Twilight is at best a punchline when it comes to discussions of film in both geek and cinephile circles.
As this year’s Comic Con comes to end, it seems appropriate to revisit one of the films that helped transition the convention (for better or worse) from a celebration of geekdom into a requisite stop for any studio or filmmaker releasing a film or television show with even the faintest of fantastical subtext. That film is Twilight, whose stars caused near riots at Comic Cons, unleashing a stampede of “Twi-hards” and “Twi-Moms” on unsuspecting cosplayers. Twilight, however, was never truly accepted by the geek community and certainly wasn’t accepted by mainstream film critics. The film’s legacy, therefore, has been in a sort of limbo. Though it was beloved by its intended audience (teen girls), launched a wildly successful film franchise and set several great careers in front of and behind the camera into motion, Twilight is at best a punchline when it comes to discussions of film in both geek and cinephile circles.
To be blunt, much of the criticism leveled at Twilight reeks of sexism. Twilight is a film for women by women. Its central character is a rather average young woman whose primary motivation is sex. Historically, sexual forthright or even curious women haven’t fared well onscreen. Those who aren’t raped, murdered or committed are typically dressed and delivered for male eyes, all heaving bosoms and raspy whispers. Twilight’s Bella, as written by Stephenie Meyer, adapted by Melissa Rosenberg, directed by Catherine Hardwicke and portrayed by Kristen Stewart, is smart, quiet and dressed in layers because of the Pacific Northwest setting. Her bosom doesn’t heave because she’s in flannel and turtlenecks. She doesn’t whisper; instead, she stutters with teenage confusion. When Bella finds a target for her untested teenage sexuality, she isn’t interested in his personality or his heroic qualities. Instead, she’s turned on by his looks and his car. Oh, and his sparkle, which drove vampire purists mad with rage.
Twilight’s primary virtue is its script, adapted by “Jessica Jones” showrunner Rosenberg, which is much better than the book. In addition to streamlining the tale and eliminating some of the weirder plot twists, Rosenberg also develops Bella and her agency. The book’s Bella is very passive and almost entirely unaware of her power over the vampires. The film’s Bella is more direct. She is the aggressor between herself and Edward, and her interest in him is fairly straightforward: she wants sex. She stares at him hungrily across the school cafeteria, she laments his lack of a bed when she visits his bedroom and she requests that he make her a vampire like him. If the exchange of blood wasn’t enough of a metaphor for sex, Edward’s refusal to “change” Bella is due to his fear of endangering her mortal soul, a threat that has been thrown at nearly every sexually curious teenage girl ever.
Hardwicke understands teenage girls, as she beautifully showed in her earlier film Thirteen. That film achieved more critical acclaim than Twilight in part because it had a grown-up conduit for adult viewers to latch onto in Holly Hunter’s character. Twilight features no such character; it is a tale about teenagers and for teenagers. While Hardwicke makes moves to embrace the genre aspects of Twilight by including schlocky vampire-hunting scenes throughout and with wire-assisted stunt work, she mostly keeps her eye fixed on Bella and Bella’s desires. Twilight features no smart monologues and no adult conflict. Instead, it features kissing, brooding, gossip and bickering. Bella’s narrow-minded pursuit of vampire booty is admirable, not only because of how rare it is for a Hollywood movie to allow its heroine to exert sexual agency but also because it is exactly what most teenagers would do when confronted with a sexy vampire love interest.
In addition to launching the careers of Rosenberg, Stewart, Anna Kendrick (who plays Bella’s delightfully snarky frenemy Jessica) and Robert Pattinson, Twilight was beloved by fans, as evidenced by the opening weekend box office of its sequel, which was double Twilight’s already impressive opening. Though the Transformers series confirms that box office numbers don’t reflect quality, Twilight’s box office success does point towards audience satisfaction, with each film making more than its predecessor at the worldwide box office. The series made over three billion dollars in total.
One thing that rubbed wrong about the remainder of the series was that Hardwicke was shoved aside (and labeled as difficult for demanding more time to prepare) in favor of Chris Weitz, David Slade and Bill Condon. Even in an environment as seemingly as progressive as Twilight’s production, a woman needed to “behave” in order to keep her job. Eerily, that mimics the reception of Twilight as a film. Movies about women are fine; so long as they act the way men expect them to act.