Friday, December 5, 2008

Book/Movie Review: Twilight

It's a vampire story. And it sucks.

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Little, Brown and Company (New York): 2005. 498 pages. $10.99. ISBN-10: 0-316-01584-9. ISBN-13: 978-0-316-01584-4.

Twilight, directed by Catherine Hardwicke. Screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg. Starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Billy Burke. Goldcrest Pictures (2008). Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is A-II--Adults and Adolescents.

Read other movie reviews here.

(For some [negative] Christian reviews that we'll try to address in this post, see Spes Unica, a Catholic blog apparently dedicated to criticizing the novel series, and the movie review from Decent Films Guide. The latter is worth reading simply for its use of the phrase "vegan meat-lust," which we are now going to work into our casual conversations at every available opportunity. Also see the more balanced reviews at Plugged In Online, Amy Wellborn, Jeffrey Overstreet, and Nathan Briscoe. For a brief summary of the whole series [with spoilers], with some negative criticism interspersed, see Connecticut Catholic Corner. For a down-to-earth trashing, see Quizilla. Also see Eric Snyder's send-up. I mean, really, see that last one at least, because it had me shooting rum and Coke out my nose. Also make sure you catch Roger Ebert. And because Meyer doesn't really deserve quite that much trashing, read her interview in the Times Online. Also check the link list at Phat Catholic Apologetics, who also has a collection of bumper stickers, some of which are hilarious...and some of which are creepy.*)

D.G.D.: This is the first time we've tried this; all three of us are going to review a book and a movie at the same time. Hopefully, we'll be able to do it without a fistfight. I'll begin by giving a couple of warnings: first, Snuffles and Lucky have seen the movie, but have only read the first volume of the book series. I have only seen the movie. Second, there aren't really any, um, guys here to review this thing: I've got a soft spot for sappy romance, Snuffles has read so much manga he's more-or-less immune to the stuff, and Lucky is a girl. Sort of.

Lucky: Hey!

D.G.D.: So if any males among our readership dare to expose themselves to Twilight and then want to complain that we didn't really tell them how girly this thing is, just be aware that the reviewers here are all eccentrics.

Snuffles: Oh, I think we've made the eccentric part clear, so let's get on with this so we can get back to our vegan meat-lust. Lucky, give the plot summary.

Lucky: Thanks. Twilight is one of my favorite novels. It's about seventeen-year-old Bella Swan. Her parents are divorced, and when her mother remarries, Bella decides to move to the rainy town of Forks, Washington, to live with her dad. Even though she's clumsy, all the boys at her new school really like her, but they're annoying, so she only has eyes for the gorgeous, wonderful, indescribably hawt--

Snuffles: Hokay, I'm gonna give the plot summary now. Bella is an obnoxious brat who treats her kind and considerate friends, especially her male friends, with appalling lack of interest, apparently because she's a misanthrope who prefers blood-sucking carnivores to regular human beings. Um...actually, I can't say I personally blame her for that--

Lucky: *Ahem.* In Biology, Bella gets to be lab partners with Edward Cullen, who's über-gorgeous. However, he acts disgusted even to be around her.

Snuffles: I can't personally blame him for that, either.

Lucky: Hush! Anyway, she almost gets hit by a car, but Edward uses superhuman strength to save her. He also saves her from some bad guys who attack her in the street. Eventually, Bella discovers that Edward and the other Cullens are vampires who have given up human blood and only drink the blood of animals. Edward is so attracted by Bella's scent that he has to struggle to prevent himself from killing her, but he does, and they fall in love. But then some bad vampires, led by a guy named James, show up while Bella and the Cullens are playing baseball, and James decides he wants to kill Bella.

Snuffles: Yeah, James shows up on page 365. That's where the plot begins, so if you're thinking about reading this book, I suggest you start there. Everything before that is repetitive, dippy description of Edward's physical beauty and Bella's disturbing obsession with him. This book has little plot, and that little plot moves at a snail's pace. For two hundred pages, the novel moves gradually along predictable lines to the beginning of Edward and Bella's relationship. Then for about a hundred and sixty-five pages, Bella describes how beautiful she thinks Edward is. Then on page 365, Stephenie Meyer suddenly says, "Holy cow! This story needs a conflict or something!"

Lucky: Rrrrr...

