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The Series Project: The Twilight Saga (Part 1)

Professor Witney Seibold tackles the world's leading 14-year-old girl phenomenon. He finds some deeply weird things there. 


Bella Swan: “You’re white as a ghost and you’re cold as ice. What are you?”

Edward Cullen: “Go ahead. Say it.”

Bella Swan: “You’re a snowman aren’t you?”

But I kid Twilight. Indeed, unless you’re a 14-year-old girl or their 50-year-old aunt, most of the world kids Twilight. But it stands: in novel form, Twilight is easily one of the most widely read pieces of pop literature of the decade (perhaps behind only the Harry Potter books), and in film form, the four Twilight movies to date have grossed $1,073,597,609, with a fifth opening next week. No, I did not make up that number. So you know all about Twilight in one form or another, whether you love it to pieces or loathe it with a passion.

Me? I’m a white male in my 30s, so I was vaguely aware of the Twilight phenomenon without having read any of the novels. Thanks to their pop culture ubiquity, I learned most of Stephanie Meyers’ stories and characters and terminology without even trying. I knew what The Volturi were, for instance, without having cracked any of the books. When I went to the enormous San Diego Comic Con in 2009 (after the release of the first Twilight feature film, but before the release of the second) the line to see the films’ stars was longer than any other line had been in the history of the Con. It literally crossed a street, and snaked around behind a neighboring hotel. If Joss Whedon was going to make out on stage with George Lucas, the line would have been shorter.

I haven’t met too many earnest fans of the Twilight novels, and, indeed, don’t think I know many people personally who have read the books. I am an outsider. One of my friends, also a male in his 30s, decided to read the first book just to see what all the fuss was about. He says that, while reading it in public places, he received many suspicious glances from peers and strangers. When he finished the book, he described it to me thus: “It’s nothing but endless, breathless descriptions of how good looking this one guy is. It’s not a romance. It’s sexless porn for teenage girls.” That seemed to reflect the presupposed opinions of most of the people who hadn’t read it, or were only passingly familiar with it.

Twilight has, indeed, altered bookstores entirely. Take a look at this picture below, taken surruptitiously at a local Barnes & Noble. Take special note of the section. Yes, there is an entire section devoted to "Teen Paranormal Romance."

Well, in the name of journalistic integrity, I have decided to see what this is all about myself. Seeing as a fifth film in The Twilight Saga will be released next week, I have decided to, as part of The Series Project, to watch and write about all five of them. I’m going to dive into this phenomenon of vampire novels that are as praised by their fans as they are notorious to the public at large. Ladies and gentlemen, the time has come. This week, I will be exploring the first two films in The Twilight Saga, and next week, I will conclude with the three remaining films, including a word on the as-yet-unreleased chapter. I will be including notable lines of dialogue from each film to illustrate their broody tone. And, yes, these are going to be some of the most insufferably broody movies you’ve ever seen. Hamlet would tell these kids to perk up a little bit.

Note: Like The Series Project: Harry Potter, this article will be based only on my experience with the films themselves, and not with the books or any of the ancillary phenomenon surrounding the films. I haven’t read the books, so I cannot comment on how the films translate, plot points that may have been excised, or character consistency as it translates from one medium to another. What is on the screen is all I can comment on. [Editor's Note: Seriously, did all you guys get that? So cut us some slack here.]

Another note: I will refer to Native Americans in this essay as Indians. I do this because it was once explained to me that’s what most Indians prefer.

So a little rundown for anyone who is still vague on the series (both of you): a 17-year-old girl named Isabella “Bella” Swan (played by Kirsten Stewart from Zathura) has moved to Forks, WA from Arizona to live with her dad. She is immediately attracted to the impossibly handsome Edward Cullen (played by Robert Pattinson from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) who, it turns out, is a vampire. The films follow their tortured romance, and explore the sheer overpowering intensity of their love as they try to gain acceptance in the underground vampire community and skirt around the various ancient rivalries therein. There are other key players in this tale as well, most notable of which is Jacob “Jake” Black (Taylor Lautner from The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D) who is also a viable mate for Bella, and who is not-so-secretly a werewolf. Vampires and werewolves hate each other.

