20 December 2008

twilight

I took my wife to see the Twilight movie a couple days ago. I had already seen it on my own the week before, because I knew that I’d be chatting with Pastor Wilken about it on Issues, Etc., but I wanted to get LaRena’s reactions, too; besides, it made a nice little date for the two of us. The movie isn’t great, but it is mildly entertaining, immensely popular, and somewhat of interest to me for a variety of reasons. LaRena enjoyed going to see it with me, and I appreciated her observations afterwards.

The Twilight book doesn’t lend itself well to the movie medium. It could have been pulled off better than it was, but it would have been a challenge. The book’s literary strength is found in its descriptions of inner thoughts and its extended exploration of emotions. I suspect that same quality is also part of its massive appeal to young women — tweens, teens and twenty-somethings, especially. But with so much of the story occurring inside the heart and head of the narrator, it’s a tough act to portray theatrically, and I’m sorry to say that the leading lady and her leading man did not manage to carry or convey the emotional weight of their respective roles. The movie sets the stage well enough for the several sequels which are bound to follow, but it is otherwise content to dwell upon the rather thin plot. There’s just not a lot that actually happens in the first book of the series. Twilight is not so much a story as it is a long soak in a hot bath, an immersion in emotions, relationships and feelings, love and romance. The book savors the emotional experience of those feelings, in a way the movie simply doesn’t manage.

The movie isn’t a total loss. It is entertaining, and, like the books in the Twilight series, it is refreshingly free of promiscuity, foul language, gratuitous violence, drugs and alcohol abuse. Some of the supporting roles were spot-on, I thought, both in their appearance and behavior. That helps to prop the movie up, but it’s a shame that Bella and Edward, the heart and soul of Twilight, aren’t more convincing. The actress playing Bella looks the part beautifully, and she does some things very well, but she doesn’t capture the mind and spirit of her character. How could she, really? But if you’re going to put this book on the big screen, you’ve got to find a way to express what’s going on inside of Bella. Perhaps she’ll grow into the part in the course of the subsequent movies. She does already look it. Not Edward, though. I’m no judge of male "beauty," but, sorry, this actor doesn’t have anything like the chiseled, statuesque, Greek-godlike appearance that the book goes on and on about (and on and on again). I was mentally picturing something more like Michelangelo’s David, the white marble rendering of an otherwise ruddy good-looking young man. Maybe I’m missing something, or maybe it’s just not possible to find anyone as beautiful as the Twilight vampires are glowingly described. Edward’s sister, Rosalie, for example, is supposed to be the breathtaking, staggering epitome of feminine beauty, but the actress that plays her in the movie has nothing but the same generic cheerleader look of the "mean girl" in every teen movie made since the 1980s. The rest of Edward’s family is more convincing in the movie; Dr. Cullen is just right, and Alice is perfect (my wife loved her cute hairdo).

Bella’s parents, too, fair well in the movie. I appreciate the way that her Dad is portrayed; he’s a likeable and sympathetic character, and that is how it should be. Bella’s high school friends are right for the movie, too, which is important to preserving the atmosphere of the book. We don’t see a lot of Jacob, yet, in this first installment of the series, but he’s going to be of central importance before long. It bodes well for the second movie, New Moon, that the actor playing Jacob seems to have it. The real challenge in that sequel, again, will be Bella’s inner thoughts and feelings.

The young ladies are the ones who have made the Twilight series of books, and now the first movie, such a popular success. The story is told from Bella’s first-person narrative perspective, so readers are drawn into her world, see it through her eyes, and interpret it via her experiences and reactions. Women have resonated with that perspective, with the way that Bella feels and the way that she deals with her various relationships, with Edward in particular, and then also with Jacob. Aside from enjoying the books for the story they tell (which gets better as it goes along, in my opinion), I am intrigued by the insight they give into the female psyche; I find that interesting and helpful to me in my several vocations as a husband, a father of several daughters, and a pastor responsible for the spiritual care of both men and women, young and old. The author of these books, Stephenie Meyer, has struck a chord with an astounding number of female fans, adolescents, teenagers and adults, married and single, mothers and daughters. Significantly, she has done so in some ways that are remarkably counter-cultural. Her books are hip and edgy, yet they operate on the assumption of fairly conservative, traditional mores.

