The Twilight Saga: In 2008, a film was released that focused on a shy, young, social outcast, forging a relationship with one member of a local, unusual family. This family has some unconventional dietary requirements, requiring them to move home every few years to maintain the illusion of their relationship to each other and their seeming lack of aging. An unstoppable bond forms between these two outcasts. Despite attempts from others to separate them, harm coming to those they care about and secrets threatening to disrupt everything they know, their need to be together is unstoppable. It has blood, drama, action, and some beautiful worldbuilding. Let The Right One In was a critical and commercial success, lauded as a masterpiece of the Vampire genre, and being one of those rare films that despite being in a language other than English, is seen by a wide international audience.
The same year, Twilight was released. The paragraph above could be about either of them. Apart from the language thing of course. But unlike Let The Right One In, an international cinematic darling, The Twilight Saga is a pariah of the screen. Disregarded by many as teen romance nonsense with sparkly vampires.
But whilst Let The Right One In has this more high brow influence, The Twilight Saga was arguably further reaching. Spawning a trend of teen films focusing on high concept fantasy, science-fiction, dystopias and wars. Exposing teens, girls in particular, to stories with complicated subtext, wrapped up in a romantic drama. Hollywood now knew that young people could handle more than just house parties, drinking and tit jokes. The audience for teen films expanded to include young women, giving them something to care about beyond just getting the prettiest boy to go to prom.
“And so the lion fell in love with the lamb…”
That's not to say these films aren't without their issues. The relationship between Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) is at times problematic, and a more modern retelling would arguably give Bella far more agency and control over the situations she's presented with. Despite most favouring the first film in the franchise, the final two parts finally made some moves to give Bella some influence over her own destiny. Though for that to come via her marriage and pregnancy is again problematic. Perhaps the worst example of this lack of agency occurs in the second and third films, New Moon & Eclipse. At the time, many feminists viewed the story as an example of a toxic and controlling relationship. With Jacob (Taylor Lautner) being the preferred party over Edwards insistence on making decisions for Bella, and ultimately, hurting her time and time again. A more modern view is less forgiving towards Jacob, as he is also attempting to exert his own control over Bella, by coercing her into forming a relationship with him instead. This “wolflike” nature works in context, but it hasn't aged well.
The control Edward places on Bella is only further emphasised by what became of one particular piece of fanfiction; ‘The Fifty Shades trilogy' by E.L James. Now also a series of (terrible) films, these stories started life as internet fanfic. It was only when people raised concerns about the dynamics of the relationship between James's version of Edward and Bella that she changed their names to Anastasia and Christian and reworked the story to remove the more vampiric elements. The problems remained though, with the BDSM crowd across the internet proclaiming that this was not what their relationships look like. The same criticisms have been levied at Edward's treatment of Bella, though he is a touch more subtle about it. He still makes decisions for Bella that ultimately cause her harm and reduce her ability to control what happens to her. Plus, Edward sneaks into Bella's room to watch her sleep, and that's just creepy.
The wider influence did allow for more feminine agency on screen however, albeit in a short-lived bubble. The Hunger Games series just about made it into that bubble before it burst, but the Divergent series was less lucky, with the fourth film in the series being cancelled, leaving the story with an unsatisfying cliff-hanger ending. The door was left open for more drama than dystopia. Leaning into social trends of representation, particularly in terms of gender, sexual preference and mental health. With successful examples including The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Love, Simon and The Fault in Our Stars. The way was paved for stories aimed at teenagers that address complex emotional themes, perhaps being a reflection of the stresses many young people face.
Literature has of course filled this gap for much longer, novels by Judy Bloom and Jacqueline Wilson reflected children's experiences of puberty, divorce, death, adoption, and conflict un-patronisingly. But it took cinematic representations of these stories for them to be seen by a wider audience, arguably that started with Twilight. Darker storylines about teens before this didn't tend to be made for teens themselves to watch. Examples such as 2003's Thirteen – which shared a director, Catherine Hardwicke, with the first Twilight film, and was co-written by the actress who played Rosalie Cullen, Nikki Reed, and of course 1989's peerless Heathers, which was far from realistic, were more designed to scare or amuse their parents. Albeit being sneakily watched by teens when no-one was watching.
Hollywood wasn't quite as wise to the influence the Saga would come to have unfortunately. Not expecting the first film to do as well as it did, Paramount asked Hardwicke to cut 4 million dollars from the budget days before shooting was due to start, and then once it was successful, she was side-lined in favour of male directors for the subsequent chapters. Thanks in part to the studio decision to bring the second film out just a year after the first, which Hardwicke didn't think was enough time to do the story justice. Unfortunately, despite this teen drama trend being started by a woman, none of the subsequent films had women in the director's chair. Although Sam-Taylor Johnson directed the first ‘Fifty Shades' film, she now says she regrets it thanks to constant on set disagreements with E.L. James and declined directing any of the sequels. Once again women's stories are being told almost exclusively by men, and progress is not entirely what it seems.
“I thought we would be safe forever. But ‘forever' isn't as long as I'd hoped”
The cast of The Twilight Saga have met with mixed success since 2012 when the films were released. The two leads have taken their financial comfort to direct their attentions towards more independent and experimental cinema. Attempts to distance themselves from their reputations associated with teen cinema have allowed them to nurture a career they can be proud of, with both Stewart and Pattinson gaining award nominations despite naysayers who suggest they are untalented thanks to their association with a series many disregard. Though you have to assume that for these naysayers to make that assessment, they must have watched all of them. That's ten hours they've spent watching the Twilight movies. Make of that what you will.