Snuffles: I mean, yeah, I can handle an overwritten romance, but I like the plot to move along somewhere in the background while the protagonists are making doe-eyes at each other in foreground. But in this book, the plot doesn't just grind to a halt when the romance starts; it never gets started. I can tell you right now, I'm not reading any of Twilight's sequels. Offhand, the only other overwrought, overwritten romance I can remember failing to get through is Saikano, which is bad in so many ways, but at least stuff blows up in that one. At least the characters have interesting personalities and have to deal with serious issues, like him being a jerk and her being a killer cyborg. Twilight doesn't have any issues like that, no real obstacles or conflicts. Edward cries about being a vampire, but he makes it look easy: When you're a vampire, you get to be gorgeous, have super-speed, and surround yourself with cool cars and fawning females. The only bad thing you have to put up with, if the movie adaptation can be considered accurate, is a lousy haircut. Bella, likewise, cries about moving to the rainiest town in the continental U.S., but she's immediately surrounded by good friends and by guys who want her, and then she has the nerve to complain about that. Come to think of it, can we review Saikano instead?

D.G.D.: No.

Snuffles: Some people claim there's too much teen melodrama in this novel, but I disagree. There's none at all. A little melodrama would have improved this book enormously and made it tolerable, the same way excessive emotion makes opera tolerable. There's not much of anything to this book except lengthy description. This novel could be half as long if half the descriptions of Edward were cut.

D.G.D.: Snuffles, I understand you have to express your opinions, but I won't have you insulting opera on this blog. Besides, I think you have it backwards: It's opera that makes excessive emotion tolerable.

Snuffles: Whatever. And those repetitive descriptions of Edward are creepy, too. I'm going to be blunt here: Edward is consistently described in such statuesque terms, I honestly wonder if Bella is supposed to be a closet pygmalionist. The novel rhapsodizes about how his body is hard, cold, and stone-like. He is described as if he were a sculpture. It is because of, rather than in spite of, this stoniness that Bella finds him irresistibly attractive. As I know too well from anime, sexual attraction to weird things is a persistent problem in fandom, and Meyer hasn't done anyone any favors by adding marble statues (and vegan meat-lust) to the long list of Creepy Things Fans Think Are Hot.

D.G.D.: I don't know what shocks me more, Snuffles, that you know what pygmalionism is, or that you linked it.

Snuffles: Here's an observation: in the novel, Meyer easily gets away with describing as "beautiful" the way Edward glitters like crystal in sunlight. In the movie, when Edward glitters in sunlight, he looks grotesque, or dumb, rather, since the special effects aren't exactly top-notch. It strongly suggests (or confirms) that Bella's physical attraction to him is grotesque. I'm not saying that people with physical defects are barred from romance, but in healthy romance, people are in love with each other, in their entirety, "warts and all." Good romance means loving a person; it is the opposite of a fetishism, which is fixation on an object or body part. Bella's fixation on Edward's stoniness looks a lot like a kind of fetishism.

D.G.D.: I don't know what shocks me more, Snuffles, that you know what fetishism is, or that you linked it.

Lucky: Or that you recently made a tasteless joke about fetishism on this blog.

Snuffles: Ignoring that. Anyway, now that I think about it, Twilight does give the impression that anyone who's less than perfect is barred from romance. Early on in the novel, Bella turns down a guy because he has bad skin. Later, she turns down a guy because he's too possessive. Then she ends up with a stalker vampire. Kind of ironic, really.

Bella's feelings toward Edward take on the characteristics of a monomaniacal obsession even before she knows anything about him. Only a short space into the novel, she is fixated on him, and on nothing but him. She engages in dangerous behavior, and not just the dangerous activity of hanging out with a vampire who's tempted to kill her: Once, for example, she purposely overdoses on cough syrup to ensure a good night's sleep because she has a date with him the next day. Listen up, any teen girls who happen to be reading this, that's the sort of thing the Deej would do. You don't wanna end up like him, do you?

D.G.D.: I have never--

Snuffles: According to summaries we've found of the sequels, her self-destructive behavior becomes even crazier later on. Jeffrey Overstreet summarizes Bella's character nicely:

I cannot think of a weaker female "heroine" than Bella. She cannot do anything for herself--anything. She can only surrender to her ill-advised infatuation. She lectures one of her friends on being an empowered, independent woman, but cannot put that into practice herself. I've known girls just like her. They did not end up in healthy relationships. They ended up getting hurt again and again by guys who were alluring and exciting, but eventually abusive and selfish. [more...]

Overstreet chooses his adjectives well: alluring and exciting certainly do describe Edward, but so do abusive and selfish. Here's another quote, this time from Gina R. Dalfonzo with National Review:

...Edward behaves like a predator.... He spies on Bella while she sleeps, eavesdrops on her conversations, reads her classmates’ minds, forges her signature, tries to dictate her choice of friends, encourages her to deceive her father, disables her truck, has his family hold her at his house against her will, and enters her house when no one’s there--all because, he explains, he wants her to be safe. He warns Bella how dangerous he is, but gets “furious” at anyone else who tries to warn or protect her. He even drags her to the prom against her expressed wishes. He is, in short, one of modern fiction’s best candidates for a restraining order. [more...]

