The second film in the Twilight saga, New Moon, comes to theaters on November 20, but in some markets tickets have been on sale for months—and tickets for the November 19 midnight opening shows have been scarce in some areas. It’s unusual for movie tickets to go on sale so far in advance of opening day, but judging from fan frustration in areas where the early tickets haven’t been available, the practice may become more widespread in the future.
Early enthusiasm for the movie version of New Moon is only the latest confirmation of the Twilight saga’s status as a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. Last year’s film Twilight, based on the first of Stephenie Meyer’s hugely popular tetralogy of gothic teen romances about vampire love, is currently the top selling Region 1 (North America) DVD of 2009, with more than nine million copies sold.
In theatrical release, Twilight raked in more than $191 million at the US box office and more than $383 million globally, making it the #7 film of 2008 domestically and the #13 film worldwide. It was also the all-time #1 film directed by a woman—Catherine Hardwicke of The Nativity Story and Thirteen—as well as the #1 vampire movie in history. Not that Twilight, the swoony tale of an ordinary teenaged girl named Bella Swan and a brooding but human-friendly vampire named Edward Cullen, is a typical vampire movie.
Coming to theaters just under a year after its predecessor, New Moon faced challenges early in development, with an aggressive production schedule, questions about the readiness of the screenplay by returning scribe Melissa Rosenberg, a change of directors— Hardwicke bowed out, reportedly over scheduling concerns, and was replaced by The Golden Compass director Chris Weitz—and doubts about whether 17- year-old actor Taylor Lautner had the physical stature to reprise the role of Jacob Black, who is more important in the second story. (Lautner is back for the next two films, but the third film, Eclipse, will have a third director, David Slade, director of the vampire movie 30 Days of Night.)
Whether these challenges translate into a rushed product remains to be seen. Critics weren’t impressed with Twilight—it scored a dismal 49 percent at the critical review aggregator site RottenTomatoes.com, and a tepid 56 percent at the similar site Metacritic.com — but that didn’t hurt the film at the box office, and New Moon could well outdo its predecessor, with or without critical approval.
The books remain hot as well. The final volume in the series, Breaking Dawn, sold 1.3 million volumes in its first 24 hours of release, and in January 2009 was selling at a rate approaching 20,000 copies per week, breaking a sales record previously held by The Da Vinci Code. In fact, in the first half of 2009, the parent company of Meyer’s publisher Hachette Book Group reported a growth of more than 11 percent in its publishing unit, largely “driven by a surge in new sales in the United States on the back of the Stephenie Meyer phenomenon” as well as in France, the UK, and Australia.
There is even a Twilight tourism industry, centered on Washington state, where much of the story is set. While Robert Langdon fans get to go to Rome and Paris for the Dan Brown experience, Stephenie Meyer aficionados converge on rainy Forks, Washington to take “Twilighter tours” of locations more or less corresponding to settings in the books, from a Craftman- style house similar to the Swans’ to a locker at Forks High School designated Bella’s locker.
By early September, the Forks’ visitor center had seen about 55,600 guests in 2009 alone, compared to fewer than 19,000 in all of 2008. And that was before the weekend of September 13—Bella’s birthday in the books, celebrated in Forks as Stephenie Meyer Day for the past three years, complete with birthday cake and a costume lookalike contest. This year the festivities expanded from one day to a weekend celebration, and spread to at least one other town, nearby Port Angeles, where Bella and Edward have their first date.
Port Angeles’ TwilightFest included two couples renewing their marriage vows in a Twilight-themed ceremony, a Bella’s Ball dance, and Quileute Indian
storytelling, reflecting Jacob Black’s Quileute Nation heritage and kin. Oh, and Bella’s entrée from that first dinner—mushroom ravioli at Port Angeles’ Bella Italia—has become the restaurant’s specialty, having been served to more than 4,500 fans this year alone, according to David Bentley of CoventryTelegraph. net’s Geek Files blog.
While Twilight book and ticket sales represent a mere fraction of the Harry Potter juggernaut, all of this suggests
that the series’ fan base—almost entirely female—is possibly even more devout than Potter author J.K. Rowling’s. “Obsessive Twilight Disorder” is the selfdiagnosis of many fans, and while the series is aimed at young adults, it has considerable appeal for a large contingent of the target audience’s mothers.
