EVERYTHING I’VE EVER WRITTEN ABOUT THE TWILIGHT SAGA

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON

They’re back! Bella Swan and Edward Cullen (otherwise known as Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson) are once again smooching on a screen near you. I turned up one hour early for a showing of the new Twilight movie, and the damn thing was already sold out. Which suggests the film will do every bit as well as, if not better than, its predecessor, which made $383 million worldwide.

Look on the bright side – maybe this will persuade studio executives they don’t need to aim every single movie at adolescent males. The adolescent female market can be every bit as lucrative. What do young women want? As a teenager I wore black nail varnish, collected plastic skeletons and adored vampires (and should perhaps admit that not a lot has changed in the meantime). But I would almost certainly have scoffed at Stephenie Meyer’s young adult romances with their shallow heroine, “vegetarian” vampires who sparkle in the sunlight and Mills & Boony view of relationships, both human and inhuman.

Millions of girls and not a few grown women, however, have gone apeshit for this kind of mushy escapism, which bolsters their illusions that even dull young damsels can be objects of desire and that romantic love really is everlasting – though with items such as Robert Pattinson knickers on the market* (“Get Robert Pattinson in your pants!”) you do wonder if the fan worship is quite as chaste as it’s made out to be.

The eternal woman-vampire-werewolf triangle

The film isn’t all bad – it’s simply not aimed at me. Chris Weitz (who directed the underrated The Golden Compass) takes over directing duties from Catherine Hardwicke, after she was hustled out of the franchise with almost indecent haste, reportedly due to “scheduling conflicts”. There’s more action this time around, as Bella gets involved in an eternal human-vampire-werewolf romantic triangle, but many of the heart-to-hearts between Bella and her beaux seem to go on for ever, all trembling lips and frowny foreheads and barely articulate groping for words. I daresay this actually is how adolescents communicate, but that doesn’t make it any more riveting for the rest of us.

Once or twice, Weitz tries to get tricksy, with hilarious results. Edward, who resembles nothing less than a statue of Adonis covered in talcum powder, strides across the school carpark in slo-mo as Bella gazes on adoringly. After he dumps her (for reasons I can’t be bothered to go into – honestly, you have to see the film) the camera revolves around her as she broods in her bedroom and the seasons change outside; it’s like that bit in Notting Hill where Hugh Grant walks through Portobello Road market, the modern equivalent of pages peeling off a calendar to represent the passage of time, but I’m afraid it left me wondering how she’d stayed in that position for three months without needing to get up and go to the toilet.

The third part of the triangle is Jacob (Taylor Lautner), a chunky Native American werewolf who hangs out with Bella after she’s dumped. She develops a taste for dangerous sports – mainly because she gets to see a transparent Edward telling her not to jump off that cliff, or ride pillion on that motorbike without a helmet. (Personally, I think she should have taken up smoking, but that’s one dangerous sport too far for modern Hollywood.) Jacob takes his shirt off a lot on the flimsiest of pretexts (all the guys take their shirts off a lot – it’s a recurring motif) but is cuter in wolf form.

The bloodsucking Mr Bean

The plotting, which ultimately tries to con us into thinking the non-transparent Edward might actually commit suicide (the fact there are still two more Bella ‘n’ Edward novels yet to be adapted is a bit of a spoiler) is clunky, but not without its amusing aspects. I enjoyed it when everyone quit overcast Washington State and scurried on over to Tuscany to confront a sect of ancient Italian vampires led by Michael Sheen (switching sides after playing a werewolf in the Underworld trilogy) who looks exactly like a bloodsucking Mr Bean. And my, how little Dakota Fanning has grown! I always did think she should have played an evil mastermind (imagine how much more fun Man on Fire would have been if it had turned out that she had arranged her own kidnapping), and she comes remarkably close to it here.

There’s a nice spooky shot of a vampire swimming underwater that I wish had lasted longer. But the film’s saving grace, by a long chalk, is Kristen Stewart, who once again manages to make the insufferable Bella far more interesting on the screen than she is on the page.

*The Robert Pattinson knickers, I now learn, were custom-made, for a joke.