Sexy, no?

All of this might not be so bad, but Stephenie Meyer clearly believes she is writing a beautiful romance about true love. Obsession on one side and stalking on the other, both attractions based entirely or almost entirely on looks and other externals--does that sound like a beautiful romance to anyone? Anyone sane, that is?

Lucky: Well, I think it's--

Snuffles: Shut up.

D.G.D.: Regarding healthy romance, C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity makes a helpful distinction between what he calls love and being in love: the former is an act, and the latter is mainly an emotional fixation or attachment. The culture at large (and the work under discussion) puts all its hopes on being in love, and I think Christians are correct when they blame our high divorce rate partly on this attitude. That doesn't mean that being in love is wrong, or that it shouldn't be celebrated in literature, but being in love is a high emotional state that doesn't last forever, at least at its initial intensity. As Lewis rightly notes, being in love has an important function: it inspires people to make lifelong vows, promises and vows being the proper way love expresses itself. However, when that emotional fixation of being in love wanes, people should be men (and women) enough to stick by the vows they have made; as a minor character puts it in the comic Girl Genius, "One of the problems with people here--is that they do not take sacred vows at all seriously!"

Lewis suggests that it is when "being in love" has served its purpose, and has waned, that people can get down to the real business of loving willfully. We should add that the emotional high of being in love, if it is not coupled with serious wisdom, consideration, and willful love, is shallow and even potentially dangerous, as in the relationship central to Twilight. In his discussion of this series, this kind of shallow, dangerous emotional attachment is what Jeffrey Overstreet calls "infatuation." Our sources suggest that Stephenie Meyer has no grasp of this. Her protagonist's obsessive infatuation continues through the series and apparently continues indefinitely after the deus ex machina ending. This is not a realistic romance by any stretch, though unrealism in and of itself isn't necessarily a problem. It becomes a problem if people try to apply it to their lives when they shouldn't. If people are really viewing Edward Cullen as an ideal man and his relationship with Bella as an ideal relationship, that's a problem, though arguably a problem that lies more with the readers than with the series itself.

Snuffles: I'm not in agreement with everything Christian reviewers are saying. Spes Unica, in particular, tips sometimes into the hysterical and occasionally exaggerates the novel's contents (though the author of that blog has read the sequels, which apparently contain more risqué elements). Spes Unica claims, for example, that "There is no way they could put the contents of the books in this movie and keep it a PG-13," which might be true of the sequels but isn't true of the first novel. Then it claims that the Cullen family is similar to a gang, which is silly. That's the same sort of nonsense that Christians passed around about the Harry Potter series, disliking the books so much that instead of merely criticizing the real negative elements, they had to make even the good elements look bad. The review at Plugged In Online is more reasonable in describing the Cullens and in acknowledging the story's few positive elements while still criticizing the bad ones:

Family is a big part of what nurtures Twilight's love. Edward's coven--family--of vampires is a loving one. Each member is committed to protecting the others, even Bella when she becomes part of them through her relationship with Edward. [more...]

Actually, Spes Unica contains some of the melodrama the novel is missing, but it also has a number of good things to say and is worth taking a look at. Perhaps I am tempted to criticize it harshly because it praises Michael O'Brien, a man who sincerely tries to discern the good and bad in fantasy and does a rather poor job of it, though we don't necessarily do better.

As for Plugged In Online, the only comment I reject, that I think all three of us here would reject, is the casual statement that Christians' "better judgment" would "normally push vampire flicks out of bounds." That kind of sweeping statement encompasses a lot of important movies, including classics like Nosferatu. Better to judge such movies on an individual basis. (And Twilight, for the record, is no Nosferatu.)

The review at Decent Films Guide also has some good things to say, but makes a big issue out of the fact that Edward's a vampire and tries to make that into a moral error. In particular, the reviewer objects to the fact that Edward's romantic attraction to Bella is apparently a sublimation of his bloodlust, or vegan meat-lust, if you will. But those are fantasy elements, intended as metaphors. All romance involves the sublimation of an appetite, and no metaphor is perfect. However, though I disagree that this is a moral deficiency in the novel, I readily agree that it is an aesthetic deficiency. Wanting to suck somebody's blood just isn't romantic, even when sublimated. It's a lousy metaphor for anything resembling healthy sexual attraction, as Decent Films Guide does a decent job of pointing out. That's part of why I'm having a hard time getting excited about the vampire romance craze. Vampire eroticism goes all the way back to Stoker, maybe even further back than that. They've always been sexy, but they're not romantic. At least, there's nothing romantic about their vampirism: Your old-school vampires use their erotic qualities to acquire victims; however, in Twilight, Bella knows Edward is attractive to her precisely because that is a part of his predatory arsenal. But she says flatly that she doesn't care and continues in her obsession with him. As Overstreet says, she is not a strong woman. She is carried away by emotion and never pauses to think. So, he likes her because he's hungry and she likes him because he's designed to lure her in and eat her. That sure doesn't put me in a romantic mood, though, curiously, it does make me want a sandwich.

