We would like to be different—like the vampire we like.
— Laurence A. Rickels, The Vampire Lectures1
Stephenie Meyer had never read about or seen a vampire—on-screen or in her heart—before.2 The first she encountered was in a dream, where one stood on a field with a girl by his side. In a gushing post on her website, the author divulges her vision:
“[They] were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.”3
The lovers’ discourse will later become chapter 13 of Twilight, a formative but forbidden romance novel adored among teens and a sizable number of adults, published in October of 2005. At the height of its popularity, my school library labeled the books with scarlet warning stickers of shame, and local churches warned congregations to beware its pagan temptations. Despite its salacious reputation, Meyer’s text reads more like a teenage daydream—impassioned, meandering soliloquies by one too pretentious and tender to be plainly horny—than heavy-handed smut or the lush mythologies of Anne Rice. The gaps of a childish imagination, however, leave plenty of room for amorous projections.
It begins on the first day of school, somewhere in Forks, Washington. New girl Bella Swan meets eyes with cool guy Edward Cullen in the school cafeteria. He is a 109-year-old vampire, a goth-jock hybrid (brooding and muscular, favorite song is "Clair De Lune"). She is seventeen, a cross between an emo kid and a nerd (wears flannels and reads Wuthering Heights). Since he has already been damned by heaven for cheating death, theirs is a match made in hell. Within a semester, Bella becomes part of Edward’s vampire family and lifestyle, and is soon entangled in a vicious battle against rival vampires, involving kidnapping and a smashed wall of bloodied mirrors. They also begin seriously planning for marriage. With love on the line, the potential of any irreversible repercussions is an afterthought. Bella’s wishful thinking—and through her, ours—is that somewhere along the fine line between risk and risqué, she has found something that will last forever.
November 21, 2008: Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight opens nationwide. Predicted to be only a mild success, the film, starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, subsequently breaks box office records. The rest—the hordes of "Twi-hards" and "RobSten" obsessives, an unimpressive parody entitled Vampires Suck and an equally lucrative fan-fiction franchise, Fifty Shades of Grey—is pop history.4 The screenplay, written by Melissa Rosenberg, is nearly identical to its source. But to the skeleton of Meyer’s text, Twilight supplies warm flesh, and with it, an otherworldly—and overwrought—sensuality. One year prior, Meyer writes that she imagines Bella and Edward as Emily Browning and Henry Cavill.5 Instead, Hardwicke casts Stewart and Pattinson, thus launching them into stardom. Within the Twilight universe, however, the pair performs as if they’re two funhouse mirror reflections of the same person, simultaneously disturbed and enthralled by their shared introduction to heterosexual courtship. (Fans, and Pattinson himself, have even supported the possibility of Bella, Edward, or both, being gay—a solid rationalization of the couple’s inconsistent spark and their auric resemblance.) Both whisper breathlessly, their faces nervously fidgeting while their hands grab at each other. When not conversing in coded metaphors for vampirism (“The lion fell in love with the lamb”), jaws hang open with hunger. Cinematographer Elliot Davis filters each frame through the teals of moss and fog, replacing the sultry black and red design of the books with autumnal melancholy, set to pop-punk music quietly playing in the background. If the book sets out to be Bella Swan’s diary, then the film is her MySpace page: an embarrassingly earnest but deliberate creation of a better self, accompanied by a moody playlist. Recent viewings of the film have made it clearer that the escalation of events is at once hilarious and hypnotically charming—a perverse enjoyment akin to scrolling through a couple's shared social media posts, wondering if this may turn out to be their best or worst mistake.
After Edward heroically rescues Bella from moving cars (he punches a van with his bare fist) and catcallers (he reads their thoughts and threatens to kill them), a double-edged crush is formed. Fascinated by his supernatural abilities, she would like not only to be with him but also to be (like) him: Impossibly cunning and seductive, glittering under the sun, mentally and physically superior to the rest of the human race. The process of becoming a vampire, as explained by Edward and later sequels, involves an excruciating spread of venom through every burning cell. But, having become hyperaware of the aging process by suddenly finding a market of anti-aging products, Bella cannot quell her swelling fear of getting older and the gift of immortality laced in a hot boy's fangs.