At an online community of Meyer’s adult fans, www.TwilightMoms.com, moms share Twilight-related dreams, confess what they should be doing while indulging their obsession, discuss how their preoccupation has affected their kids, worry about weight loss and other symptoms, and wonder whether their lives will ever be normal again. Although this is not language that many mothers would use of activities that they would normally wish to share with their children, many Twilight moms happily share their literary obsession with their teenaged daughters.
Part of the reason for the guilt-free mother-daughter Bella bonding, perhaps, is a perceived strand of moral traditionalism running through the stories. Stephenie Meyer, a Mormon housewife and a mother of three, has Edward and Bella wait until the fourth volume to get married and only then have sex (Meyer’s vampires can do that, though they apparently don’t ordinarily reproduce that way).
This literal sexual abstinence is mirrored metaphorically in Edward’s abstinence not only from Bella’s blood, but also from all human blood. Edward belongs to a humane vampire clan who call themselves “vegetarians,” meaning that they subsist on animal blood rather than human—a physically sustaining diet to vampires, but thin gruel.
These themes have won the Twilight phenomenon some approval in Catholic and non-Catholic Christian circles. Well-known pro-life blogger Jill Stanek counts herself among the Twilight faithful. Having devoured all four books after seeing the first film last year, Stanek felt sheepish about having been sucked into a series aimed at young adults, but felt “a tad better” when she learned about the “Twilight Moms” phenomenon. “[V]ampirism aside,” she wrote in a December 2008 post at her blog, www.jillstanek.com, “I think Edward represents the yearning in every woman’s heart for the knight in shining armor that is only satisfied in the person of Jesus.”
Stanek was also impressed with the story’s chastity theme. “Bella wants [sex], Edward refuses. This is often attributed to Edward’s fear that he will lose control and physically hurt or kill Bella. But there’s another reason given in book 3. Edward was born during virtuous times in the early 1900s, and he maintains those sexual standards 100 years later. ‘[T]his is the one area in which I’m just as spotless as you are.’ Edward says. ‘Can’t I leave one rule unbroken?’”
Catholic blogger Kate Bryan of True Rebellion (katebryan.blogspot.com) agrees. “Some people think Twilight is demonic and evil because it deals with vampires and they also think that the story is too ‘racy.’ Then, there are others who saw a ‘completely different’ aspect of the film and book series…I was able to see a story of true and pure love. A love story that promoted chastity, among other virtues. I think this is an important discussion to have, because I was thrilled to finally see a movie that promoted pure love!”
At the other end of the spectrum is the anti-Twilight blog Spes Unica (spesunica. wordpress.com), written by an anonymous Catholic mother with a master’s in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Highlighting the books’ eroticism, increasingly disturbing and disordered imagery, and moral, philosophical, and even theological problems, the author argues that the Twilight books not only offer a distorted and carnal vision of love, but even promote the occult.
Jennifer Thornton, who blogs at A Catholic Mom’s Guide to Books (catholicbookreview.blogspot.com), disagrees with both interpretations. “Bella and Edward do wait until their wedding night,” she acknowledges, “and she does choose to keep her half vampire baby against everyone’s advice.” But Thornton also notes that “just because Edward and Bella don’t do anything but kiss and clutch, they still share the same bed night after night, all the while keeping her father in the dark.” In her view, the books “keep Bella alive, safe from friends, good vampires and bad ones, so that she and Edward can test their willpower while they fool around with each other’s lips and bodies.”
“The mood of the novels creates suspense and tension, specifically sexual tension,” Thornton wrote via email. “Over and over again, Edward and Bella are subject to occasions of sin. Though they avoid intercourse, they are not great examples of chastity.”
At the same time, she added, “I do not see these books as a gateway to the occult. I do not believe that fantasy and magic necessarily lead to the occult. The Twilight books are not great works of literature comparable to the Lord of the Rings. They are romance/fantasy novels. Mature readers know the difference and can appreciate each to different degrees.” Thornton’s verdict on the books: Not recommended.
“Twilight and Catholic Girls” was the title of a recent post raising similar concerns at the Catholic teen blog “No Question Left Behind: Teens Helping Teens” (noquestionleftbehind.blogspot.com), a Q&A blog run by Catholic author Maureen Wittmann. The bloggers at the No Question blog are committed Catholic teens whose responses to questions submitted by their peers are edited by Wittmann and, when necessary, reviewed for theological soundness.
