Obligatory Twilight Discussion / Review [Movie Review]

new-moon-official-poster-leakedI feel compelled to write this mostly because it’s been discussed with my friends, coworkers, wife, and numerous strangers so many times, my thoughts on it have been really fleshed out; and apparently I have enough of an axe to grind about it, given my compulsion to discuss.

We just saw the new Twilight “saga” movie, “New Moon” last week. Strangely (and somewhat pathetically), the last movie my wife and I saw in the theaters was the first Twilight film, over a year ago. Melissa is currently reading the third book (“Eclipse”, due out in theaters next summer) and she’s been telling me about it.

I feel it’s  my duty to disclose that I have not actually read the books, only seen the movies, but I have read numerous plot synopses, discussed it extensively with friends, family, and others that have read it. The general consensus is that the movies follow the books pretty faithfully. Regardless, I will be dealing with over-arching plot elements, characters, etc., and not with Meyers’ technical skill as a writer, despite having heard that there’s a veritable of buffet for criticism in that regard.

I should also forewarn you that I am quite critical of the Twilight” saga”, so if it happens to be a series of books that you particularly enjoy, you may want to either brace yourself or skip reading it. Your choice. Feel free to comment, either way.

That said…

First off, some general nitpicks about some of the plot devices / mythos of Meyer’s Twilight alternate reality. After that, some thematic complaints.

The “Soul” issue

In the “New Moon” theatrical release, the lead characters Edward (vampire) and Bella (human / Edward’s love interest / vampire groupie) have a recurring discussion about “turning” Bella into a vampire. The  brass tacks is that she wants to be a vampire, and Edward does not want her to be one.

The basis for his opinion is that, in Meyer’s vampire mythos, vampires do not have souls. He specifically says, on more than one occasion, that vampires are soul-less — as in “they are lacking a soul.” Note that it does not say their souls are “condemned”, or that they have a “tainted” soul, or anything to suggest that they actually HAVE a soul that is somehow different than a human’s. (if anyone can find something to suggest otherwise, please let me know, but cite specific quotes / page references)

The main problem I see with this is that it isn’t a problem. Let’s consider the following facts in this mythology:

  1. Vampires are soul-less (see above)
  2. Vampires are essentially immortal, barring a few select ways of killing them (beheading seems to be the only real way to do it, in Meyer’s world.)
  3. Religions that believe in some form of an afterlife generally dictate a variety of possible spiritual destinations (heaven, hell, limbo, purgatory, nirvana, valhalla, etc. etc.) for the soul to be transported, upon death.

See the problem?

If you are a vampire and thus lack a soul, and are subsequently killed, you simply cease to exist. There is no spiritual construct to fall to the pits of hell or damnation — nor is there anything left to “linger” around eternally as punishment. It’s just gone. You were once alive, and now you no longer exist. The threat of vampire death is certainly a deterrent to act foolishly, but the reality of death is void of any sort of suffering, since existence simply ENDS.

Some may find the notion of an eternal spiritual paradise comforting, but if you lack a soul and thus cease to exist upon the coup d’grace, you won’t care (or even be ABLE to care) either way.

The Werewolf thing

Stephanie Meyer’s “werewolves” are not werewolves at all, in the traditional sense. They are shapeshifters. Most mythologies concerning werewolves have the human acquire some wolf characteristics (hair, snout, paws, etc.) but retain some semblance of humanoid form. Sort of a human / wolf hybrid.

In the Twilight world, the “werewolves” are full-on shapeshifters, polymorphing into a literal wolf and then back again.

Meyers also completely deviates from the traditional lunar tie-ins common to traditional werewolf mythologies — but then again, she also abdicated the traditional Porphyric nature of vampires as well, instead opting to make them sparkle.

The Werewolf “gene”

Another HUGE issue is this whole “I have the werewolf gene” thing. Jacob, Bella’s paramour and subsequent new werewolf, explains to Bella, while driving home in her truck, that he has “the werewolf gene” and that only some people in his lineage have it. Melissa has informed me that in book 3 it is further explained that the werewolf gene “activates” only when a vampire threat is present.

Given that not everyone acquires a fully-expressed werewolf gene, we can assume it is a Y-linked recessive gene, since only males express the trait.

But more importantly, and I discussed this in the past when I complained about the Heroes television series’ poor use of science, there is no way that a gene could result in the instantaneous polymorphic shapeshifting that these werewolves undergo.

Genes simply code into proteins. They would actually be a viable explanation if Meyers instead had the werewolves shift permanently to one side or the other. The lac-operon gene expression model, found in E. Coli and many other organisms, works like this: when lactose (milk sugar) is present, the gene for lactase (the enzyme the breaks down lactose) is transcribed and the lactase protein is then produced.

