Futures and Options

Just another town along the road.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sometimes it’s darkest during Twilight.

Recently I passed out of my “mid-20’s” and officially entered my “late-20’s”.  Since marking arbitrary transitions in age is something that our society does well, I actually spent a decent amount of time deciding what I wanted to do.  In the end, it was a simple evening at home with some friends, a calzone (cleverly skirting the fact that I had given up pizza for Lent), and a movie.  Specifically, Twilight.  Yes, I admit that I willingly watched a movie aimed at teen girls.  Call it a train wreck response.  I simply couldn’t resist the chance to see if Flash Gordon might finally have a legitimate competitor.

I was not disappointed.  In the realm of flat dialogue, stunted characterizations, and forced symbolism, Twilight has few peers.

I know what you’re thinking.  Yet another anti-Twilight blogger.  You probably think I’m going to make fun of the fifth-grade attempt at symbolism when Bella arrives in Forks, clutching her little cactus as though the blunt declaration in earlier dialogue that she “always hated Forks” wasn’t already as subtle as a sledgehammer.  Or maybe you think I’ll take pot-shots at lines like, “This is the skin of a killer!” or, “your scent, it’s like a drug to me”.  Or perhaps you think I’ll lament the fact that the best acting in the film (Billy Burke) is wasted by deliberate editing choices that consistently thwart Burke’s attempts at clawing his way out of the one-dimensional “emotionally-absent and overprotective father” stereotype.  Those are all legitimate criticisms, but they aren’t really what I want to talk about.  I won’t even get into the debate about Bella’s frankly dangerous inability to function without Edward.

No, I’m not interested in those criticisms.  I’m interested in the response that the criticisms have received.  The more cogent responses point out (rightly) that these books (and, by extension, the movie) are “junk food”.  And, these responses continue, because the books (and movie) are junk food, and the fans know they are junk food, the criticisms above don’t matter.  Fair enough.  Concerns that these books promote abusive/controlling relationships are certainly overblown.  Women have fantasized over far more controlling characters after all (I know very few women who have not, at some point, at least wondered what it would have been like to be with Heathcliff).  The defenders also point out that these books at least get teens to read when they may otherwise not be inclined to do so, under the theory being that any reading at all is a good thing.  This too is reasonable.

But to these responses, I offer further criticism.  The issue is not so much that the Twilight series is junk food, but rather that it is bad junk food.  There’s a difference between a circus peanut and a bar of Lindt chocolate.  Both are technically junk food, but anyone who has tried both can tell you that there’s a world of difference between the two.  The Harry Potter series are junk food too, but they are reasonably well-written junk food, with characters who have actual flaws and who manage to struggle through relationships without excessive melodrama.  Yes, in Rowling’s books the whole Harry/Ginny relationship is a side plot, but it’s still handled with more depth and believeability than Meyer’s portrayal of Edward and Bella.

It’s all well and good to say that Twilight is at least encouraging teens to read, but suggesting that as a merit seems to me akin to feeding a starving man nothing but those aforementioned circus peanuts and then saying, “well, at least he’s eating”.  “But,” the defenders say, “teens won’t stop with just Twilight, they’ll hunger for more literature; we can use Twilight as a gateway book.”  This is wishful thinking; an example of hope overcoming experience where otherwise intelligent people prefer to delude themselves into believing that non-readers will “graduate” from Twilight to more substantial food rather than to face the reality that non-readers will instead cling to books that embrace Twilight‘s purple prose and simplistic constructions.  (Somewhere, someone is saying that you can’t have both purple prose and simplistic construction.  I can only reply that simply adding a barrage of multisyllabic thesaurus-nuggets does not a complex sentence make; to be sure, such a style can help to increase the reader’s vocabulary, but it does nothing to enhance his or her ability to form a coherent sentence that properly expresses a complex idea.)

I can see the last response to my criticisms coming:  “If the Twilight series were as bad as you believe it is, then there’s no way it would be as popular as it is.  You’re just another literary elietist who wants to scoff at anything that is modern and popular.”  This is where I drop the bomb.  I like Twilight.  I think that the idea behind it could make for a most exceptional series.  I think that the characters have the potential to show great depth and humanity.  In the hands of a competent author, it could be an incredible fantasy series.  Instead, we get Stephanie Meyer and the whole thing falls flat.  That’s the problem.

posted by Zenmervolt at 11:18  

3 Comments »

  1. Indeed – junk food. Good analogy! I found it satisfying, as mowed on Cheezits during the process of reading through all the books one month. I wanted a Harry Potter void filled, and it was substantial enough for me to say I’m a fan….but I still think Harry Potter is better. Waaaaaaaaaay better. The acting in the movie is pretty flat (most noticeably when B&E are driving home from Port Angeles, and Bella boringly says “Your hand. It’s so cold” and then some other equally laughable bland line about seeing her father’s cruiser still at the station.
    The book was way way better than the movie in most ways (the eye candy was a DEFINITE plus side to the movie!), and I think I give Stephenie Meyer more credit because she didn’t start out on a venture to be an author…she just had a dream that she couldn’t shake and just started writing a story. When she finally shared it with her sister, she got encouraged to try to get it published. So whatever flaws are in the book, dammit, the author is just SO freakin sweet and shocked by the whole thing that I can’t hate on her at all.

    As far as slightly disguist at Bella falling to pieces over some boy, it gets worse in the 2nd book (and movie). I cried like a baby when I read New Moon – its incredibly depressing, but when I finally thought about her as a role model, I did get slightly annoyed. But my big epiphany came when I noticed the multiple references to Romeo & Juliet, and comparing the two couples. And then I remembered JUST HOW GEEKED OUT I WAS about Romeo & Juliet as a teen girl. Every first major relationship, particularly when a teenager, is just magnanimous. Everything is just SO HUGE and SO IMPORTANT and saying phrases like “I will die without him” are really not that rare. So that also lets me give the series/characters/author some slack.

    Anyhoo, glad you liked it, at least somewhat 🙂
    Intruiged to see the next movie – with a bigger budget and expectations, I hope they don’t disappoint!

    PS- doesn’t it slightly suck to pass into “upper 20s”? *sigh* :-p

    Comment by Laura S. (formerly known as Z) — Monday, 30 March, 2009 @ 21:02

  2. ….correction. i didnt mean magnanimous. its midnight and my brain is sleepy. i think i meant ginormous or something haha

    Comment by Laura S. (formerly known as Z) — Monday, 30 March, 2009 @ 21:05

  3. Laura,

    You’re absolutely right that the book, and movie, accurately capture the “life and death” perceptions of a teen mind. Everything that happens is “the end of the world” and “Twilight” is not over-the-top in that respect. Of course, I’ve been a jaded old man since I was rather young, so I don’t have a lot of patience for that sort of mindset in real life either, which is naturally going to color my perception of any work that appears to legitimize such beliefs. As with any review, it is as much an indictment of the critic as it is of the work.

    You’re correct that the book was not intended for publication as well, but I don’t believe that the reworking it would need is all that severe (yes, I’ve read the book, the first thing I did after the movie was buy the e-book for my Sony Reader). The plot is solid, the characters have been established, most of the difficult work has been done. All that is really needed is to dial back the passages that sound like they came from a dime-store bodice-ripper. For example, this one:

    “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.”

    A little bit of re-writing in places like the above would immeasurably improve the book. At least, I think it would, but I’m hardly the target market I suppose. 😉

    Comment by Zenmervolt — Tuesday, 31 March, 2009 @ 06:14

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