“Well, they sparkle now, okay?”
Things that I want to write Eulogize This articles on tend to fall into a number of categories. There’s ‘things that I think readers might not be aware of. There’s also ‘things that readers are probably familiar with, but here is hopefully a new perspective on why they are so great’. And then there’s perhaps my favourite: ‘things that I think are masterpieces, but that have attracted so much hate that there is a social pressure to casually trash them’. And here comes another in the latter category.
I’m eulogizing the film of Twilight. I haven’t read the book, so I have no idea if it’s any good. This is a film I have been meaning to write about since I first wrote for this website, but a recent video by YouTube star Linsdey Ellis inspired me to get moving on it. Her video is an apology to the book’s author, Stephanie Meyer, for jumping on the hate bandwagon. Ellis basically beat me to it, but still very clearly stated that Twilight is bad, just not bad enough to deserve the hate. Personally, I disagree – I think it’s great. Parts of it are corny, but (as you may know if you’ve read any of my previous articles here) I have no problem with corny. And I’m sure much of the credit for what I’m about to write deserves to go to Meyer but, as I said, I haven’t read the book, so it’s Catherine Hardwicke’s film that I’m writing about here.
First off, I think it’s a great film, just on cinematic terms. I’m definitely not the film’s intended demographic —it’s aimed primarily at teenaged girls—but at the time it was smart and original, and it didn’t condescend to its audience. (I feel the need to keeping adding “No, it really was smart and original, and no, compared to most Hollywood fare, it really didn’t condescend to its audience”, but then this article would triple in length.) Its director, Catherine Hardwicke, directed the acclaimed Thirteen, so she understands that world. In fact, one of the first things that struck me about the Twilight movie was how it felt like an indie film. There was some good acting from the two leads (now considered two of the most adventurous actors working in mainstream Hollywood today), and some great acting from the supporting cast. I felt there was just enough realism to balance the gothic romantic tropes that the story needed. And I thought it had a highly original premise that promised to set up an interesting young adult franchise. It reminded me of Harry Potter, actually.
Strangely… in fact no, sorry, utterly predictably, Hardwicke wasn’t asked to make any of the sequels. According to this article from the time, the studio considered her ‘difficult’ and ‘irrational’, and so they gave it to one of the guys that directed American Pie. (A guy who had also directed the movie adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights that had flopped at the box office the year before Hardwicke’s Twilight was a global smash hit.) I’ve watched his sequel and bits of the others, and to me none of them look any good. Everything that was fresh and sharp about Hardwicke’s film is gone.
So to some extent I can understand why people hate the movie franchise. It didn’t exactly become a byword for quality film-making. Even the two lead actors have publicly ridiculed it. And it was soon the punchline in jokes about sappy, predictable gothic romances.
But criticisms of the original film and book went beyond just bad storytelling. Many accuse the film of being a poisonous anti-feminist influence on girls and young women. Perhaps this is fair — I am clearly not in a position to judge. I wanted to write this eulogy, however, for two reasons. The first is that I think Twilight is part of a tradition of storytelling (the fairytale) that is empowering in surprising ways, to boys as well as girls (more on that in a bit). But the main reason is that I’m so tired of seeing every new female talent get scrutinised down to her DNA and then be publicly shamed for spoiling everything for everyone. One day, just once, I’d like to see Christopher Nolan be subjected to the same scrutiny and judgement as, say, Lena Dunham — but that’s a rant for another time.
Although, can I just digress for a second? I could write pages and pages on this, but I’ll just try to keep it brief. One criticism I’ve repeatedly heard about Twilight is that the protagonist, Bella, is a really bad role model for girls. Well. Cool. Okay. Let’s see whether that criticism can also be applied to any similar franchises primarily aimed at boys. Let’s have quick look at Batman, shall we?