But let’s get into the nitty-gritty of these movies. Cast your minds back to 2008, as we open with…
 

Twilight (dir. Catherine Hardwicke, 2008)

Notable lines:

One of the first lines in the movie: “Dying in the place of someone I love seems like a good way to go.”

Bella on herself: “I’m a suffer-in-silence type.”

Bella to Edward: “Your mood swings are giving me whiplash.”

Edward to Bella: “You’re like my own personal brand of heroin.”

On being a vampire who only drinks the blood of animals: “It’s like living on tofu. It keeps you strong, but you’re never fully satisfied.”

Bella on culture: “Debussy’s great.”

Bella on life: “Death is peaceful. Easy. Life is harder.”

Catherine Hardwicke previously directed the gritty teen dramas Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. Those films were far more forthright and honest about their teenage characters, and seemed to have a much more realistic and believable approach to the teenage idiom. Twilight is so much more, well, adolescent in comparison. Although it does very vividly capture a very important and real (if not necessarily mature) teenage romance fantasy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Isabella “Bella” Swan has a hot-to-trot mom (Sarah Clarke) who has just married a hotshot athlete. Bella, rather than go on the road, moves to the real-life small town of Forks, WA (pop. 3,120) to live with her dad Charlie (the rather good Billy Burke) whom she doesn’t know too well, and whom she addresses by his first name. Bella is the very definition of a "Plain Jane." She doesn’t seem to have any personality traits other than a vague sense of dissatisfaction with her surroundings. She doesn’t speak a lot. She is pale and has sunken eyes, even though she just came from Arizona. Indeed, one of her peers points out to her that she should be more tan. She sort of shrugs off this comment. It’s hard to tell what Bella is feeling at any given moment, although Stewart does offer some narration about how alienated she feels. Her alienation, though, is typical run-of-the-mill teen alienation. She has the urge to rebel and to be broody, although she has no tragedy in her life other than her being 17 years old. She is essentially the ultimate teen cipher. We are invited to project our own angst into her. The only trait she’s given is that she’s clumsy, although this is only represented by a few brief moments of stumbling. Her clumsiness will be abandoned in future films.

Bella had spent a few summers in Forks during her childhood, so she kind of knows the area, and she already has a built-in childhood friend in the form of Jake (Taylor Lautner), a local Indian boy from the local reservation. He never says what his tribe is, but he’s probably Quinault, Quileute, or Hoh. Jake is a gregarious gearhead. He’ll play a big part in the next movie.

At the local high school (which seems awfully large for a town of 3000) Bella is immediately surrounded by other kids who seem to forcefully appoint themselves as her friends. This is a common phenomenon in many teen movies: The lead character will be a kind of bland all-around good-guy type without a lot of unusual personality traits, and the supporting cast will be colorful and energetic, as only to reflect on the hero. Since Bella is so bland in herself, and her peers are so interesting and energetic in comparison, I wish the film had been more about the entire group, rather than being laser focused on Bella’s own romantic turmoil. Bella’s friends are played by the excellent Anna Kendrick, the funny Justin Chon, the very sweet Michael Welch, and the adorably demure Christian Serratos. All four of these actors will appear in all the Twilight movies, albeit in a supporting capacity.

Bella, like all the girls at Forks High School, is drawn to the handsome and mysterious Cullen clan, a group of ultra-pale and ultra-good-looking teens who are all Foster siblings, but who all seem to date one another. In particular, she likes Edward (British actor Robert Pattinson), the broodiest of the lot, who has milky white skin, puffy pink lips, and an impossibly tall hairdo that hasn’t been seen since the glory days of Jason Priestley. Pattinson is undeniably handsome, and he is lovingly photographed with a lover’s eye. In every shot, he is well dressed in expensive and fashionable wool coats. He often looks like a model in a J. Crew catalogue. As far as I know, Pattinson has never been a professional model. Anyway, Bella immediately begins making goo-goo eyes at Edward. When Edward first sees Bella in biology class, he also seems a bit blown away. Indeed, when he first sees her, he lurches forward in his chair and claps his hand over his mouth. Not to be crass, but he looks like he ejaculates in his pants.