This review was originally posted on theartsdesk.com

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE

It’s the eternal human-vampire-werewolf triangle, and at times it feels as though it really will go on for ever and ever. The story so far: in the small North-West Pacific town of Forks, where the sun hardly ever shines, a teenage girl called Bella loves Edward, a 100-year-old vampire who is perfect in every way, except of course that he drinks (non-human) blood, and has a tendency to sparkle on those rare occasions when the sun does come out. But, as we all know, girls like sparkly things, so that’s OK.

But hey, it’s complicated, because Bella also loves Jacob, a Native American of the Quaalude tribe who hardly ever wears a shirt and periodically turns into a wolf, which in my book makes him a werewolf, though fans of Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight tetralogy prefer to think of him as a shapeshifter. Edward or Jacob? Jacob or Edward? Who’s it to be? The vampire with the Marcel Marceau make-up? Or the werewolf whose neck is the same thickness as his head? The third volume in Meyer’s young adult novels is the one where even some of the saga’s fans lose patience with Bella, who dithers so much between the two glowering alpha males that you want to slap her. Not for nothing is this sequel known as Hésitation in France.

Meanwhile, in nearby Seattle, a ginger-wigged vampire called Victoria (played by an over-qualified Bryce Dallas Howard, who gets a couple of close-ups and minimal dialogue) is amassing an army of new-born vampires to march on Forks and kill Bella as revenge on Edward for his having killed Victoria’s mate a couple of films ago. Can the good vampires of Forks parlay a truce with the Quaalude werewolves, their traditional enemies, and band together with them to defeat the aggressors?

David Slade, who takes over directing duties from Catherine Hardwicke (who had a budget of $37 million on the first film) and Chris Weitz ($50 million on New Moon, the second) has a budget of $68 million and a track record which includes bad-ass vampires (30 Days of Night) and bad-ass teenage girls (Hard Candy). Needless to say, neither the vampires nor the teenage girl in Eclipse are terribly bad-ass, but Slade handles it as well as can be expected; he knows where to put his camera in the smoochy close-ups, in which you can see the texture of everyone’s skin, and he handles the action fairly well, even if the climactic good-versus-evil vampire rumble resembles nothing so much as a rugby match in which a couple of large dogs have got loose on the pitch.

Jacob with his shirt off.

I’m many decades older and several broken hearts’ worth more cynical than the Twilight saga’s target audience, but it does seem to me to be nothing less than emo-porn for teenage girls, bolstering them in the delusion that a) there’s only one person in the world for them; b) true love lasts for ever, and c) they’re the centre of the universe – lawks-a-mercy, entire armies of vampires and werewolves fighting over little old me! And yes, every girl’s ambition should be limited to having a couple of studly males locked in a pissing contest for her charms.

This is the opposite of the Bechdel Test: when two guys get together in Eclipse, all they ever talk about is Bella, Bella, Bella. On the printed page, she’s priggish, faux-naive and insufferable, but as in the first two films, she’s fortunate to be played by Kristen Stewart, who with her sulky mouth and pointy chin, can’t help but invest the character with a smidgeon of spiky attitude she wouldn’t otherwise possess. As for Edward and Jacob, the jury’s still out on whether Robert Pattinson can do anything other than sparkle and brood, while, for my money, Taylor Lautner is still cuter in wolf form than in super-ripped shirtless mode, though the squeals and giggles that greeted his every appearance at the screening I attended suggest I’m in a minority here.

But does Bella have to be such a wuss? While everyone’s fighting over her, the most proactive thing she ever does is to slash her arm to distract some of the evil vampires with the smell of her blood; passive-aggressive self-harm, I guess you could call it. And she doesn’t seem fazed when Edward makes all her decisions for her (they’re still not having sex, of course, but she wants him to turn her into a vampire before she gets too old; he wants to marry her first), or when Jacob says things like, “Better you’d really be dead than one of them.” Excuse me, but doesn’t this sound like psychotic controlling behaviour on the part of both those guys? I’m on the side of Bella’s parents, who advise her not to give up all her friends for Edward, and remind her there’s more to life than just one guy. But of course the parents are dismissed as fuddy-duddy party-poopers. They’re old. What do they know about teenage longing?

Ex-child-stars exuding evil.

