely unimpressed, the ‘Twihards’ lapped it up.
What drew me to Midnight Sun first and foremost was Edward had always been my favourite character in the Twilight saga. I always wondered what he saw in Bella and felt this retelling might answer that.
I was rewarded with exactly this, but even more: Meyer seeks to put the record straight about Bella and the notion she and Edward are in an ‘abusive’ relationship. Meyer seems to assert that no, Edward is NOT a ‘stalker’, but instead a vampire guardian angel for Bella. She appears to say that Bella is NOT lame, but misunderstood, a girl kind of ‘outside of her time’. Meyer even seems to paint Bella as having some kind of death wish because she thinks of others before herself. Whilst I was not entirely convinced by much of this, I found Bella via Edward’s eyes hugely more compelling, so mission accomplished Stephenie Meyer!
What’s more, Meyer attempts to clear up the whole ‘sparkly vampire’ thing like she does in the 2010 Bree Tanner novella. It’s more convincing here in Midnight Sun, where we see Edward worry about Bella seeing the ‘real him’ and remembering his shock when he saw Carlisle in the sun for the first time. There’s also some suggestion the sparkles look like flames to humans which would have been much cooler than what depicted in the movie, though ultimately I couldn’t get that sparkling image of Robert Pattinson out my head.
We also see lots more of not only the Cullens in Midnight Sun, but also more details of how their gifts work. Edward’s ‘mind reading’ is great and answers lots of questions I had about how he doesn’t seem able to read Bella’s (he can’t!). There’s also some suggestion Bella gets this from Charlie, whose thoughts Edward can’t read either. Alice’s ability to see the future is painted much more vividly too, whilst Jasper’s ability to influence the moods of others around him is brought to the fore here with great effect, especially at the baseball game with James and the others.
We also see a lot more of Edward’s past and his relationship with Carlisle in particular. The father/son dynamic here is fantastic and was entirely missing in the first book. Whilst we know from the movies Edward went ‘rogue’ for a few years, we don’t know any real in-depth details. In Midnight Sun we hear of how Edward hunted down serial killers, rapists and paedophiles, but Meyer goes a step beyond such classic anti-hero tropes. There’s a great sequence where Edward describes ‘hearing’ a man trying to resist his own urge to abduct and abuse a child. Edward hopes the man can stop himself, but of course he can’t, forcing Edward to dispense his particular brand of justice.
At a whopping 756 pages Midnight Sun is far, far too long given we have the first four books, the Bree Tanner novella AND five movies to draw from already. I feel like Meyer could have cut 200-250 pages easily. There’s far too much repetition (‘I’m the villain of the story‘) and general rumination of how great Bella smells which makes her seem like a piece of meat or a freshly baked cake. No doubt humans are food to vampires, but it felt overcooked (arf).
As in the first book, the final showdown with James, Laurent and Victoria is very sudden but again my favourite part. There’s a stronger sense of jeopardy in Midnight Sun than Twilight in my opinion. We are also with Carlisle and Edward every step of the way when they draw James away from Bella through the forest, which is a very welcome addition too.
This is such a tough one to call as all three versions of this story have their own charms as far as I am concerned! I really enjoyed the pre-sold, original take on the romance concept and angsty authenticity of the first Twilight book … But then I MUCH preferred the addition of the antagonists’ arc and murder spree on their way into Forks in the movie. Edward has always been my favourite character in this saga which draws me to Midnight Sun, but I also feel like it’s far too long as well.
So there’s a whisker between them … But ultimately, being a plotting junkie and because I love the aesthetic so much, I think the movie just grabs the victory!