The next 45 minutes of film is devoted to the bitter mind games these two play with one another. Bella clumsily tries to stay in his company without ever actually asking him out or having a conversation with him. He pushes her away, and treats her poorly. Much has been said by critics of The Twilight Saga about how the relationship between Edward and Bella is based on manipulation and subtle cruelty. I can kind of see that, although (to offer a defense) one could just as easily chalk up the kids’ mean-spirited behavior to usual adolescent awkwardness. Sadly, these kids don’t feel like they’re really in love, or even that they’re attracted to one another. We just get a vague sense that they are star-crossed lovers. Remember the kids from Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (which is in the running for one of the best film romances of all time)? Those kids talked like real kids and had real concerns. When they said they were in love, I believed it. Bella and Edward are yawn-inducing in their blankness.

Why has Edward been emotionally stiff-arming Bella? It turns out that he is actually a vampire. Yup, a real-life blood-drinking immortal. If you didn't know this was coming, Edward's "coming out" scene might kind of blindside you. He explains everything to Bella, and she seems kind of unsurprised that he is an evil creature of the night. The vampire rules in this universe are as follows: Vampires don’t sleep. Vampires are super-strong and super-fast. Vampires can only die if you rip them to pieces and then set them on fire. Vampires can live on animal blood (as Edward does), and those that do are called "vegetarians." There are different vampire “clans” who operate 'round the country. Vampires can live in sunlight, and it doesn’t kill them, but they do avoid it. Edward lives in the Pacific Northwest because of the constant cloud cover. If a vampire is seen in direct sunlight, their skin sparkles like diamonds. That’s right: Edward is so damned good looking that he sparkles in the sun. We’ve come a long way from the pestilential rat monster from Nosferatu. Edward was born in 1918, but he’s eternally 17 years old. Why does he still go to high school, repeating the same classes over and over for years on end? That is never explained.

Edward also explains – and this is a vital element of this series – that if he were to get into a bout of honest-to-goodness heavy petting with Bella, he’d get too horny, and when he gets too horny, he tends to get bitey. He doesn’t want to turn Bella into a vampire. Much has been made of this element and the fact that Bella and Edward don’t seem to have any powerful erotic heat between them. Their relationship, indeed, seems perfectly chaste. Aside from a brief moment wherein Bella makes out with Edward while in her panties, there is no sexuality at all. That he doesn’t want to bite her and make her a vampire has easily been read as a metaphor for teen chastity. And while I believe that people should wait until they’re ready to have sex (be they 14 or 35), this film series tends to over-romanticize the notion of tortured self-denial, focusing instead on the general death-laced romantic ennui that teenagers should perhaps not be allowed to indulge. The whole notion of “We must be together! Forever! But we can’t! O my love! We can’t!” This is romance from the id of Byron.

And while this whole movie may be a vague chastity metaphor, I got the impression that both Bella and Edward had been sexually active in the past. Like they’re not just horny, but they know what sex is. These kids are not virgins. Maybe that will be made more explicit in future installments.

What else? Oh yes, Edward’s clan, The Cullens, all live in a nice mansion together, and are led by Dr. Carlisle Cullen (Peter Facinelli). It’s also explained that vampires all have psychic powers of one stripe or another, and that Edward can read minds. One reason he likes Bella is that he just can’t read her mind. The easy joke is just lying there, so I’ll trot it out: it’s because there’s nothing to read, Edward! Yuk yuk. Moving on. The hungry Jasper Cullen (Jackson Rathbone) can manipulate your emotions, although little is done with this detail. The spunky Alice Cullen (Ashley Greene, the only one with any sort of personality) can read the future. The Cullens regularly get together to play hypercharged games of baseball during thunderstorms (so as to disguise the cracks of the bats as cracks of thunder; this is pretty stupid).

There is an evil tribe of vampires also lurking around the area, led by the wicked flame-haired Victoria (Rachael Lefevre). The evil vampires eat people, and want to eat Bella in particular. They hate the Cullens. The plot only picks up in the film’s final 20 minutes or so as Victoria’s boyfriend kidnaps Bella’s dad (maybe) and there’s a confrontation in a dance studio. It’s explained to Bella that she is particularly delicious to vampires, and all the local creatures think she is mouthwatering. She was just born tasty. Eventually Edward rides to the rescue, and the Cullen clan kill Victoria’s boyfriend (in the background). Bella is bitten in the process, but Edward sucks out “the venom” that would make her a vampire. He gets to taste her tasty blood.