This thirst for omnipotence—a quick fix to a loss of agency in a man's world—still requires a sacrifice of body and soul to a cold man trapped in the body of his teenage self. In the decade since the rise of Twilight, Bella and Edward's relationship has been widely interpreted as a “template for violence and abuse,” albeit sometimes with condescending assumptions of a subjective audience's capacity for critical thinking.6 Indeed, Edward watches Bella while she sleeps and trails her car without consent. Hesitant to kiss or hold her (and one day consummate their love—but only after marriage) because of his unwieldy strength, he repeatedly tells her that he might suddenly “lose control”: He has already killed others, and one day could even kill her. Bella is unsurprisingly electrified by Edward's wildly naughty attraction to her; the camera jolts to match her impassioned pulse. She assures him that it does not matter, because she trusts him. Beneath all of our philosophizing, we are reminded that the film's notions of morality and mortality are inseparable from its characters' lack of maturity: Matters of life and death, sex and bodily autonomy, are all wholly guided by the flirtations between a bad boy and a good girl.
As filmmaker, Catherine Hardwicke does not vilify Bella’s plunge into danger as much as wistfully relish in the girl’s voluntary and volatile self-destruction. A fistfight commences Hardwicke’s feature debut Thirteen (2003): Sitting on a bed, two stoned girls take turns punching each other in the face. In the skater flick Lords of Dogtown (2005), kids fling themselves over fences and roll down stairs for sport. These aggressive acts are a rite of passage without lessons or rewards, only the enlightened sense that you are really alive. A liberating feeling should be distinguished from total liberation, but when one still lives by a curfew catharsis comes close enough. When asked if Bella is an anti-feminist heroine, Meyer explains that she believes feminism is “being able to choose.” Whether these choices are made in a teenager’s best interests is no matter, so long as she has an interest and the guts to follow after it.
An artifact of a cultural landscape from before Rookie Mag and Teen Vogue made sociopolitical consciousness as relevant to young readers as horoscopes and boy talk, Twilight shamelessly anchors itself to Bella and Edward’s love affair, rarely looking outside of itself. But is there such an era of one’s lifetime as a pre-political phase? Bella chooses to see Edward as the love of her life, and thereby chooses not to see any troubling patterns latent in the logic behind her decisions: Her fervent admiration of Edward’s white skin; the Cullen family’s hostility towards the Native people of the local Quileute tribe—werewolves who, in the sequels New Moon (2009) and onward, are referred to as “dogs”—and the aforementioned connotations of domestic violence. The escapism of eroticism, and its mass appeal, is here linked to a ladder of power. Through Bella as a vessel, one may vicariously reap the twisted joy of reckless selfishness and the sexy rewards of complicity as afforded to a fictional white girl.
A film that circumscribes all acknowledgment of its placement in the world might be called irresponsible, but one that is rated by the MPAA as PG-13 is better described as age-appropriate, for better or for worse. Confined to the perspective of a seventeen-year-old, the film constantly flits between tones and paces, multi-tasking without fully processing any territory at all. Twirling tracking shots are disrupted by cuts to handheld as Bella juggles her time between small town drama (finding a dress for prom) and supernatural peril (taking a vampire to prom, trying not to die before then). Bella flails between desires and dreams and anxieties: Everything is a very big deal and there is perpetually much to think about, except for whatever tangible responsibilities you really have. Classes are truncated by flirtation and fantasies, and the only educational material Bella interacts with is a copy of Romeo and Juliet. The prom-set finale of Twilight closes the curtain on youth—a clammy-handed slow dance, knee-length leggings worn under a turquoise-frilled dress—and sets the stage for adulthood.
Following Twilight’s release, Summit Entertainment pressured Hardwicke to immediately begin preparing for its sequel, New Moon. She backs out, and takes with her an age of innocence to which the series can never return. Bella inches closer to a future where she is stronger, prettier, and paler, but these later chapters lack the weightless innocence of first love, its fantastic blues exchanged for crimson and cream. Years later, in the comparatively massive two-part finale, Breaking Dawn Part One (2011) and Part Two (2012), directed by Bill Condon, the high school sweethearts become a married vampire couple with a baby. The epic concludes in that same meadow of Stephenie Meyer’s mind, where Bella and Edward steal away to renew their commitment of eternal love for one another. Although they have conquered death, the pair looks lifeless among blurry flowers. Before the final credits roll, the image freezes, and the frame is drained of color.