25 November 2008

I'm Not Mean, or, a Considered Twilight Review

Friends, I tread lightly. This is not going to be a no-holds barred review of the new Twilight film. Which, for the record, I wasn't crazy about. Instead, I am going to try to stick to some general comments about the interesting conditions that surround the film and would have made it hard to produce a film that was somehow more satisfactory to me. I will try not to give away any spoilers, and I will try REALLY hard not to do further damage to my friendship with J-Bro.

First, some context. I went to see Twilight Friday night with my 13-year-old cousin, who was so excited that she could hardly contain herself. We would have gone to one of the midnight shows on Thursday, but she had that whole pesky middle-school thing going on Friday morning, so we waited. We went to the last show of the evening, which took place in a 300 seat theatre that was only about a third full. Most of the audience consisted of women between the ages of 20 and 40. There were a few teenagers--but ones clearly old enough to have driven themselves. There were also a couple of boyfriends, and maybe a gay-best-friend or two as well. There was one awesome 30-something guy flying solo as well--clearly he has nothing better to do on Friday nights until The Hobbit finally comes out. I had to admire his moxy.

For the record, I have read the first three books of the series. Scratch that. I've read books 2 and 3. I listened to the first one on CD driving through Utah and Idaho this summer. (It seemed somehow fitting to listen to a story about Mormon vampires living in the PacNW while driving through Mormon country on the WAY to the PacNW!) I don't love these books. But I see the appeal and I don't, ultimately, find it surprising that they have really struck a nerve.

Now--the film itself. Although Stephenie Meyer says that she could see each of the books cinematically as she wrote, upon watching the film, it occurred to me that there are sort of insurmountable problems attached to the translation of this written text to film. This is interesting. And so I'm going to talk about this, instead of talking about the aspects of the film that I did not like that are going to get me into trouble with a friend I actually really respect and value.

1. The Jane Eyre Conundrum. Historically one of the problems of illustrating, staging, or filming Jane Eyre is Jane's own description of her physical self. If we are to believe her, Jane is, literally, a "plain Jane". Throughout the text she refers to herself as unexceptional looking, and compares her looks unfavorably to those of other women. There is a critical tradition that suggests that Jane is an unreliable narrator and that her description of herself might be based on a distorted image formed by childhood trauma. Whatever. The practical result of this is that it confronts artists/directors with a dilemma, given that Jane is the heroine (and lead character) of her own story: represent her visually as she describes herself (not very pretty), or make a conventional choice by casting (or otherwise representing) her as the most attractive woman in the production. One decision is clearly more in keeping with the spirit of Jane's narrative, the other is more likely to please audiences who like seeing love stories featuring attractive characters.

The director of Twilight faces the same choice. Bella also does not describe herself as a particularly attractive girl. And despite her popularity with the other guys at Forks High School (which can easily and plausibly be explained by the fact that she is an outsider in a place that doesn't often get transfusions--excuse the pun--of new blood in the student body population), readers do not necessarily have a reason to doubt her assessment of her own attractiveness. (Evidence for this--she was not nearly as popular in AZ as she is in WA--a fact made abundantly clear by her lack of experience with boys, love, etc.) While I do not think much of her acting, I do believe that Kristen Stewart is a much-better-than-average looking girl. This is a particularly a problem because of the next hurdle:

2. The Un-humanly Attractive Conundrum: In the fictional world that Meyer has created, one of the natural endowments of Mormon vampires is that they are unnaturally attractive. More attractive than a normal human. This is a difficulty on screen because Mormon vampires are, unfortunately, played by normal human actors. This was a concern in casting, apparently, because the casting of Edward Cullen took the consideration of 1000 actors. Unfortunately, Robert Pattinson is not un-humanly attractive (I don't care HOW attractive you might THINK he is--he doesn't look like a god). Nor are any of the other actors/actresses playing vampires in this film. Worse yet, they are not necessarily more attractive than Stewart herself. Especially troubling is the casting of Nikki Reed as Rosalie Hale. Reed is not stunningly beautiful, perhaps not even more beautiful than Stewart herself. This makes the awe of the student population of Forks HS and Bella's intimidation much less believable on screen than in the novels.