Not surprisingly, the Twilight series has been favorably compared to the Harry Potter books, and one can point to similarities between them. Each is written by an adult women, a mother, making her publishing debut. Both sets of books focus on teenagers interacting within a typical school setting, while incorporating magical or supernatural elements as a fundamental literary device. Both have met with huge success and are being made into major motion pictures. Both are shaped by their authors' personal religious beliefs and convictions, addressing themselves to some of life’s most basic questions. J. K. Rowling is a Christian, and her books depict the sacrificial character of real love in contrast to the selfish lust for power, and the ultimate victory of faith in the Resurrection, in opposition to the fear and despair of death. Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon, and her books depict a reverence for human life, the significance and values of familial bonds of love, the virtue of abstinence, and the value of marriage. If there is a soteriology (a doctrine of salvation) in Meyer’s books, it is one of works righteousness; not rooted in Christ but in good works. Her work is not theological in its intent, but ethical.

Unfortunately, a non-theological ethic is inherently idolatrous. To be good for goodness’ sake is better than being bad, but "goodness" is defined by one’s "god," whether true or false, for good or evil. Thus, it is helpful that "goodness" in the Twilight series is basically defined by the Ten Commandments, which coincide with the natural law that the one true God has written into the human conscience. That much really is well and good in these books. But there is another god that sometimes rears it head, especially in the first two books, namely, the idol of romantic love. This is troublesome, because it is false and misleading; yet, I suspect, it is also one of the attractions of this series for young women. Men often do not take relationships seriously enough; but women can too easily take them too seriously, and that is a red flag on the play, my one real caution and concern with these books. Bella does not believe that Edward is soulless or consigned to hell, but at various points she expresses a willingness to be damned along with him, rather than to live without him. Edward is torn by his all-consuming love for Bella, because he believes that he is dangerous and deadly to her physical and spiritual well-being, but he is unable to resist his desire to be with her. Each of them becomes the other’s god, the measure of what is good and bad, the criteria of right and wrong. They worship each other at all costs, and their relationship, of itself, reigns as the supreme deity above all else. If they are bereft of each other, then death or despair is all that remains for them. Such idolatry is perverse, in a way that fictional vampires are not; but precisely such idolatry is rampant in our fallen non-fiction world. It is why girls sell their souls for boys, and boys sell their souls for girls, and girls make a god out of romance, while boys make a god out of sex. Romantic young men and lustful young women notwithstanding. I fear that Twilight is so popular, to some extent, because it elevates the false god of romance above the false god of sex.

My concerns along these lines were most prevalent as I read through Twilight and New Moon, the first two books in the series. The third and fourth books, Eclipse and Breaking Dawn, temper the idolatry of romance with a developing emphasis on the values of marriage and children, family and friendship. In fact, that begins already in New Moon. There is a sense in which the reader learns and grows along with Bella as the series progresses, and that is a literary strength which lends both interest and purpose to the books. Not everything is handled perfectly, but there is an effort to grapple with the complexities of life instead of simply drowning in the shallow pool of romance. Bella’s friendship with Jacob, their love for each other, grows out of their comradery of shared interests and activities. Figuring out how that relationship can fit together with Bella’s unwavering commitment to Edward requires greater balance and maturity than the superficial fascination and mutual obsession of Twilight.

For all of that, though, the various young ladies I have talked to about the series, almost without exception, far and away prefer the first book to any of the rest. They like the "romance," which, if I have understood correctly, describes Edward’s devotion to Bella; the way he lives for her and sees nothing else; his care and concern for her above all, and his drive to protect her from any harm of any kind. In fact, it is specifically Edward himself that most appeals to the female fans of Twilight. He is portrayed and perceived to be the perfect man. He is beautifully handsome, but far more than just a pretty face. He is incredibly strong and fast, but he uses his physical prowess to guard and keep the woman and her virtue, rather than taking anything from her. He is intelligent and perceptive; yet, even in this respect, though he can instantly read every other mind, he takes nothing from Bella against her will, but receives only as much as she reveals by her words and actions. He is conscientious to a fault. He is willing to suffer all manner of personal hurt and difficulty, for the sake of serving Bella’s happiness. The masculine traits that are normally so frustrating to women, in Edward are turned into merits: He is utterly obsessed with one thing, but that one thing is Bella. What is more, his romance for her is sincere and genuine; he’s not manipulating her for sex, but loving her because she really is the most important thing to him. He accommodates her to the fullest extent possible, but without endangering her in body or soul; he will not risk her soul, nor rob her virtue, even when she herself would give these up for him. He is permanent and unchanging; which, in Edward’s case, is fine, because he is already so perfect. At least, so far as I can tell, that is how the young women perceive him, and that is why they love him.