I enjoyed flashbacks to the origins to Jasper and Rosalie, two of Edward’s vampire “family”, which reminded me of the flashback scenes filling in vampire backstory in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I like the Volturi, bossy Italian vampires who walk in slo-mo and lurk on the sidelines here in preparation for taking over the Big Bad role in Breaking Dawn, the final novel which is currently being filmed in two parts; two of these capi di tutti capi are played by former child stars Dakota Fanning and Cameron Bright, who manage to make it look as though they’re having a ball just standing around, exuding evil. Another former child star, Jodelle Ferland, plays a new-born vampire who’s also the protagonist (if you can apply that term to such a mousey character) in Meyer’s Twilight spin-off, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner: An Eclipse Novella, the title of which is a bit of a spoiler in itself.

I liked how the new-born vampires walked through water like the pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean or the zombies in Land of the Dead. And I loved the way they literally turn to marble when they’re destroyed – perhaps a cunning way to limit the bloodshed in accordance with the PG-rating, but so strange and impressive it’s maybe even worth sitting through the rest of the film just for those moments when you glimpse a limb or head crumbling away. But the marble thing got me curious about Edward’s anatomy. We already know his skin is hard. But does it mean he’s hard all over, all the time? I guess we’ll have to wait for the Breaking Dawn sex scene to find out.

PS I know Jacob’s Native American tribe isn’t really called The Quaaludes. I’m having a laugh.

This review was originally posted on theartsdesk.com

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN (book review)

Fifteen years ago I wrote a vampire novel. It turned out to be the only vampire novel in modern history that didn’t sell very well. Where did I go wrong? Stephenie Meyer (a graduate of Brigham Young University) has sold over eight million copies of her vampire saga for young adults; a film version is out in December. Breaking Dawn, concluding volume of the tetralogy, has just been published and is already a bestseller. I decided to study it in the hope of picking up tips.

The vampires I grew up with were the evil creatures played by Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, but today’s bloodsuckers are more likely to be perfect boyfriend material. Bella Swan, the human narrator, is a clumsy teenager who lives with her divorced father in sunless Washington State; she falls in love with a vampire called Edward, the eternally 17-year-old scion of a local family of principled vamps who drink blood from animals, not people.

Why is Edward so great? “He had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body,” Bella gushes, not very helpfully. (Meyer makes J.K. Rowling look like a prose stylist, but like Rowling, knows how to keep you reading.) Not only does Edward refrain from biting his beloved, he refuses to go past first base with her lest those pesky bloodsucking urges be unleashed. So for three volumes the couple’s physical interaction is limited to kissing, face-stroking and declarations of everlasting love. Barbara Cartland would surely have approved.

She would have approved even more of this latest volume, in which Edward (again with the gentlemanly conduct) insists Bella marry him before they attempt inter-species intercourse; the wedding is described in lots of detail. After that three-volume build-up, I was looking forward to the honeymoon even more than Bella, but Meyer, disappointingly, skips the sex. Evidently it would have been worth writing about, because Bella, even though she is afterwards covered in bruises, is eager for more.

More is what she gets. In a plot twist that is never fully explained, she finds herself pregnant, and like any good pro-lifer, refuses to consider abortion even though the semi-vampire foetus is killing her. While Bella is busily vomiting and passing out on her Catherine Earnshaw-style sickbed, first-person narrative is temporarily transferred to a werewolf called Jacob. Bella loves Edward, but she also loves Jacob, and he loves her back; it’s the eternal human-vampire-werewolf romantic triangle. Will she survive the pregnancy? Will Edward bite her, thus sparing her the fate-worse-than-death of growing old? Will Jacob be jealous? And oh, incidentally, what about this ancient dynasty of Italian vampires who are threatening to rain on everyone’s parade?

For me, these hints of internecine vampire politics are more exciting than Edward (who in 100 years of existence has yet to develop a personality) or wolfman Jacob (a classic bit of rough) or the insufferable Bella, who is tolerable only if readers can regress into young adulthood and flesh out her shallow self-centredness with their own yearnings for a boyfriend who, despite his bad-boy image, will love them for ever and ever.

So there you have it. In order to write a vampire bestseller, I must expand my novel into a multi-volumed saga in which handsome teenage vampires are adored by heroines who have more in common with the virtuous heroines of Mrs Radcliffe than with spunky modern misses like Buffy, of TV vampire-slaying fame, whose own romance with a bloodsucker was a lot scarier and more troubling than Bella’s. There should be no sex and not too much blood, but face-stroking is permitted. I’m already sharpening my pencil.