D.G.D.: Must be that vegan meat-lust.

Snuffles: Now--and here's where we'll differ from most Christian reviewers you're likely to read--all of this is reasonable for fiction. In fact, it could be argued, as some have argued, that Bella's self-destructive behavior is quite believable for a hormone-driven young woman from a broken home, one who hurtles herself into an unhealthy relationship with an abusive man. Even Spes Unica, in trying to criticize Bella's behavior and her negative attitudes toward marriage and family (which he attempts--I believe incorrectly--to attribute to the series itself), keeps turning around and acknowledging that her personality makes sense for a young woman from a broken home. The problem is not that Meyer has written such a thing, but that she is apparently oblivious to the nature of what she has written. Twilight ought, properly, to be a tragedy, but Meyer treats it as a comedy and treats Edward and Bella's relationship as true love. According to all sources we have found, she ends the series with a perverse, happy conclusion that even breaks all the story's established rules and its established storyline in order to ensure everything comes out okay and Bella gets her desires gratified.

D.G.D.: From the information we've gathered, and from what I saw in the movie, my major problem is, this is apparently supposed to be a chaste romance because the characters don't have sex until they're married (after which, if our sources are accurate, the sex is as exaggerated and ridiculous as everything else). Meyer not only misunderstands healthy romance, she apparently misunderstands chastity.

Snuffles: Yeah, see--

D.G.D.: Okay, now you shut up. This happens to be my soap box. Abstinence and chastity, as I'm fond of saying, are not the same thing. This story, vampire metaphor and all, is about two young adults who really, really want to fornicate but decide to resist. That's abstinence, certainly, but it's not chastity. It gets even worse with Edward purposely putting himself in the path of temptation in order to strengthen himself against it. That is not a healthy way to deal with temptation, especially when the temptation is to murder his girlfriend. In the movie adaptation, these two characters are lying in bed together or making out while she's in her underwear--

Lucky: She was in her underwear?

D.G.D.: Yeah, didn't you notice?

Lucky: No, but I'm wondering why you did.

D.G.D.: point is, I see this as a continuation of the same misdirected teaching on sexual ethics that we've been seeing for quite some time, the "abstinence" teaching that everything's cool if you don't actually have sex. That's not good Christian teaching. Chastity is about both self-mastery and a positive respect for purity, virginity, and the sanctity of marriage. Its practice involves a move toward greater and greater virtue. Abstinence, as it's usually presented, and as it is apparently presented in this story, is about not crossing a line, usually for no other purpose than avoiding disease or unwanted pregnancy, or getting some nebulously defined "better sex" that's supposedly in store for those who wait until marriage. A story focused on abstinence inevitably depicts the characters pushing the boundary as far as they can. Instead of championing virtue, it ends up offering a different form of titillation, rather like those comics Snuffles reads.

Snuffles: Hey!

D.G.D.: Don't try to deny it.

Snuffles: Say, Lucky, you're awfully quiet over there. Do you have anything to add?

Lucky: Who, me?

Snuffles: No, the other enchanted goldfish.

Lucky: Oh, no, no. You two go ahead and have your little boy talk and trash my favorite novel.

D.G.D.: Uh oh. You sound mad.

Lucky: Not at all. You're just trashing it because you're boys and feel intimidated by how gorgeous Edward is. But go right ahead. I don't care. It's just a symptom of your vegan meat-lust.

D.G.D.: I don't know what shocks me more, Lucky, that you know what vegan meat-lust is, or--

Snuffles: Deej, if you do that one more time, I will kill you. I've been thirsting for your blood for some time, and I don't have Edward's inhibitions.

D.G.D.: O-okay. Why did I agree to this three-way thing?

Lucky: Maybe it's time to move on to the movie discussion.