You want a childish, ridiculous, far-fetched story with sinister undertones? I give you: a billionaire playboy capitalist who spends his entirely inherited wealth fighting crime, on street level, as a masked, body-armour-wearing vigilante. As comedian Bill Bailey put it, he’s like some sort of Daily Mail wet dream. But I haven’t even got to the best part yet. He does this in a rodent costume. A bat, as it happens, although to me he could be dressed as a flying squirrel, or a beaver, or a heavily armoured field mouse, and he wouldn’t be much sillier. Now, I enjoy the Batman stories, I’ll be honest. (Also, bats aren’t technically rodents, but go with me…) But they’re all variations on a deeply twisted rage fantasy. Whereas Sherlock Holmes solves crimes, and Lisbeth Salander hacks computers, the main thing that Batman does is beat low-level criminals to a pulp in his Kevlar suit of armour. And his sickeningly hypocritical creed of ‘never killing anyone’ is really just a sugar pill for the audience so they won’t ponder on the fact that pretty much everyone Batman fights would probably die from internal injuries later that day.
But he’s a boy scout compared to James Bond. James Bond has been teaching males young and old for over half a century that non-consensual sex is glamorous so long as you wear a Savile Row suit and have a car that can eject your passenger onto the road at the touch of a button. “All women love semi-rape” is a literal verbatim quotation spoken by female character in a James Bond novel. Are you going to seriously suggest to me that Bella has had more of a negative influence on girls than Bond has had on boys? Because, in the UK at least, James Bond is considered nothing more than a loveably roguish dirty uncle, who is maybe ‘not safe in taxis’. In fact, the recent Daniel Craig films hit a huge backlash for taking Bond and his flaws too seriously. “It’s just supposed to be a bit of fun.”
Okay, so… (deep breath). Let’s put the anger in the Happy Box for a moment, shall we?
I mentioned to a few friends that Twilight was going to be the next Eulogize This that I wrote, and the reaction was always… why? Not so much because it was terrible, but more because at best it was nothing special. Does it really deserve a eulogy?
Well, I’ll start with a little preamble. Dystopias are a really safe topic for writers. It’s really easy to imagine a world in which everything goes wrong. I mean, really really really easy. You don’t really need to understand how the world works at all. You just need to identify and exaggerate places where it works badly. And here’s another thing: even if not that many people actually read the book or see the film, it will get a disproportionately enthusiastic critical response. Because saying that the world is shit makes us all seem clever. Cynical stories are much safer for critics than idealistic ones.
Idealistic stories, however, require real imagination. And not just imagination: technical understanding. You need to pinpoint with precision the things that we humans wish would happen, and then you need to think of plausible scenarios in which these things might actually happen. The first is often more difficult than the second. And the second is not exactly easy either, as there will always be cynical critics who will say “that’s ridiculous, that would never happen!” And will make fun of you for even attempting it.
But when an idealistic story is really successful, it can help us have a clearer idea of what we want, and how we might want to achieve it. And even better than that, the really good idealistic fiction can give us a sense of the new and unexpected problems we might encounter when we finally do get what we want. Great idealistic storytelling can point us in the direction, give us some suggested steps for getting there, and then point out where we might want to go from there. If I had to pick an example of this, I’d say Andy Weir’s book The Martian, which will probably get a eulogy from me at some point soon.
So, Twilight. Here’s why I think it’s uniquely great. I think Stephanie Meyer set out to write a story about an ideal. Specifically, a romantic ideal: the most romantic and thrilling and emotionally intense love story she could think of. She started with an ordinary, relatable girl, and then set out to create a fantasy ideal boyfriend. Not a realistic boyfriend. Not a blueprint for how to have a long-term healthy relationship in the real world. (There are plenty of great stories that explore this.) But a ‘what-if-anything-could-happen’ scenario. So she created this beautiful boy who, thanks to a sort of magic spell, was transformed into supernatural creature. A tormented romantic hero who is constantly wrestling with demons, literally and figuratively. Twilight is much more of a fairytale ‘Beauty And The Beast’ type story than a Dracula one, in the same vein as Phantom Of The Opera, and even The Shape of Water.
Really though? Is Twilight a ‘great’ romantic story? Well, to be clear, this is a story aimed at teenaged girls, and framed as a sort of modern fairytale – so if you’re expecting insight into the complexities of real relationships, that is not what this is about. This is about fantasy, specifically teenaged fantasy. With that in mind, hell yeah, it’s a great romantic story.
