In the Twilight hour: Looking back at Stephenie Meyer’s cult human-vampire romance
It’s been 10 years since the last film based on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series was released. HT looks back at the saga that changed the vampire from a figure of horror to a teen romantic heroUpdated: Dec 08, 2018, 19:48 IST
It landed in my mailbox one morning in 2008. The subject line was ‘mush’ and inside, along with the link to an e-book, was a one-line directive from a friend – ‘read it’. I ignored it. After all, my distaste for mush was well known. But she was oddly insistent. And so it was that on a rainy, overcast day in Kolkata, which could compete with an average day in the US town of Forks – where Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga is set – in terms of the weather that I started reading the first of the series of four books that turned Meyer from a stay-at-home mom of three to a bestselling author. The irony of the downpour in my city, as the novel’s young protagonist, Bella, says goodbye to sunny Phoenix and prepares to move in with her Dad in rainy Forks, was not lost on me. But as yet, I failed to see why my friend had so badly wanted me to read Twilight. It wasn’t something that I would understand till several chapters later, Bella realises that Edward, the boy who had occupied her thoughts from the moment she had first set eyes on him at the school canteen was a vampire. A human-vampire romance!
It’s been 10 years since the last book of The Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn, was published. Ten years too, since the first of the five films set on the novels, Twilight, released in November 2008. Meyer received both accolades and criticism for the books, plus a crazy fan following, and has since moved on to write other books. But not only do the Twilight books continue to define her, they have also successfully created an alternative prototype of the vampire, as against the model set by Bram Stoker in the classic Dracula more than a century ago.
A New Identity
“… how can you come out during the daytime?” Bella asks her vampire boyfriend, Edward. “Myth”, he answers. “Burned by the sun?”, she continues. “Myth.” “Sleeping in coffins?” “Myth… I can’t sleep.” With each of Edward’s answers, Meyer deconstructs all popular ideas about vampires and gives them other characteristics – speed, strength, beauty, charm – that help them as predators, but make Edward a superhero to Bella. Some of them have added talents – Edward can hear thoughts, his sister Alice sees the future...
Some things can’t change though. “You haven’t asked me the most important question yet… You aren’t concerned about my diet? … Don’t you want to know if I drink blood?” Edward questions Bella. But Meyer sets Edward and his family apart from the others of their kind, drawing inspiration perhaps from writer Anne Rice’s vampire, Louis. The Cullens (Edward and his family) and a few of their friends are ‘vegetarians’ – a term that they use for themselves – choosing to survive on animal rather than human blood, though it never quite quenches the thirst completely, doesn’t give them the strength human blood does. Edward is firmly portrayed as the protector, saving Bella from her many near-death experiences and the dangerous situations that she finds herself in. Before Bella finally stumbles on to Edward’s real identity, but realises that he is not a normal boy-next-door, she does confess she has been toying with the idea of his having been bitten by a radioactive spider (an allusion to spiderman). “What if I’m not a superhero? What if I’m the bad guy?”, questions Edward.
He doesn’t miss a chance to remind her that he is dangerous. But even the human blood-drinking monsters – and Bella encounters quite a few along the series, including the royalty of the vampire world, the Volturis – menacing though they are, never take the story down the horror route. Post Twilight, “vampires are now mainstream characters, not merely the dark negative villains of yore”, agrees Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India. Perhaps it is a reflection of the author’s character. In a 2008 interview to Entertainment Weekly, Meyer had admitted that she is “waaay too chicken to read horror.” There is a strong dose of fantasy here – Twilight Saga has both vampires and werewolves – and a near-constant battle between the good vampires and those thirsting for Bella’s blood. But at its core, it is the story of Edward and Bella and their love.