This particular post was written by Catherine, a 16-year-old who cites “writing, philosophy, theology, history, and Latin” as interests and hopes to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville. Catherine acknowledges having read all four books (“It’s to the point that if you’re a girl and haven’t read them, people wonder where you’ve been”), and while she confesses enjoying reading them, she adds, “I’m not surprised that Christian girls are being lead astray by these books.”
Bella and Edward’s relationship, Catherine writes, is “abusive at times. Basically, Bella is obsessive, and Edward is possessive (which, unfortunately, most girls translate into ‘protective’). Bella’s always raving over Edward’s body and how he’s like a ‘god’; Edward’s drawn to Bella’s seductive scent and her blood, and watches her every move, even to the point of watching her in her sleep. Sounds like the common, abusive relationships we have today, minus the vampire aspect, doesn’t it?”
A DISTURBING SUBTEXT
While the sexual subtext of the vampire motif is obvious and well known, it is also problematic. Ordinary malefemale attraction reflects the innate mutual complementarity of the sexes. Man is made for woman, and woman for man; each completes the other, a reciprocity fully revealed in the nuptial embrace. While sexual desire can manifest itself in disordered ways, and a healthy sexuality necessarily entails self-mastery and rejection of temptations to indulge our appetites in selfish and sinful ways, both desire and the conjugal union to which it is rightly ordered are good in themselves.
As typically imagined, and certainly as presented in Meyer’s books, vampirism makes a sickly, twisted metaphor for sexuality. Nothing like mutual complementarity exists between humans and vampires; humans complete vampires, but vampires don’t complete humans, any more than a lion completes an impala.
Even Edward and Bella seem aware of this: “And so the lion fell in love with the lamb,” Edward muses, to which Bella complacently replies, “Stupid lamb,” and Edward adds, “Sick, masochistic lion.” Elsewhere, Edward suggests that Bella’s unswerving devotion to and trust in him merely reflect his species’ natural advantages over their prey. “I’m the world’s best predator, aren’t I?” he asks with rhetorical self-loathing. “Everything about me invites you in—my voice, my face, even my smell.”
Yet it’s Edward’s beauty, perfection, and desirability that Twilight emphasizes above all. A typical, much-quoted sample: “He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare. His glistening, pale lavender lids were shut, though of course he didn’t sleep. A perfect statue, carved in some unknown stone, smooth like marble, glittering like crystal.” (Yes, glittering—Meyer’s vampires literally sparkle in sunlight, which is the real reason they avoid it.) Edward’s passion for Bella is no less rhapsodic: “I’m going to spontaneously combust one of these days,” he tells her, “and you’ll have no one but yourself to blame.”
To be desired beyond all reason or control, even wantonly or destructively, is a powerful aphrodisiac, flattering both to pride and to self-doubt. Beyond the allure of forbidden fruit, there is the thrill of being someone else’s forbidden fruit—of being desired in spite of it being wrong, or possibly even because it is wrong. Edward has sworn off human blood, yet he thirsts madly for Bella, and struggles not to give in. It is not unlike the effect of a handsome young priest smitten with a female parishioner—not a healthy sort of attachment to indulge, even in fantasy.
How is it that so many girls and even grown women find the Twilight world so compelling that the real world pales by comparison? Is it merely concupiscent weakness and indulgent fantasy? Is it simply a failure of the most basic sort of equity feminism to take root? Is there something darker: an unhealthy fascination with unwholesome relationships and bad boys, perhaps mixed with a Nightingale/Stockholm-syndrome desire to “save” them?
What positive elements there are in the Twilight appeal are inextricably intertwined with the problematic ones. For some readers, the cult of Edward Cullen may be in part a symptom of dissatisfaction with the hookup culture of shamelessness and male gratification. But it’s also a symptom of a larger crisis of healthy masculinity and femininity. Though it may be in a distorted and unhealthy form, Edward offers something to his legions of female fans—something perhaps that is lacking in ordinary and healthy forms in contemporary culture and relationships between the sexes.
What if conscientious and loving fathers brought up their sons to treat women with honor and dignity, and their daughters to respect themselves and to expect the same from others? What if more husbands were more Christ-like toward their wives? In such a world, I suspect, the tawdry allure of a tortured vampire lover wouldn’t glitter half so brightly.
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