Yet, Edward is a vampire, after all, and so there is this danger and mystique about him, as he well knows. The books really aren’t about vampires, though the author has offered a creative interpretation of that classic mythology. But the vampires are the literary device that contributes a narrative tension to the otherwise familiar themes of romantic love and relationships. That Edward is a vampire exacerbates the sexual temptations and emotional risks inherent in any romance. It heightens the drama and lends it the sort of life-and-death significance that people often imagine in the midst of new love and attach to their infatuations. His supernatural perfection is also his curse and a constant threat of destruction.

Stephenie Meyer’s point, it seems to me, is that Edward’s identity and character are ultimately defined, not by his nature as a vampire, but by his commitments and choices. It is neither his astonishing abilities nor his dangerous inclinations that make him the man he is, but his deliberate decisions to do what is good and right; to protect rather than destroy human life; to love instead of lust; to give instead of take. One of the young ladies I chatted with about Twilight expressed her concern that these books set forth an impossible ideal, which could be misleading to female readers who are invited to long for something that doesn’t exist. She has a good point, and I suppose there are women who fall into that trap, whether from reading Twilight or from some other influence of popular culture. Parental oversight and guidance, and especially ongoing catechesis in the Word of God, are the necessary keys to real wisdom in the navigation of life and love. However, I believe that Meyer intends to suggest, in her own way, that Edward’s most important qualities are not those of impossible perfection, but those of heart and mind, of conscience and will; his commitment and choices to abstain from evil and do good. These are qualities that young women should be encouraged to look for in a man. I believe that may be the point.

Such choices are counter-cultural, both within the fictional context of the story and in contrast to the common expectations of the contemporary real world. Edward and his family are defined by their choice to live entirely on the blood of animals, against all of their natural instincts to drink human blood. They are viewed as an absurd oddity by the vast majority of the world’s vampires, but the contrast goes beyond their diet. Edward’s family is marked by familial bonds of love and commitment, which set them apart from the alliances of fear and the aggressive power struggles that characterize the society of vampires otherwise. Edward’s "father," Dr. Carlisle Cullen, is described and depicted as a man of compassionate care and charity of spirit, directed by his well-defined conscience. His reverence for human life is all the more striking because it stands so strongly against a vampire’s "natural" inclination. That example translates easily in application to many real-world scenarios.

Similarly, Edward’s refusal to fornicate with Bella, or to risk any sort of sexual intimacy with her prior to marriage, seems remarkably old-fashioned in such a modern-day setting as one finds in the Twilight series. In fact, he pointedly hearkens back to an earlier time when such principles of conduct were understood to be matters of honor and integrity. His concerns include the physical damage that his passions might cause, but his convictions are finally explained as a protection of Bella’s virtue. He is willing to attempt the consummation of their marriage, when that time comes, but he will not violate her purity and chastity before then. While this attitude might be expected to come across as quaint or passé, it actually contributes to Edward’s appeal and to the romantic qualities of these books.

On Bella’s part, there is an aversion to the whole idea of marriage, especially the prospect of getting married at a young age right out of high school. Her parents’ divorce, and her mother’s regrets, have shaped the way that Bella perceives the institution of marriage. She has no difficulty with commitment, nor any doubts about Edward; she is ready and eager to become a vampire herself, in order to spend forever with him. Marriage, though, she fears and would prefer to avoid or put off indefinitely. That attitude really bugged me in the earlier books, though it is admittedly a common point of view. In retrospect, it seems that the author was moving toward a change of heart in Bella, which probably proves instructive to her readers, as well. Notably, when Bella tells her mother that she and Edward are engaged to be married, her mother responds positively, and already that begins to reshape Bella’s thinking as the wedding approaches. Even more significantly, it is in her marriage to Edward, before she has become a vampire, that Bella finds the permanent "forever" that she was longing for. This is a remarkable depiction of marriage in a culture so permeated with divorce and the whole gamut of fornication that is now taken for granted.