And actually, I think it was this that really fired the initial hate in the bellies of the Twilight trolls. This is a story explicitly about young female desire, but in a fantasy setting that many young males passionately feel belongs exclusively to them. Girls can have stories about ponies and castles and Mr Darcy, but anything to do with death and monsters belongs to the boys. “Vampires don’t sparkle!” was the meme-cry.
But I think we all need fairytales when we’re young. We need ‘best case scenarios’ put into story form, so we can pick them apart and find flaws in them and then come back later and appreciate them again for the bits we still love. Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, all of these exist in a fairytale universe in which characters live lives rich with Adventure and Friendship and Destiny.
And if we need fairytales to teach us about friendship, we definitely need them to teach us about love. Because we don’t get taught about romantic relationships in school. We don’t get taught it anywhere. We get information about it from our peer group, and from our parents, and both perspectives are usually wildly unreliable (in opposite directions). But most of the information we get on how to manage romantic relationships comes from (a) trial and error (and oh so so so much error) and (b) stories. Books, films, plays, poems, songs. We’re not even really aware of it, but one of the reasons why we hunger for stories in all stripes and colours is because we’re craving information on the complexities of human relationships. From the fairytales when we’re young, which are concerned with the basic ideals of what we want to be when we grow up, to the more nuanced adult stories in which everything is much more complex and contradictory.
Most of what we learn about romantic relationships, certainly before we start having them ourselves, comes from stories of one form or another. And even when we’ve been in and out of relationships for many years, stories can still prove invaluable. Women might suddenly realise, for example, that the man in their life is not Edward Cullen from Twilight, but Count Vronsky from Anna Karenina, or Captain Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility. Without these archetypes, everything that happens to you will be a surprise.
You could perhaps argue that even though these romantic archetypes are important, Twilight is still a childish and stupid story, because no one is ever going to find themselves in a love triangle between a vampire and a werewolf. But actually, I think that view is a mistake. In fact, I think it’s a dangerous mistake.
Every one of us, from childhood, is 100% sure that we’re too wise to fall into the stupid traps that people do in fairytales. Every one of us is sure that all this stuff is absurd. Until we find ourselves in the midsts of truly obsessive love. And then… well, then it actually feels like you’re stuck in the middle of an epic story every bit on the same scale as a vampire/werewolf love triangle. And actually, fiction is often very weak and ineffective in communicating just how strong this extremely common emotional state can be. I think you often need extreme fantasy elements to adequately communicate what this feels like. Hence the importance of fairytales. I think there is a simple ‘before’ and ‘after’ when it comes to appreciating romantic stories. Before you’ve had your heart truly broken, all of them just seem ridiculous. Afterwards, you recognise that it doesn’t take much to tip a rational and balanced human into an obsessive lunatic.
And you also recognise that the things that you want aren’t necessarily good for you. In fact, when romantic love is concerned, they’re often downright destructive. What’s ‘good for you’ is absolutely not the point in these stories. These stories are about illustrating the nature of our desires. They’re about creating an emotional intensity. And generally, you don’t get emotional intensity from doing things that are only 100% good for you.
As I’ve mentioned, this was never a film aimed at my demographic. And, in all honesty, even though I really enjoyed the film, it didn’t exactly rock my world — like Harry Potter, I was way too old for it when I got to it. But even so, I think it’s an important and valid part of the cultural landscape, and even as an adult I’m hard pushed to think of another fairytale love story that does the whole fantasy wish-fulfilling romance thing in such a full-on, front-and-centre way.
So, frankly, I don’t give a fuck whether vampires sparkle or not. I see Twilight as a classic gothic fairytale movie, for a generation raised on the Disney cartoon of Beauty and the Beast. It is a story driven by romantic fantasy, and it also does this really clearly and iconically. Also, ‘Twilight’ is a great name for a vampire story.
So even if I haven’t persuaded you, and I probably haven’t, can I just leave you with this thought? Pretty soon, another pop culture sensation aimed at teenaged girls will come along. It might be a book, a film, a pop band, who knows. And it will sell millions, billions even. And there will be news footage of young girls being visibly ecstatic about it, overdubbed with snarky adults making fun of them. If you consider similar phenomena aimed at similarly-aged boys, however problematic, to be ‘just a bit of fun’ (or hey, if you think The Dark Knight is the pinnacle of High Art), maybe… don’t be a dick?