Would it surprise you to know that it’s all about sex — safe, secure, if still slightly naughty sex? Would it also surprise you that it’s about formula, a fictional blueprint that has been around since Shakespeare solidified tragedy and Heathcliff left Cathy on the wind-swept moors? Would you finally see how, in standard mass media manufactured conformity, it’s nothing more than the Pet Rock with pecs, or Silly Bandz with a little less substance? Or maybe you mistakenly believe that author Stephenie Meyer has create a literary masterwork which demands the kind of feeding frenzy response from women — young and old — that only a timeless treasure can demand.
Whatever the case, the Twilight crazy continues unabated, the latest installment in the cinematic reinterpretation of the series, Eclipse, poised to be one of the biggest films of 2010 (it made $30 million at midnight screenings on 30 June — $30 million in one NIGHT! ). With a 4 July weekend worth of box office receipts to count and a still cresting wave of cultural curiosity to draw from, perhaps it’s time we stop hating and try, for once, to figure out the reasons behind the monumental success of this unstoppable juggernaut of junk (… sorry).
All the reasons listed beforehand apply, but there are also a few more facets we can look into, age old fictional truisms that have been employed since shaman sat around fires formulating their so-called “epic” poetry. Today we call them fairytales, exaggerated examples of basic wish fulfillment that play on a reader’s (or listeners, or watchers) predetermined level of self-worth and need and then specifically addresses said requirements in an easily understandable way. The use of a fantastical element is simple; it makes the experience more “magical”, more special. Since we are dealing in dreams — secret personal wants and desires — the otherworldly aspect is crucial. After all, if you could find the answers in the real world, you won’t need a multi-volume narrative to satisfy your wistful whims.
On many levels, Twilight is unabashedly fundamental. It doesn’t invent new creatures so much as attempt to give them more tangible pragmatic tweaks. That’s why the vampires can survive during the day, seem virtually indestructible, and offer a life that appears tinged with luxury and eons of found finery. Of course, Meyer makes it very clear that each being has their own horrific backstory (gang rape, terrible illness, etc.) to overemphasize the notion of “being saved”. So, when our main characters step up, they each add a piece to the puzzle that forwards the narrative agenda.
Let’s look at them individually in an attempt to recognize their function within the plot, as well as how they maintain and manipulate Meyer’s obvious recipe, beginning with our heroine, the cipher at the center who functions as a doorway to the rest of this private dominion of depression, drama, and daydreams.
Bella is without question a blank void, an empty nothing of a character waiting to be filled up with the reader’s memories of being young, confused, hormonally out of control, and disconnected from the so-called real world. She comes from a broken home (50 years ago, she’d be an orphan living with a distant relative) and views herself as an outsider, even though few around her show her such disregard. Instead, she is consistently embraced — by old friends (Jacob), new classmates, and most importantly, the most enigmatic boy in the entire school. She is hope, filtering through the reader’s/viewer’s perspective to ably pick out thorough those fears and wishes that apply. She is a passive participant, never making a decision without dealing specifically with those who would (and will) decide her fate. As she matures throughout the series, she becomes object of desire, wife, mother, monster, mentor. No female audience member could resist such a vessel into which they can pour their own awkward adolescent adjustment into. Besides, she’s got two certifiable fantasies to choose from, men who each tap into a different part of her personality.
Edward is perfect love – eternal, everlasting, sensitive, caring, needy, vulnerable. He satisfies the ethereal while representing the sensual and the seductive. He is utterly devoted to Bella, anxious over her sole and saving her. He does not want to hurt her — ever — and he plays that pouting card with every conversation. He even resists an initial attempt at pre-marital congress by claiming old world virtues and values. Okay, so he’s a bloodthirsty killer by nature, but Bella alters that, doing what all ladies long to do with the men in their life. Edward finds his love for his paramour so strong, so completely part of his purpose, that he is willing to change his nature (as much as he can) to be with her. The modern gal would commit murder for someone like that, no matter his love of vein juice.
Jacob, on the other hand, is animal lust, uncontrollable libido, ripped shirtless muscle hunk hotness. He vows much of what Edward can claim, but has one facet to his facade he cannot control: the raging animal within. He’s the porcelain figurine version of the bad boy, just wicked enough to stir the loins without totally losing one’s personal dignity. Edward never pressures Bella. Jacob is all musky confronts. He is the epitome of the man mothers tell their daughters to avoid. All he can offer is a six-pack, steamy nights, and suffering. We even get constant reminders of this in the character of the werewolf mate with a scarred face. No matter how valiant he seems, Jacob is a threat, much more than Edward and his undying thirst. But it’s a peril that, once taken between the sheets, no longer matters.
The Substitute Family
Again, Bella comes from the post-modern cliché of the broken home. Her dad is a seemingly ineffectual cop and her mom is reliving her own misspent youth traveling the spring training circuit with her pro ball wannabe boy toy. We get the impression that Bella has never really had a solid home life, or better yet, has never had brothers and sisters to support her. That’s why her clique at school — which she falls into far too quickly — and the open embrace of the Cullen clan provide the necessary fallback should she hit some rocky roads. Even better, she also gets the shapeshifting protection of Jacob’s Quileutes, and what horny teen gal wouldn’t want a band of shirtless himbos hiding out in the woods, ready to address her every… need. With such a support group around her, little lost Bella can always find someone to cloister her dangers… and desires.
The Outside Threat
In each book, Bella (or some direct element of her existence) is the subject of a threat. At first, it’s Edward and his heroin-like need for her blood. Then, it’s parts of his family. Finally, rogue vampire James and his pack. Once defeated, we get the continued pursuit by Victoria and Laurent, and then the interference of the Volturi. Finally, we have the newborn, Riley Biers, and the whole wolf/vamp showdown. Later, Bella will face the trials of motherhood, transformation, and other internal issues. But Meyer wants to make sure we recognize who important the character is to this world, and so almost all conflict is inspired by (or instigated by) our lead or some association with her.
Taken together, these cogs grind away at a set of gears that pander proportionally to an audience’s desire to escape. Just like all examples of the media subgenre, the Twilight books (and subsequent films) provide a service that MGM musicals offered in the ’30s and what soap operas have relied on since the development of long form home entertainment. Sure, it’s all manipulation and manufactured emotion, the sappy line about being “torn between two lovers” jerryrigged into gloomy teen Goth shoe-gazing. A decade from now, someone else will come along and offer up the story of poor Minerva, her sudden move to a forlorn seaside locale, where she must choose between competing demi-gods with universe-shattering powers, each aiming for her wayward high school affections. Until then, rest assured that no one will be name checking this series when it comes to determining “Bests”. It’s just a fad, and as with many such cultural blips, it’s based on a tried and true formula. It’s no more complicated than that.