It would be far more plausible if Meyers had instead made it where individuals with the “werewolf gene” underwent comparatively slower changes (a few weeks) where they grew more hair, produced more Adrenaline / cortisol and more testosterone, and perhaps a few other biological anomalies. When Vampires come to town, we could explain that by simply saying they exude some sort of protein that triggers the expression of the werewolf gene (sort of like how pollen can kick up allergies in the fall).

But this rapid change, back and forth, is completely bogus. If that is the way Meyers wants to write the characters, which is PERFECTLY FINE since this is FICTION, then she should have simply appealed to the supernatural and left it at that. Something like “Some people in my tribe are able to shapeshift into wolves to protect these lands from vampires” would have been perfect. No need to mention the “G” word (or the “Q” word, for that matter).

One thing that New Moon did do correctly is to show the werewolf kids carb-loading after running around one morning. The scene where Bella first sees Jacob shapeshift is immediately followed by her joining Sam’s fiance and the other werewolf boys for breakfast. Large baked goods that resemble gigantic bran muffins are served.

Given that Jacob’s body temperature is said to be higher than normal, we can assume that it’s due to additional heat from breaking down carbohydrates (and thus releasing kCalories of energy) faster. His enviable toned body condition would be similarly linked to that. Burning all of those extra calories, constantly, will require a much higher daily caloric intake. Kudos to the movie producers for doing that.

Bella’s Adrenaline-addiction

In New Moon, after Edward leaves (it’s in the beginning, and mentioned in the trailer — it’s really not a spoiler), Bella suffers for several months then discovers that when she does reckless things she hallucinates and sees / hears Edward. (Melissa confirmed this was actually in the book as well). She becomes a veritable adrenaline junkie, looking for cheap thrills and life-threatening situations wherever possible, simply to see / her him again.

My main problem with this is that it’s unnecessary. Why not simply explain it as “Bella is so distraught by Edward leaving that she tries to hide the pain away by masking it with adrenaline rushes.” It’s a bit hackneyed, but certainly believable.

The hallucinations are not supernatural, they are psychotic episodes. (Edward is not ACTUALLY communicating with her telepathically — even if that was the intent, it is not possible due to Bella’s immunity to vampire special powers). Sure, one could say that these psychotic episodes are only triggered by conscientious reactions to reckless behavior — but why bother explaining it that way? It’s not all that helpful as a plot device, at least no more so than to simply explain it as stereotypical adrenaline addiction.

The “Romeo & Juliet” cliche

Meyers seems deadset on really pushing this whole “modern Romeo & Juliet” motif. Meyers has even explicitly said that “New Moon” was intended to be an analogue of Romeo & Juliet.

But the main problem is that it’s really not.

Romeo & Juliet was, as most of you know, a tragedy (the protagonists die at the end) where a young skirt-chasing boy becomes infatuated with a girl from a rival family. He thinks it’s love at first sight, they both act foolishly, and ultimately commit suicide in the end, each believing other to be dead.

Twilight is NONE of those things. Neither Bella nor the virginal Edward (seriously…80+ years as a vamp and NO SEX.) are skirt chasers — in fact they are both kind of outcasts and somewhat anti-social / socially awkward.  The relationship, which realistically should be cast as straight infatuation, is instead repeatedly championed as “true love.” The tragedy of the real Romeo & Juliet play is that both young people died, unnecessarily, for an infatuation that they believed to be True Love(tm).

You really can’t even do an event-for-event analogous comparison between R&J and New Moon, either. If her intent was to mirror or even create an homage to that Shakespearean play, she failed epically.

It seems that, instead, Meyers heard about (or only remembered) the “star-crossed lovers” line in R&J and extrapolated her entire plot from that.

Bella as a “flat” character

The Bella character, played by the vapid Kristin Stewart in the movies, never changes across the entire four-book series. In the first book, her primary motivation is to be with Edward and to become a vampire (to be with him forever). By the fourth book, this is still the same (except she has achieved this goal, to some degree). Edward is actually the one that changes, initially resisting her in the first two books, but giving in by book three. Jacob also changes in some ways.

I think Meyers really sacrificed a lot of potentially interesting character development by writing Bella to be so flat, and it really sells the female gender short by making her so narrow-minded in motivation. Which segues nicely into my last point:

Plot-arc FAIL

This is, perhaps, my biggest gripe with the series as a whole.