Dream Come True
In interviews since the publication of the books, Meyer has said that she had a dream one night of a human girl and a male vampire sitting in a meadow, conversing about their difficult relationship. In the morning, to hold on to that dream, in the midst of caring for her three young sons, she wrote it down and The Twilight Saga was born. Though Meyer has repeatedly expressed wonder at the success of her books, Thomas Abraham says, “My colleague Megan Tingley at Hachette US who acquired the books saw it as a future bestseller right away when she began reading the manuscript”.
The success of the Twilight series has been mind-boggling – especially since many critics have questioned the quality of writing. On writepractice.com (a site for aspiring writers), one of the writers points put her questionable grammar and wrong use of punctuation. In a 2009 interview in The Guardian, horror and supernatural novelist Stephen King was quoted as saying that “Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn”. But that hasn’t affected sales. In India, says Abraham, the Twilight books sold 600,000 copies in total. The figure is negligible when compared to the franchise’s global sales, he says – over 120 million copies have sold worldwide. The films too have done well. Twilight released in India in 2009, after its US release of 2008. “The Twilight Saga began with a net collection of ₹66 lakhs and ended with ₹8.35 crores with Breaking Dawn: Part 2,” says a spokesperson for PVR, the distributor of the films in India.
According to reports in the foreign media, Meyer has a strong fan following, especially among young girls, who often wait for hours to meet her. They go by various names – Twilighters, Fanpyres and Twihards. In Forks, the town’s chamber of commerce celebrates an annual gathering of fans – Forever Twilight – around the time of Bella’s fictional birthday in September. The series has also given a spurt to works in the paranormal and vampire genre, says Abraham. Over 200,000 stories were written online as fan fiction, the most notable being EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey [which emerged as another bestselling series that was made into films and created a subgenre of erotica referred to as ‘mommy porn’], he says. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, when Meyer was asked whether she had read Fifty Shades… her answer was a firm “no”. She explained: “Erotica is not something I read … There’s a reason my books have a lot of innocence. That’s the sort of world I live in.” Meanwhile, many have branded Twilight as “abstinence porn” and accused Meyer of preaching “sexual purity” to young girls. As Stephen King had put it in The Guardian interview, “It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”
The readership for Twilight, as Abraham says, is “mainly the young adult segment with a crossover into romance”. This, says the PVR spokesperson, is also the main audience for the Twilight films. Critics worry about the kind of example the books and films set to young girls. Bella’s life revolves around Edward – her mother at one point says she is like a satellite to Edward and when Edward moves, even the tiniest bit, Bella shits accordingly in response. When he leaves her - for her own good, because he is dangerous – Bella herself identifies with the lifeless zombies in a movie that she goes to watch. Feminist readers of Twilight are concerned with the portrayal of Bella – she suffers from low self-esteem, thinks herself not good enough for Edward and is always the damsel in distress needing protection from Edward and her werewolf friend, Jacob. Edward decides the boundaries of their relationship (especially the physical, and is obsessed with protecting her virtue), whether her friends are too dangerous for her or not and places her under the watch of his family when he has to leave. At one point in the series, Meyer does make Jacob point out to Bella that Edward is like a guardian whose permission Bella has to seek before coming to meet him and that he does not allow her to have any fun. He also points out to Edward that Bella has the right to know the danger she is in, when Edward holds back information to not scare Bella. But Bella though often furious with Edward is quick to defend him in front of others. And Jacob himself, though younger to Bella in years, treats her with characteristic male indulgence.
Meyer has also been criticised for making Bella take on the traditional ‘women’s tasks’ – cooking and cleaning. She is also always ready to sacrifice herself to protect those around her.
The criticism has not failed to touch Meyer. Media coverage of an event celebrating 10 years of Twilight, quoted her as saying, “I don’t have a thick skin. I don’t think it would be normal for an author to have a thick skin …so criticism, which I’ve had my share of, is difficult for me.” Perhaps, reading too deeply into Twilight is not fair. You could say it’s just a romance, like many before it. But Meyer’s success and the extreme popularity of Twilight raise questions about the example it sets.