In an epilogue, Bella pleas to be transformed, but Edward denies her. There’s that chastity metaphor again. But now they’re a couple.

Will their romance survive? Let’s take a look at…


 

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (dir. Chris Weitz, 2009)

Notable lines:

Bella on Shakespeare: “Romeo & Juliet is stupid.”

Edward on relationships: “You’re the reason to stay alive, if that’s what I am. It’s my job to protect you.”

Edward, giving advice to Bella: “Lie!”

When she lies: “Lie better!”

Jake on being a werewolf: “It’s not a lifestyle choice, Bella!”

Bella on Jacob: “It’s not a werewolf thing, it’s a Jacob thing. You’re your own sun.”

Alice on Bella: “I have never met anyone so prone to life-threatening idiocy.”

Here's a fun story: The premiere for New Moon took place in Westwood, CA. Being a longtime movie theater employee, I was asked to work in one of the two theaters setup specifically to handle overflow from the actual premiere. The entire Westwood village was stuffed with eager and frothing Twi-Hards, all eager to find a seat, all hoping that there would actually be space for them. The fans were so eager to get in, some were waving around fistfuls of cash, some were offering plane tickets (someone offered me a free trip to Hawaii), and the sound guy who worked at my particular theater was actually openly and earnestly offered specific sexual favors in exchange for a seat. I wan't able to ply from him which sexual acts were promised, but it did make us giggle. Twilight, a central symbol of tortured teen chastity, was reducing its fans to crass acts of hurried prostitution. But I digress.

If you thought the last film was angsty, this one dives headfirst into outright depressive behavior. Indeed, it kind of encourages risky actions. It’s almost amusing in how irresponsible it is. As filmed by Chris Weitz, though, the film is a lot more jaunty, is a little less murky and muddy, although the moody Pacific Northwest cloud cover is still in place.

New Moon runs a sprawling 130 minutes, and goes every which way. There are essentially two movies in here. In the first, Bella (Stewart) and Edward (Pattison) are continuing with their halcyon romance, wherein they hold hands and give each other intense looks. I’m guessing they still haven’t had sex. Maybe they’ve messed around a little. Can you catch an STI from the undead? Bella is celebrating her 18th birthday, and she is given a party by the Cullens. When she cuts herself on some wrapping paper, Jasper makes a dive for her blood. She’s naturally tasty, remember? She is saved from vampire attack, but the responsible vampires leave the room as to not eat her. Edward, realizing that putting a tasty human in the midst of hungry vampires is, well, kinda dangerous, decides to break up with Bella and leave town for good, taking his clan with him. He does this to protect her. Indeed, all of Edward’s actions in this film are intended to protect Bella from vampires.

Edward’s departure throws Bella into a severe depression, and she begins weeping and wailing in the night. She broods, she rages, she beats her chest. Her suffering is straight out of Shakespeare. Which is a bit ironic as, at the beginning of the film, Bella badmouths Romeo & Juliet for being too angsty. Pot, meet kettle. One of Edward’s grave warnings before his departure was to discourage Bella from doing anything reckless. It doesn’t take her long before she begins deliberately doing reckless things, like get on motorcycles with strange men. Whenever she does something reckless, Edward’s ghost appears in front of her telling her not to do it. Or maybe that’s not a ghost, but a psychic projection of some sort. Either way, she feels that doing dangerous things is not only cathartic, but is the only way to be with Edward again, even if it is only for a few brief moments. This film fetishizes depressed ennui. Antonioni would tell this film to calm down.

Bella finds solace in the company of Jacob (Taylor Lautner), her Indian friend from the first film. Jacob is a warm and encouraging fellow who clearly likes Bella. They rebuild motorcycles together, and, over the course of the film’s first half, the two of them grow very close. Bella slowly begins to think about Edward less and less, and seems to be fostering a more healthy relationship with Jake. The eternally angsty romance with the vampire may actually be replaced by a much more loving relationship with a nice boy like Jacob, who, in addition to being smart and warm, is also cut like a gay porn star. Lautner spends a good deal of this film wearing nothing but ripped denim shorts and sandals. His abs are a work of wonder.