Perhaps the biggest leaps in terms of their careers have come in releases from the last year, with Pattinson being cast as The Batman, a hypermasculine vigilante who couldn't be more different to Edward Cullen. While Stewart has played Princess Diana in Spencer, an engrossing performance with uncanny representations of the peoples' princess's mannerisms.
Taylor Lautner has unfortunately been less successful. You could argue that is down to his race, however he isn't of indigenous descent, nor does he have any non-white ancestry that could explain this. He seems to have instead chosen to take on less challenging roles, focusing on action and comedy.
Anna Kendrick has arguably had the most mainstream success. A comedic multitalented darling, she's been the front of films such as Pitch Perfect and A Simple Favour, making a career out of her slightly kooky but very likeable screen presence.
In terms of plotting, there are some odd choices made. Perhaps thanks to writer Stephanie Meyer not being a horror fan. However, you can't say that the influence from further vampire literature isn't present. Anne Rice and Bram Stoker's style appear, particularly in the latter books and films. The presence of a wider political undertow to vampiric life, and the central control of the Volturi; a group of blood suckers living in Italy who set the laws for vampires across the world, is straight out of ‘Interview With The Vampire'. Though it is less defined in that world, the laws and rules are there, and they are abided by. The choice to make a young vampire causing conflict and death (even though this is a misunderstanding on the part of Bella and Edward) appears in both. Additional to this, there is the exploration to find other vampires across the world and learn about their kind. This sequence doesn't appear in the Neil Jordan film, but in the book, Louis and Claudia spend a huge chunk looking for others of their kind in other regions. They find that other vampires are less evolved and more violent, a racially and colonially charged choice in hindsight. Breaking Dawn Part 2 has this equivalent in the search for another half vampire like Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy), ultimately finding one hiding in a tribe in South America. Acting as a course correction for vampire literature.
“How extraordinary. You would give up your life… for someone like us. A vampire. A soulless monster”
Although the additional powers the vampires have are also present in Anne Rice's stories, Lestat (Tom Cruise) can read minds in a similar fashion to Edward, they go further back. Dracula shares some of these powers, in particular influence and the ability to shape shift into animals. Though some of this originates with the folklore surrounding vampirism, it was honed by Stoker into becoming common tropes. Vampires and sex, particularly sinful sex, have always gone hand in hand. Some of the oldest representations are energy vampires known as Incubi and Succubi, which visited and raped men and women in their sleep. In the case of the Incubus they would impregnate women with half demonic creatures, a story clearly generated from the stigma associated with children born out of wedlock. Dracula coaxes Lucy out of her home to him, and she gives herself to him willingly. Dracula is of course lovingly referenced in the two bloodthirsty Romanian brothers who arrive to help fight the Volturi in the final film.
In the case of The Twilight Saga, the driving force in the relationship is always Bella. She pushes Edward to have sex with her, she pushes him into a continued relationship with her reckless behaviour and by the final film she is in complete control of her destiny. The difference in their ages becomes increasingly apparent as Edward wants to destroy the child Bella carries, in order to protect her. Bella finally has to forge a relationship with Rosalie (Nikki Reed), and a matriarchal control of the family is created to protect and nurture this infant. Despite Edward's constant fear and anxiety. Breaking Dawn Part 1 starts to move into body horror, as the creature that grows within Bella starts to draw her strength, consuming her from the inside. It controls her mind and her desires, she drinks blood, and becomes as close to a vampire as you can without really being one. During the pregnancy, Renesmee is presented as a monster, something to be feared, as she grows and Bella fades before our eyes. Her birth is an explosion of blood, gore and pain. Testing the whole family in their resolve to not attack and kill Bella despite their love for her.
This isn't the first time a demonic pregnancy has been seen on screen of course. It's almost commonplace now, but the comparison with Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby is probably the most obvious. Polanski's films often centre feminine fears surrounding lack of control of their bodies and the fear of men. The comparison is a prescient one. Albeit ironic considering Polanski's history and reputation. It's also a style copied and referenced again in Stewart's performance as Princess Diana in Spencer.
“And I wanna tie myself to you, in every way humanly possible.”
And so, for all the criticism and disregard for the Twilight films as soppy teen movies with sparkly vampires, which they are, there is still plenty to enjoy. They are flawed. There's no denying that. But really the biggest complaint levied against them is that they aren't as violent, or blood filled as other vampire stories. With this in mind, you have to wonder what other vampire stories they're talking about. Dracula, Louis and Lestat were no stranger to a romantic monologue and a frilly shirt. Dracula could go out in daylight. He had superpowers. The more brutal vampire stories have always existed alongside the romantic ones, and there has always been room for both.
Bella and Edward and their underdeveloped characterisation allowed a huge number of teens to place themselves into these stories. Along with the voice overs from Bella which meant the whole story was told from her perspective, and therefore ours.
The wider influence of The Twilight Saga, in teen fiction as a whole can't be overstated. It showed studios that those under eighteen could handle complex stories, themes and relationships. They care about more than prom, new handbags and exams, and perhaps, they should be given a bit more credit.
The Twilight Saga is available to watch on Netflix now.