Now that a few years have passed since the Twilight phenomenon was at its peak, perhaps it’s possible to give the film adaptations a second chance, with the benefit of distanced objectivity. At least this was my line of thinking before sitting down to reacquaint myself with Catherine Hardwicke’s series opener Twilight (2008). The result of my newfound objectivity, however, wasn’t a positive reassessment of Twilight, but rather a revelatory eye-opening to the extent of its insult to narrative art. Quite a turnaround for someone who was, in the interests of full disclosure, 15 and a bit of a Twi-hard back in 2008. The shame.
The franchise, though, far outlived my fangirl credentials, with each film sinking to new levels of cringe inducement, culminating with Bill Condon’s laughable one-two punch of Breaking Dawn, Parts 1 and 2.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before unleashing the ridicule, let’s take a look at the redeeming features – what few there are – of the original Twilight.
It wasn’t intended as a bankable romance
Unfortunately, The Twilight Saga © became a commercial juggernaut of ubiquitous merchandise and screaming pre-teens anyway, but at least that wasn’t Hardwicke’s design. Minus a few sappy mooning-in-picturesque-fields scenes, Hardwicke didn’t attempt to sell a teen romance. In fact, she went further in the opposite direction, refusing to undersell the extreme creepiness of Edward’s (Pattinson) early eyeballing of Bella (Stewart). Bella may be flattered, but for a sane audience member Edward comes across like a serial killer from their very first conversation, in which, fixing Bella within his unwavering and unashamedly direct glare, he says “I’m just trying to figure you out. You’re very difficult for me to read”.
Low camera angles as an uninvited Edward follows Bella into the woods or watches her sleep – psycho behaviour, people! – make such moments unsettling and even threatening – just as they should be.
Perhaps the only element of the franchise which improved as it went on – apart from the time remaining, of course – was the music. Twilight’s soundtrack was a strong start; without tracks like Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole” and Radiohead’s “15 Step”, this mostly languorous film (more on that later) would be lacking a much-needed injection of energy.
Casting is one of the few areas where The Twilight Saga avoided disaster. The most fruitful choice was the casting of Anna Kendrick as Bella’s school friend Jessica. Kendrick portrayed Jessica’s jealousy of Bella’s intriguing-new-girl status perfectly, yet didn’t make her entirely unlikeable. Her efforts were rewarded by a continued (though not narratively necessary) presence in the franchise, and a lot of the best lines, plus the launching of a career in superior projects starting with the likes of Up in the Air.
Billy Burke’s comic timing
Despite the dearth of opportunities for intentional humour provided by Stephenie Meyer’s source material, Burke brings moments of witty levity as Bella’s naïve father. Though saddled with an overplayed pepper spray gag, his swift, sudden movements are gloriously surprising – particularly when a gun cocking precedes his meeting Edward.
Kristen Stewart’s performance
Poor, poor K-Stew. The gilded shackles of the Twilight franchise disguised her acting abilities, gifting Stewart with a slew of progressively terrible wigs, sensationalised tabloid headlines, and that ridiculous nickname. It’s a wonder she’s been able to crawl out of the Twilight cesspit intact. Her recent César award for Clouds of Sils Maria can only be seen as proof of the human capacity for forgiveness.
Stewart stutters, mouth-breathes, and twitches her way through Twilight, unable to transcend the growing pains of her unconvincing “misfit” character. Aiming for awkwardness, she does a better job of suggesting a moderately debilitating speech impairment.
The first-person narration is often lifted directly from the book with no thought given to its new context – witness the jumble of tenses in the opening. Is Bella narrating from the film’s conclusion as later repetition suggests, or from before she left Phoenix for rainy Forks? There’s no telling as these constructions are as clumsy as those of a GCSE French oral exam.
The introspective quality of the novel is partially to blame, but Hardwicke and Melissa Rosenberg haven’t addressed this in translating the story to the screen. The pacing is bloody all over the place; the first two acts are grindingly slow, yet Bella and Edward’s stilted conversation escalates to species-crossing love in what feels like no time at all. The main plot – the Cullens’ clash with the nomadic vampires and Bella’s entanglement in this – is crammed into less than 40 minutes of runtime.
Stephenie Meyer’s cameo…
…is an exercise in how not to stage a novelty stakeholder appearance. Bypassing any chance of little-known-trivia status, the screenplay has a bit-player address Meyer’s “character” by name; “here’s your veggie plate, Stephenie”. Ohmigod, I think it might be the author, in the film! Could it be!?
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if Meyer could act, but instead she shows that some writers are writers, and not actors, for a reason. And this all takes place right under our noses in the foreground of the shot.
“What if I’m not the hero. What if I’m the bad guy…”
“You better hold on tight spider-monkey”
“That’s my monkey man!”
Yes, many, many people read these words and then let actors undermine any smidgen of credibility they may have clung on to by not cutting these shockers from the final film. Against all odds, they have become some of its most enjoyable moments.
The central relationship
In addition to the psychotic behaviour outlined above, the believability of Edward and Bella’s relationship is undermined by the film’s utter failure to present any kind of emotional connection between them. With the dialogue as poor and mundane as it is, and with the frequency of scored or soundtracked “talking scenes” without audible speech, we’re left feeling that Bella and Edward have never had a real conversation and that all that binds them is unfulfilled physical attraction.
With utmost sincerity (and just a pinch of glibness) Twilight’s ending is one of the film’s best parts. Kudos to Hardwicke for smuggling a vampire romance into the familiar confines of a teen movie (seriously, it ends at a prom), but she should have forgone the vampirism – anti-premarital sex message and all – in favour of more realistic fare like her impressive debut Thirteen.
Too bad to be good and too sincere to be so-bad-it’s-good, Twilight is best left relegated to your memory – however misrepresentative it may be.
Film rating: 2/5
Kane rating: 2/5