Indeed, Jake is surrounded by an entire tribe of swarthy twinky Indian boys with sculpted bodies who spend their time wresting and going cliff-diving together. The homoerotic tension is delicious. It’s too bad there wasn’t a shower scene or something.

Anyway, once Bella has sort of developed a crush on Jake, he reveals a dark secret of his own. He’s actually a werewolf. Bella has a type I guess: secretive, insanely good-looking, and a monster. The rules of the werewolves are now explained: Most of the local Indians are werewolves, and can change into wolves at will, and in an instant. They hate vampires, and have an agreement not to exist on the same land. Vampires can be killed by werewolves. It’s not explained what happens when a vampire eats a werewolf, or how werewolves can be killed. Jacob also reveals that Victoria (Rachael Lefevre) is still lurking about, trying to kill Bella as revenge for the death of her boyfriend in the previous movie. Victoria plays a minor role in this film.

There is a fake action movie within New Moon called Face Punch. If a film procducer would want to continue this film series, I would like to suggest they make Face Punch. I'd see it. 

Sadly, Edward is still in this movie. I was kind of hoping that the series would continue with a new boyfriend in each chapter. Like at the end of New Moon, Bella would end up with Jacob, only to break up with him at the beginning of the third movie. She would then, in distress, turn to a new friend (let’s name him Cole) and fall in love with him. She will then later discover that Cole is a secretly a mummy or something. Then in the fourth film, she dumps Cole (because mummies, while loving, are unreliable), and hooks up with Brett, who is secretly a gillman. Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not writing this series. Anyway, Edward has been hiding out in Italy, as it turns out, and has been brooding in just as much teen angst as Bella. I guess he’s doomed to behave like a 17-year-old for eternity.

A new conceit: Vampires are ruled by an Italy-based aristocracy called The Volturi, headed by Michael Sheen (himself). The Volturi are sort of a vampire Medici, doling out rules, and making sure vampires stay secret to the world at large. They also have the power to kill vampires by turning them into chalk. Weird. Edward, suffering to an unbelievable degree, has appealed to the Volturi to euthanize him, which they have refused to do: his psychic powers are too rare to extinguish. In response, Edward has resolved to reveal his vampire-ness to the human community, whom he assumes will immediately kill him.

All this information about Edward is related by Alice (Ashley Greene, still the most energetic character), who suddenly appears on Bella’s doorstep asking for her help in saving Edward. The film – and indeed the series – begins to fly off the rails at this point. Secret vampire society? Volturi? Michael Sheen? Wasn’t this a romance? Anyway, Bella, unbeknownst to her father (Billy Burke, still the best actor) flies off to Italy to appeal to The Volturi. She manages to make it to Edward just before he’s about to step into the sunlight to essentially commit suicide. It’s a Romeo & Juliet moment, only this time, Romeo sees Juliet awake, and they actually get to have their moment together. The Volturi have an enforcer named Jane, played by Dakota Fanning. Jane can cast pain spells. Bella is immune. When Dakota Fanning, wearing big red contact lenses, began casting pain spells at Edward, I felt a little bit of it myself.

Eventually Bella returns to Forks with the Cullens, and they vote as to whether or not to make her a vampire. She is voted in. Edward will turn her. She had previously been paranoid of growing old while Edward would remain eternally young, even though they had only been dating for a few months. The last line of dialogue is Edward asking to marry Bella. Her reaction is perfect: she is shocked and taken aback. She was all ready to dive into the angsty death romance of vampirism, but the commitment of marriage might be too much for her.

Sadly, I know they will not marry until the fourth film, so we’ll have a whole third wherein we’ll be spinning our wheels until the final marriage. Maybe we’ll finally watch them having sex! Sex? Anyone?

Eh, I guess I’m Team Jacob.
 


Be sure to join me next week for Eclipse, Breaking Dawn part 1, and the newly-released Breaking Dawn part 2 here in The Series Project.

Also, if you’re into this sort of thing, you can now contact me on a website called “Twitter.” My  secret “Twitter” codename is @WitneySeibold. I promise to “Twit” bizarre things, and nothing of substance.