Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
The answers to two questions will decide the fate of the much-anticipated film Twilight: will it resonate with the fans of Stephenie Meyer’s popular young adult novels, and does this movie have cross-over appeal for people who haven’t read the books?
As both a fan and a critic of the series, my feeling is this: there is something in Twilight to appeal to both audiences, but it will not fully satisfy either. Many of the fans will be disappointed by the creative licenses in the film (which, compared to some adaptations I’ve seen, are actually relatively minor, but Twilight’s fans are a notoriously fanatical lot), and average moviegoers (and perhaps many of the fans) will feel like this movie lacks cohesion, that it tries too hard to be too many things and never finds a tone that fits.
The movie centers around Bella, a teenage who moves to a small Washington town to live with her father. When she enters the local high school, she is immediately attracted to handsome, aloof Edward Cullen. But Edward and his strange family have a secret: they are “vegetarian vampires,” vampires who live off of animal blood. In spite of the obvious problems—she’s 17, he’s 107—their relationship intensifies. It’s a premise full of gothic romance, horror, and teen melodrama—and some of these elements work better than others.
First, the strengths: in the advanced script review I wrote back in August, I noted that Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward, was the wild card of the film. Before Twilight, Pattinson’s highest-profile role was that of Cedric Diggory—who was more of a plot device than a character—in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But Director Catherine Hardwicke took a gamble on a relatively unknown actor, and it pays off big. Pattinson’s performance as Edward is easily the best thing about this film. Rather than depict Edward as the dazzling/scintillating/sparkling/flawless romantic hero that is often imagined by fans of the book, Pattinson’s Edward is always on the edge of insanity. He is a monster with a conscience, a vampire who longs for a human girl, who can’t figure out whether he wants her body or her blood more. You can see how this tears him apart every moment Pattinson is on the screen. As I watched him, I found myself holding my breath, waiting for him to either break down or explode. The irony here is that the Edward character—and Bella’s myopic view of him—always annoyed me in the books. But Pattinson took this character and made it his own, and the effect is incredible. Undoubtedly, as Twilight is both a “teen” movie and a genre film, Pattinson will not get the kudos he deserves for this role. But I would be very surprised if there weren’t bigger and better things in store for him. That said, I don’t know whether all of Twilight’s fans will embrace a version of Edward that is so much darker and more depressed than what they imagined.
But Pattinson’s performance was not the only one that surprised me. Bella’s human friends—whose scenes I often found myself skimming past in the books—provide some much-needed relief to the more intense scenes of the movie. Anna Kendrick as Jessica Stanley and Michael Welch as Mike Newton are particularly good; although their characters are not well-developed, they get a lot of comedic mileage out of them. Nikki Reed as Rosalie, Edward’s disapproving sister, is also a standout in a relatively small role—playing yet another character I never particularly noticed or cared about in the books.
The film also wisely amps up the horror and suspense within the story. Twilight is at its best when it’s at its darkest, and the film seems to withdraw more into the shadows as it progresses, not shying away from the inherent violence in the premise. We get to see the actions of a group of “non-vegetarian” vampires early in the film—well before Bella finds out that an “animal” killed a local security guard. Their presence casts an ominous shadow over Edward and Bella’s relationship: because we witness what the so-called bad vampires can do, we know exactly what Edward and Bella’s relationship could become. And by giving us a little more narrative distance from Bella than the books, Bella and Edward’s relationship comes across in a less romantic, more frightening light. We can see just how much Edward wants to kill her, even if Bella herself cannot. This dynamic makes the movie much more interesting and multi-faceted than it would have been if played as straight romance.
And now, the weaknesses: This movie feels pretty uneven at times, jumping abruptly from comedy to melodrama. Sometimes this works—like when it’s used to showcase the contrast between Bella’s normal life and her supernatural suitor—but other times, it feels out of place. And some of the more dramatic moments in the movie—especially in the beginning—are just so cheesy that they elicited laughter (even from the audience I watched it with, which had about a 3:1 fan-to-press ratio). It’s as if this movie can’t make up its mind whether its muse is Mary Shelley or Molly Ringwald. Even at its darkest, Twilight cannot shake its teen film tendencies entirely. The contemporary pop soundtrack is often jarring, Bella's voice-over narration is annoying and unnecessary, and I really could have done without the end credits that looked like a music video.
The pacing of the movie is also lackluster. Some of the most important scenes in Bella and Edward's relationship seem strangely rushed. In part, this is also a problem with source material, where Bella and Edward's relationship develops at super speed, but it feels less abrupt in book form. Some of the more important background and mythology of the series is also hurried. Naturally, this is not the most interesting part of the story, but I don't know if I would have picked up on all the background if I had been walking into the movie cold.
Teenage girls (and their mothers) be damned: if I had been making Twilight, I would have gone all in with the horror, eliminating the Brat Pack crap entirely. Then, perhaps, the whirlwind nature of Bella and Edward’s courtship wouldn’t seem quite so strange: Bella would not be the teenage “everygirl,” but rather as a gothic heroine swept up into a mythical star-crossed romance. Bella’s human friends would have existed primarily as a contrast to the Cullens, a link to the world she drifts away from after she meets Edward. I would have cut out the voice-overs entirely. (“Show, not tell,” my creative writing instructor always tells me.) The soundtrack would have been almost entirely piano music. (The piano music in the score is actually great, by the way.) I would have revved up the sexual tension about 25% and the violence about 50%—just enough to keep it at that PG-13 threshold—and I would have asked Kristen Stewart to emote about 15% more. Then, I would have marketed the movie more heavily to adults, rather than relying on word to spread through their teenagers. I don’t know whether my way of making the movie would have been the best way. What I do know is that Hardwicke fails to make these types of choices, and the movie is poorer for it.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t hate the movie, and Pattinson’s performance alone was worth watching. But in the end, I think I feel the same way about this movie that I feel about the Twilight book series: I love what it could be, but I’m a little disappointed by what it actually is.