If the Twilight series is decidedly pro-abstinence and pro-marriage, it is no less so pro-life; not only in the Cullen’s difficult dietary discipline, but in Bella’s adamant refusal to have an abortion when her very life is threatened by the child in her womb. This is in the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, after she and Edward have been married. To everyone’s surprise, she conceives a half-human-half-vampire child, which will almost certainly destroy her body and life if brought to term. It presents the classic sort of case in which the staunchest pro-life advocates are most likely to permit an abortion, for the sake of preserving the mother’s life, but Bella will not allow it. Though she has given no prior thought to having children, she loves the baby in her womb, and she is not only willing but determined to risk her own life for the protection of that child. The entire gestation period occurs in the span of a single month, rather than the usual human nine, and simply carrying the child is breaking Bella’s ribs, then finally her spine. She is spared from death only by the fact that Edward transforms her into a vampire after the delivery, but she would have been content to die for her baby’s sake. Again, the excruciating ethical choice is made, in contrast to the reigning attitudes and expectations of our societal culture.

I’m not quite willing to describe the Twilight series as a "morality tale," but conscientious choices and decisions are a strong underlying theme throughout these books, increasingly so as they progress. Even the "impossible" romantic relationship that provides the cornerstone and bedrock of the first book is dealt with as a moral dilemma, which finds its resolution in the choosing of good over evil. "Good" itself is defined by such positive choices, over and above and even against the presumed dictates of "nature." Not circumstances but commitments drive the main characters. That is all the more apparent in the fifth book, Midnight Sun, still a work-in-progress but available in partial draft on Stephenie Meyer’s website. That book retells the story of the first book, Twilight, from Edward’s perspective instead of Bella’s. I have found it fascinating, especially because it reveals the extent to which Edward is driven by his determination to do the right thing, no matter how difficult it may be for him. I retain my concerns about the idolatry of romantic love portrayed in these books, but, with respect to civil righteousness and human life in this world, I do appreciate the emphasis on conscientious commitments.

Whether Twilight is a morality tale or not, it is anthropocentric rather than Christological. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t read it, but one shouldn’t read it for theology. On that point, it falls short. Which is a shame, because there is, in truth, the one perfect Man who has redeemed and sanctified our human nature by His divine compassion, by His gracious commitment to save us, by His conscientious choices and decisions, and by His good works of perfect righteousness in fulfillment of the whole Law of the one true God. He set aside His divine prerogatives, though not His divine nature, in order to rescue us and raise us up with Himself. He is faithful in all things; He will never leave us nor forsake us. He has reconciled us to Himself, our true and eternal Bridegroom, though we were unfaithful, sinful and unclean in all our thoughts, words and actions. He has given us new birth as the children of God, though we were conceived and born in sin, subject to death, as the natural children of fallen man. Our human relationships, whether of romance, family or friendship, are at their best when they are realized in Christ our Lord; and all of them rightly point beyond themselves to Him and to His Bride, the Church. In Him, we have the real true love, which is forever and ever, which even death shall not destroy.

7 comments:

The Celebrated Author said...

Another thing that annoyed me is that Bella is somewhat every girl's dream: she goes to a new girl and is instantly popular. She's the mysterious stranger. Almost immediately she has three guys fighting over her, and then ends up with the handsomest one. She says she's not beautiful, but it ends up she is. She's too humble, anyway. I know I don't think like that.

I've figured out her and Edward's relationship.
Bella: You're awful pretty.
Edward: I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you... (runs out of breath)
Bella: (small pause) I don't believe you. (small pause) You're awful pretty.

The Celebrated Author said...

*School*. She goes to a new *school*. Grr.

W.T. Odom said...

your concept of the "idol of romantic love" is quite fascinating. I had never thought of putting it that way.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Celebrated Author, you crack me up. I think you've nailed the gist of their relationship in the first book. It gets a little more sophisticated in the subsequent volumes.

Bella does go on a bit about how "pretty" Edward is ;-) However, when Jessica comments on his lovely face, Bella immediately responds that there's even more to him behind his face.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your comment, also, W.T. Sadly, we sinners can turn almost anything (or anyone) into a false god, including the good gifts of the one true God, which are good in themselves but become idolatrous when we fear, love and trust in them above the Giver.

I'm grateful that you and the Celebrated Author have commented, also because I am reassured that at least two people read my post.

The Celebrated Author said...

Oh, Pastor. Who could resist your blog?

Miss Crowley said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!! This is exactly how I feel about the books! I'm stuck in the middle of people who love them without reservation and people who hate them because they're "badly written". I realize they're not perfect literature, but I do like the story and the pro-marriage and pro-life undertones (as moralistic as they may be).

And it was an excellent breather between reading Tolstoy and Dr. Just... ;-)