Thursday, November 17, 2011

Does the Twilight Saga endorse its own story?

I did not attend last night's Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part I screening.  I was invited, but since I'm married with two kids, I try to reserve press screenings for the important stuff, like tonight's screening of The Muppets and the deluge of Oscar-bait movies I actually want to see (Young Adult next week, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the week after).  So while I don't loathe the series like a lot of other people do, I'd still rather catch the latest entry on my own time, instead of plunging into rush hour traffic just 36 hours or so prior to opening morning.  So while other critics (mostly the 'geek crowd' oddly enough) are openly discussing the overt weirdness that is present both in the original Breaking Dawn book and the 'first part' of its film adaptation, the above graduation speech always stuck out for me.  The reason is simple: in about 75 seconds, Ana Kendrick seemingly condemns the entire narrative arc of Bella Swan.  Marrying the first serious boyfriend you get right out of high school?  "Bad".  Not going to college?  "Bad".  Not making any effort while you're young to see the world and/or have various adventures before settling down?  "Bad."  I've had conversations with a friend of mine about whether or not Stephenie Meyer actually endorses the narrative arc that Bella Swan undergoes during the four-novel series, as well as whether or not she wanted Edward Cullen and Bella to end up together at the end at all.

Since I have not read the fourth novel or yet seen the fourth movie, I can only speculate based on second-hand sources and a Wikipedia plot summary.  But might the final (and somewhat-disliked) series finale be in fact a rebuttal of sorts, a 'Hey, here's what you wanted, now look how it would actually go down!" novel in the vein of Thomas Harris's Hannibal? Ridley Scott's film adaptation completely missed or ignored the extended-middle-finger satire of the flawed original source material, but the book was somewhat an implicit criticism of all the readers and moviegoers who viewed Hannibal Lecter as some kind of admirable anti-hero after the film version of The Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991 (something that is more about the media than the film itself, I'd argue).  The third film, with any number of characters trying to talk Bella out of spending her life with Edward, makes a strong case by virtue of making their arguments intelligent and valid.  Along with the overt sympathy for Bella's father Charlie from the first film up until now (those who want the Twilight Saga to be 'more of a horror franchise' should try watching them from Charlie's point of view), the scene above remains the strongest bit of evidence that maybe the Twilight Saga isn't as simple as it appears, that maybe it exists as an implicit criticism of not only the arc of Bella Swan, but those readers and moviegoers who find Bella's journey something admirable and/or something worth emulating.

This is all pure speculation, but I am interested to hear any feedback from those who are more familiar with the series, and especially the original novels.  Am I merely making this up, or are the moments contained in the film pointing to a less-than-obvious interpretation of the series?

Scott Mendelson     


corysims said...

Interesting notion, Scott. And that 75 seconds, especially how Kristen Stewart plays it in the close ups, does give credibility to your viewpoint. I'll have to see what the wife says. She's read the books multiple times and thinks Bella's a pretty terrible character...even while loving the trashy novel aspect to Meyer's four book series. I've very curious about this fourth film because for over a year, my wife has been stating repeatedly that the fourth book will not work as a film. She doesn't see how it can be done. This is why I'm so looking forward to date night tomorrow night...just to see how bad this thing can get. But, I do agree with your continuing assessment of the character Bella. She knows what she wants and is willing to do anything to get it. It's admirable.

As for your link to Ridley Scott's Hannibal, I think many missed the boat on what Scott was going for with that film. Yes, he stripped the satire from Harris' book. What he decided to do was to portray one of the most twisted love stories ever committed to cinema. On that fact alone, I'll defend the Hannibal film 'til death.

Ruth Poulsen said...

I've read the books, and no, Meyer does not do "levels" or "ironic twists" or anything of that nature. Loved the books for their pure fun escapism, but don't try to read too much into the Twilight series, because you're thinking much harder than the author!

Karen Topham said...

It amazes me that no one offers comments to thoughtful and insightful essays, but everyone is lining up to respond to the latest claptrap about who is divorcing whom or wearing what kind of bathing suit.

My own status re: Twilight: I am a fan of the books and to a lesser degree the films, Scott. I make no pretense of thinking that there is an ounce of literary merit in them--in fact I fully acknowledge that Meyer is a weak writer--but the story is addictive and fun. Part of me also likes the notion of the love story where (so rare for this era) the couple holds off until marriage. I also happen to like Breaking Dawn (the book--I have yet to see the film). I think that the long section narrated by Jacob is Meyer's most inventive moment in the entire series, and I believe that by itself it disproves the statement by Ruth Poulsen: clearly Meyer understood the narrative necessity of such a passage. If she had not included it, there would have been no tension whatsoever in the book, as the ending would have been a foregone conclusion.

Your theory makes sense to me, though it had never occurred to me before. It resolves something that has bothered me about this series from the beginning, and that is the character of Bella. Sure, there is the lovely romantic aspect of her story, but let's face it: until she becomes a vampire, she is an almost amazingly self-destructive, stupid and inept person. Her decisions in this series are pretty much always the opposite of what any parent would desire from her offspring. (You correctly note that the character of Charlie seems designed to point this out to readers, to show us the true horror of what she is doing despite our natural instincts to want her and Edward together.) She seems destined from the beginning for a dark fate not because it seeks her out but because she practically invites it in. I think that your reading of the graduation speech may well be right on target therefore: a much needed reminder from the author that although we are watching this young woman throw herself hopelessly into the path of this train, it is not what we should be seeking from our lives. That the "train" loves her and would never intentionally hurt her is immaterial: its danger is obvious. And in Breaking Dawn we see the fruition of that danger.

I do not think that Meyer intended it as a "see what happens" response though. I think it was her intended end the whole time. It appeared to me the only way this thing could ever be resolved. I can't see any other way she could have done it and still be true to her characters. And what happens in Breaking Dawn is pretty much what I thought would happen when I finished Eclipse, even to the point where I was able to guess all of the "surprise twists" correctly, so I don't think that it represents a change of mind on Meyer's part. A careful reader with imagination could see what was going to come. It was Bella who could not...because Bella never was careful. And that may ultimately be the message here: look at what she was willing to risk for her hopeless romanticism. In her case, the things she risks are very real ones, the kind that don't return if you lose them. In the graduation speech, the message is to take risks and live your life, but they are not this kind of risks and it is not this kind of life that the speaker means. Perhaps Meyer does indeed dislike her creation's choices. Nice call.

Twifan said...

"maybe the Twilight Saga isn't as simple as it appears, that maybe it exists as an implicit criticism of not only the arc of Bella Swan, but those readers and moviegoers who find Bella's journey something admirable and/or something worth emulating."

I admire your thoughtful approach to the Twilight series, which is so easily simplified and degraded by other critics. I have read the books and I don't see implicit criticism in Bella's story. I rather think that her situation and choices are very extreme and controversial, there are different ways to interpret them, and the readers are left to make their own conclusions. It may be interpreted as a bad role model story - a teen, ready to sacrifice everything for a man. I choose to not interpret it like this. Bella goes after what she wants, though she knows what it may cost her, she takes terrible risks, but doesn't give up and wins in the end. The moral I see is that the only way to achieve what you want is to be ready to do and sacrifice what it takes. Another moral is that the ultimate important thing is what you choose to want, and it may not always be beneficial and acceptable. Another thing, which makes sense to me, is that Bella sees past the vampire and finds a man, who deserves to be loved, though he isn't safe to be with. She chooses her love over her safety/humanity not only for herself (to be with her beloved), but for him, too - to give him the love he needs and deserves.


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