This review was first published in the Sunday Telegraph.

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 1

Reviews for Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 have been so gleeful in their derision it reminds you that critics love nothing better than a chance to sneer. Why try to say something useful when you can exercise your coruscating wit? And that’s fine – I do it too. Edward looks like a marble statue covered in talc, only now he’s wearing shorts! The wolves argue with each other in English, not even wolf-talk, which is just silly! And let’s face it, if you’re going to have a Caesarean, it’s probably not a good idea to have vampires in the room.

But if Twilight is so awful, why do we invest so much effort into slagging it off? Especially since everything that needs to be said about teen chastity, female passivity and mormonism-on-the-sly has already been trotted out in response to previous entries in the franchise. God knows I’m Team Buffy, not Team Bella, and I prefer my vampires evil – but it seems to me that Twilight attracts a lot more vitriol than any equivalent nonsense aimed at the young male demographic. I gave up looking for sample quotes, because the same adjectives keep cropping up. Ludicrous, ridiculous and risible are favourite verdicts, along with cheesy and sappy, but words like these could equally be applied to, say, Green Lantern, Cowboys and Aliens or Conan the Barbarian.

Except they aren’t; reviews of such boy-tosh may be predominantly negative, but the tone is not so much derisive as regretful at opportunities wasted. No matter that movies aimed at boys feature superpowers or superrobots or saving the world with super-ninja skills. Those sorts of fantasies are permissable, even cool, even when the films promoting them are awful. And I must confess that, ever since a brain transplant left me with the cultural tastes of a 15-year-old boy, I too prefer them to the 100-year-old-vampire-falling-in-love-with-little-old-me.

But Twilight caters to the sexual fantasies of teenage girls. I’m not saying in a good way. But at least it caters to them, and there’s not a lot else at the cinema that does, certainly not in a Young Adult fantasy genre that invariably  reduces females to also-rans or decorative sidekicks while the Harry Potters and Lightning Thieves and Sorcerer’s Apprentices get on with their questing. In fact, I wish there were MORE films like Twilight, not fewer. There, I’ve said it. Because so long as supernatural fantasies aimed at teenage girls are raking in money, we’re likely to see more of them produced.

Indeed, the Twilight effect is already discernible, surely, in the New Wave of Fairy Tale movies – not quite Angela Carter-esque revisionist as seen in The Company of Wolves (rather too much subtext and not enough story for my liking) but all featuring heroines spunkier than your traditional Disney princess-passive. We’ve already had Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood (too much in thrall to the Twilight films that Hardwicke inaugurated) and there are two new Snow Whites to set alongside the 1997 telefilm Snow White: A Tale of Terror (Sigourney Weaver as a wicked stepmom!). Pixar has its first female protagonist coming up in Brave, and Disney already came up trumps with the unexpectedly wonderful Tangled, which put a lovely new spin on the Rapunzel story.

I bet I’m not the only one impatient to see how 18-year-old Emily Hagins will follow My Sucky Teen Romance, her endearing vampire love story which is everything Breaking Dawn is not. And, while it’s more sci-fi than supernatural fantasy, next spring we have The Hunger Games, adapted from the first of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, which plunges a resourceful heroine into a dystopian life-or-death situation; I started reading it expecting Battle Royale Lite, but ended up thrilled and impressed. Here’s hoping it’s successful enough for a greenlight on the other two books, which introduce a romantic triangle far more interesting than Bella-Edward-Jacob. But would even the first Hunger Games have been made without Twilight?

Who knows? One of these days we may get a young adult fantasy which cracks the genre wide open, a teenage romance to rank with, say, the sublime The Ghost and Mrs Muir. It could happen! Breaking Dawn is a small price to pay.

This article was first published in the Guardian and can be found in Anne Billson on Film 2011.

CHRISTOPHER LEE TALKS ABOUT VAMPIRES
TWIXT
SCARY BITS: PART 1
SCARY BITS: PART 2
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5 thoughts on “EVERYTHING I’VE EVER WRITTEN ABOUT THE TWILIGHT SAGA

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