3. The Perils of First Person Narrative: Twilight, the book, is narrated in the first person by Bella herself. This is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that she controls the perspective and tone of the narrative. Bella is a detached, disaffected, emotionally flat character. As annoying as I have sometimes found this as I have read the novels, I realize after seeing the movie that her voice is essential to the consistency and success of the tone. The books seem very, very serious to me. There is a feeling of dread, danger, and melancholy that is pervasive throughout the series--which I think accounts for much of the romantic tension between Bella and Edward. It is one of the few things that makes Edward, or Bella's unhealthy obsession with him, remotely believable.

While screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg has given a nod to Bella's narration with some strategically placed voiceover, the camera (and director) necessarily becomes the narrator of this story when it is translated to film. Through the camera lens the perspective widens and the audience sees that Bella's world contains a far more wide-ranging emotional landscape than the novel suggests. The humor in the first half of the film (almost all of which emanates from Bella's peer group at school) is a result of the fact that the camera captures the reality of a high school experience that Bella herself cannot convey because she is either self-absorbed (in the first part of the novel), or preoccupied with Edward (in the second half). This myopic picture of Bella's world is actually more conducive to the suspension of disbelief because the dark and weighty tone allows the reader to enter a world in which eternal love and noble vampires might exist. The injection of "reality" provided by the perspective of the camera only serves to remind the viewer that Edward and his kind (not to mention the all-consuming, yet virginal, passion between Edward and Bella) cannot possibly exist in our world.

These were jarring problems for me, and made it impossible for me to fully enjoy or get lost in this film (something which, in the most ideal of circumstances, is not easy for me to do).

There is one element I'd like to praise the film for though. I did not even realize myself how specifically I had pictured the setting of the story. This probably should not be so surprising, given the fact that it is one of those rare narratives that takes place in my backyard. But I was pleased that so much of the background of the film looked exactly like I had imagined (with only one notable exception). They did get the feel of the NW--particularly the more rural NW--down beautifully. And there are a couple of stunningly beautiful (dark and rainy!) shots of Multnomah Falls.

Ultimately none of my thoughts about the film matter much, since, as J-Bro has commented, I wasn't the audience for this film in the first place. The people it was produced for--my teenage cousin and Jamie, who is a self-professed fangirl--loved it. Fair enough. Truly satisfying things in this world are few and far between--I'm glad that they loved it.

See. Not mean.


qwanty said...

So, I haven't finished (or read more than three pages of) the first book, but I saw the movie with a certain twelve-year-old.

Question: Is the whole hotter-than-mere-mortals vampire attractiveness thing based on Bella's perception as well?

qwanty said...


I'm pretty sure my god looks like Robert Pattinson.

KRD said...

For the record, Robert Pattinson is too girly-pretty, with those full, pouty lips. I'm not into that. I like dudes to look like dudes. (I don't know what I was thinking with Coffee Boy, but that was a long, long time ago, before I refined my taste.)

No. The Mormon Mom makes it very clear that EVERYONE knows that the Cullens/Hales are freakishly attractive. (In fact, in the film Edward references this when he talks about all the advantages that vampires have over their prey. He talks about their natural attractiveness as one of these attributes.) In the book Bella's new frenemies at Forks High discuss the freakish attractiveness of the vamp fam.

This is more problematic, I find, in the film with the non-vegetarian vamps. I mean, I think that Big Love (you know who I mean if you watched House last season) is not only not super-attractive, but actually downright weird looking.

Did said 12-year-old enjoy the film? I was sad that you and I couldn't take our respective young people on a double date and out to get cocoa after. That would have been WAAAAAY more fun.