Meyers seems to have developed much of her plot from a top-down approach — she began with a very specific agenda / specific ideas, and then worked backwards, filling in the story as she went. The characters / major plot points are thus fixed in stone and the rest of the plot filled in where necessary. Melissa had actually mentioned to me that the Werewolf lore / mythology, described in detail in book 3, is actually quite interesting in a way that is lacking in the rest of the books content; this suggests to me that the human/vampire drama was probably the agenda.

The character development is very forced and rigorous, as are the actions of the characters. Rather than creating a Bella or Edward character and thinking “what would they do in a situation like this? What would they say?”, they are instead puppets with Meyers as the marionette — so they’re actions and dialogue is far more awkward, forced, and hackneyed than it needs to be. By contrast, the interactions among Bella and the werewolves seem more natural, more interesting, and more organically developed; the characters come alive in a far more interesting way during the werewolf scenes rather than during the vampire scenes.

For example: In New Moon, Meyers spends over half of the story developing this relationship between Bella and Jacob (both before and after he discovers his canine tendencies) only to completely drop it when she finds out Edward is in trouble. In the movie, she tells Jacob “it was always Edward.”

This is zero-growth for her character, particularly considering that her relationship with Edward, while rife with passion, is very dysfunctional. The relationship with Jacob has better potential (hard to say how much, given his admission that an emotional outburst could result in him going wolf-frenzy on her).

The plot-arc for the four books (spoiler alert) is:

  1. Bella meets Edward, becomes infatuated
  2. Edward leaves “to protect her”; Bella gets depressed and finds solace in the arms of Jacob; Bella returns to Edward in the end
  3. Bella realizes she loves Jacob also and must choose between he and Edward (guess who she picks)
  4. Bella makes a baby with Edward, finally gets turned to a vampire, and everyone gets what they want.

As I mentioned above, she’s a flat character. Her character endures numerous experiences, but her motivations never really change. They are the same dysfunctional co-dependent feelings through all the books.

Melissa and I had a discussion last night about whether or not it would be possible for the series to be a Romance-genre fiction novel but portray the characters both more realistically and with better growth. Here’s my suggestion for the books:

  1. Bella meets Edward, becomes infatuated
  2. Edward leaves “to protect her”; Bella rebounds with Jacob, discovers that she CAN be happy with other people, but likely decides that perhaps she and Jacob aren’t compatible either
  3. Graduating high school, Bella spends the entire novel figuring herself out, lots of deep introspection, numerous interesting life experiences, and some platonic interaction with her, Jacob, and Edward. Edward MAY reintroduce romantically at the end of the book.
  4. A little older and wiser, Bella decides to try and make it work with Edward after all. He has also had time for introspection during the break. They are both more mature and are able to see their situation for what it is. She decides that she would rather remain human and instead live and die with Edward’s company, as a mortal.

The fact that Bella’s character is unwavering in her motivations further underscores my opinion that Meyers began with an agenda or a particular set of ideas she was going to include and then worked backwards to make it fit.

In my Creative non-fiction class (and in Melissa’s fiction class as well), our profs always told us that we need to be prepared to “murder our darlings” when writing. The morbid turn of phrase refers to the “darling” ideas that we fall in love with, and how we must always remain objective when writing so that we may realize when one of our darling ideas is preventing the writing piece from coming to fruition. It seems as though Meyers was unwilling to murder her darling vampire romance idea, and instead do everything she can to make the book fit that rigorous mold; Bella was doomed to never grow from the get-go.

Poor Role Models

I would be remiss without mentioning this, at least. This series of book presents absolutely terrible role models for relationships and how men and women should act within them. Meyer’s apparent obsession with sexual repression and emotional masochism translates into two characters that are artificially dysfunctional — it’s almost as if their characters WANT to get healthier and grow, but are constantly forced to act otherwise.

I’m not saying that girls will read this and instantly think that this is the correct way to be in a relationship. But why not write books where the character is emotionally accessible, as Bella is, but ultimately grows to become a more healthy individual as the story progresses? It would not be less believable and could still be just as romantic. The characters should be made to suffer, of course, as part of their growth — but ultimately they should rise from those trials as a stronger person with more clarity and a better sense of identity. It’s empowering and more rewarding.

When I look back on books I both identified with and enjoyed as a teen, such as “The Prydain Chronicles” by Lloyd Alexander, I remember them fondly because the protagonist ultimately transforms into his lofty aspirations — he self-actualizes and we get to vicariously experience that joy and reward of a challenging journey progressing to its natural close. Imagine if New Moon (or ANY of the movies, for that matter) had ended with Bella having learned anything at all from her mistakes. It seems almost as if Bella the character mirrors Meyers the author in that regard.

The movie was entertaining, of course. But I sincerely hope that any future publications by Meyer show that she, unlike her characters, has grown and developed.