D.G.D.: Good idea. I haven't read the book, though Lucky's talked about it so much, I feel like I have. The movie more-or-less follows the book's plot, so--

Snuffles: It does, however, alter the dialogue, except for the stupidest lines, like, "You're my own personal brand of heroin," which has become a favorite riff for the film critics. Some of the characters, especially the minor ones, have noticeably different personalities than their book counterparts. The relationship between Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) has little build-up and little chemistry. We're simply told they're in love, and the suddenness of that detail is jarring, which makes their relationship look all the more superficial. On the matter of casting, directing, and photography, the movie holds its own, though Stewart and Pattinson both spend too much time stuttering, acting awkward, and gazing stupidly at each other. Where the film really suffers is in the effects department. First, there's the makeup effects on the vampires, especially Edward. They have powdery white skin, bright red lipstick, and stiff hairdos. Although Pattinson is a good-looking guy and does look reasonably hunky on the poster and in some picture stills, in the actual movie, where he's walking around in unflattering lighting conditions with his makeup flaking off and his immobile hair standing on end, he looks like a goofball. When Bella visits his family and all the vampires are in one room, things are even sillier. They give no impression at all of being supernatural or menacing. They just look like doofs in ugly makeup. It's like Bella's visiting a bad, unfunny version of the Addams Family.

D.G.D.: So they're like the Munsters?

Snuffles: Kind of. The vampires' super-speed looks fake; their clothes and hair don't ruffle, not that their hair probably could anyway. Most of the special effects budget went into the infamous vampire baseball game; apparently, Hardwicke knew that's silliest part of the story and tried to fix it by making it as over-the-top as possible; it has plenty of slow-mo shots set to squealing guitar. It's still stupid, but at least it's entertainingly stupid. Also, whereas the novel passes over the climactic action sequence, the movie contains a fight between Edward and James.

D.G.D.: That action sequence has some satisfying vampire-fu, but it's much too short. It would have been nice for all the boyfriends and husbands suffering through the film if that had gone on for a few more minutes.

Snuffles: Besides adding the action sequence, the movie tries to shore up some of the novel's biggest deficiencies. Instead of showing up suddenly during the baseball game, the evil vampires show up earlier and kill some people around Forks. That doesn't change the story arc in any significant way, but it does make the villains' arrival less sudden. The moral and aesthetic issues with the movie are more-or-less the same as with the book. However, the movie has added some things that readers may want to be aware of, such as some risque dialogue that's not in the novel, including one passing joke about fornication and contraception.**

Lucky: I could have enjoyed this movie a lot more if the Deej wasn't giggling through the whole thing.

D.G.D.: Sorry, I couldn't help it. When I hear lines like, "We call ourselves vegetarians because we live only off animals," I have to giggle. It's a reflex. Kind of like when I hear "vegan meat-lust."

Snuffles: So, to wrap up, our review is quite negative for both book and film. Right, Lucky?

Lucky: Deej, tell Snuffles I'm not speaking to him right now.

D.G.D.: Oh boy.

Final Comments from D.G.D.: Regarding the question of whether or not Meyer's books ought to be kept from young readers, as some Christian writers are suggesting, that's a matter that ultimately lies with parents and guardians, rather than with schmucks who blog. However, to my own mind, I would say those on the upper end of the age range of the novels' target audience (which I presume to be about 12-18) are probably old enough they don't need parents monitoring their reading too closely. If they are well-grounded Christian youths, they can probably find the novels' deficiencies themselves. Flighty youths, on the other hand, are likely to acquire some distorted ideas from them. Either way, adolescents and young adults should always lean heavily on the advice of older, wiser heads, so in any home where the books are being read, some parent-child discussion of their contents is in order, particularly on the subjects of chastity, dealing with temptation, and, for crying out loud, not clinging to abusive boyfriends just because they're unusually good-looking or prone to vegan meat-lust.

Content Advisory: Over at Plugged In Online, the reviewer informs us that the film contains an "exclamatory use of h---," but then remarks that "Oh my [deleted] is used a few times." So quoting the taking of the Lord's name in vain is okay in movie reviews, but hell is off-limits. I'll keep that in mind, though I don't understand what the h--- is up with it. The movie also contains some action violence, a little blood, and a panty-clad makeout scene. (Nobody else seems to have noticed the panties, not this guy or this guy or this guy. What's wrong with me?) The novel contains an obsessive romance, misguided perceptions of chastity and dealing with temptation, some mild action and torture, excessive tedium, and toxic levels of estrogen.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating For Twilight:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. This section currently unavailable.

*And some of which are hilarious-creepy.

**We don't know what's more shocking, that we know what fornication and contraception are, or that we linked them.***

***If you think our running gags are annoying, those are nothing compared to the repetetive descriptions you'll read in Twilight.
blog comments powered by Disqus