Thursday, August 30, 2007

Friendly Vampires: a Review of the Twilight Series

I have had a very special place in my heart for vampires ever since I first read Dracula back when I was in third grade. I read it over the course of several weeks during the morning bus ride to school. I have very fond memories of trying to read via streetlight in the early morning hours. I guess there is a reason why I wear glasses today. If you are thinking that Dracula is not exactly suitable material for a third grade son of a rabbi well I turned out the way that did for a reason.
To say that I like vampires does not mean that I particularly care for books and films about vampires which are by and large dreadful. The question is what did Dracula do right that has not, by and large, been reproduced by others? Keep in mind that I am talking about the Bram Stoker novel not any of the dozens of films that it spawned. The conclusions that I reached a long time ago were as following.
1) Vampires need to be satanic creatures. Dracula is irredeemably evil. He seeks to drink the blood of as many people as possible (particularly if they are beautiful women), change them into vampires and make them his servants. He is of interest in that he serves as the evil incarnate against which the characters in the story must come face to face with. Any attempt to give vampires redeeming virtues defeats the purpose and reduces the story to a helpless muddle. This is one of the problems with Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Interview with a Vampire and its sequels. Her main vampires Louis, Lestat and Armand seem to sift their modes of thinking from one page to the next. What do they think about killing humans and under what circumstances? Because of this one fails to connect to the character and the books become nothing more then a bloody mush.
2) Vampires require rules and limitations. Dracula is incredibly powerful. Besides for the fact that he is physically capable of overpowering any human, he can turn himself into a bat or a wolf and even travel as mist. Above all he is immortal. He cannot be killed or even harmed except by very specific means. That being said, Dracula operates under some very severe limitations. He cannot go out in the day. Sunlight is one of the things that can kill him. He must sleep every day in a coffin filled with earth from his native country. His reflection does not appear in mirrors. He cannot enter the dwellings of the living unless he has first been invited in. He can be repelled by garlic, crosses and holy water. Daylight will turn him into dust and ashes, but he can also be killed by a wooden stake hammered through his heart. Pretty much every vampire story I know of at some point goes into a litany of how most of what is said about vampires is a myth and then proceeds to get rid of various things just listed. The important thing is not so much that vampires operate specifically by these rules but that they have firmly set rules in place that limit what they can do and make it possible for humans to hurt them. Having rules in place changes the nature of the conflict and makes it more of a chess-match rather then a formal fight. Abraham Van Helsing and the rest of the group that goes after Dracula do not physically fight him; they out think him. Rather then seek Dracula in a head to head confrontation they go after his hiding places and try to flush him out. Rather then seek them out, Dracula lurks in the shadows and tries to go after their loved ones.
3) Vampires should not take center stage but should rather lurk in the background. This may come as a shock to those who have not read the book, but Dracula is not the main focus of the story and has very little actual “screen time.” He appears at the beginning of the book when Jonathan Harker comes to Transylvania to finalize the details of Dracula’s purchases of various estates in England and his move there. For the rest of the book, starting from when Dracula comes to England, he only appears in brief glimpses. The story is about Jonathan Harker, his wife Mina, Van Helsing, Dr. John Seward and others who come to take on Dracula. The book is written as an epistolary novel, a style of writing that has died out in modern times. It consists of letters and journal entries written by the various humans in the story. This pushes Dracula into the background. Where he affects the story not as a physical presence but as the unseen darkness.
Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are excellent examples of how to handle vampires. While there is a lot that one can criticize these series for (they do not compare to Firefly), the vampires, in of themselves, work perfectly.
While keeping all that I have said in mind, I would like to introduce you to the Cullen family of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. So far three books have been written, Twilight, New Moon and Eclipse with more on the way. According to the Cullens’ cover story, Dr. Carlisle Cullen and his wife Esme, despite the fact that they appear to be only in their late twenties are the parents of five teenage children due to the fact that they adopted Esme’s three orphaned nieces and nephews, Edward, Alice and Emmett plus another two children Jasper and Rosalie. The truth is that they are a group of vampires who live together. They move every few years to a different place, preferably somewhere that is overcast most of the year, in order to hide the fact that none of them age. To make matters even more interesting, the Cullens live within several miles of an Indian reservation, which contains a number of werewolves who live in an uneasy truce with the Cullens.
This group of seven vampires trample all over the first two rules. They are, to use their own expression, “vegetarian” vampires. They do not attack humans, but instead live off of animals. The vampires in this series are not limited by the traditional vampire limitations. They are able to operate in daylight; they just glow in the sun. They do not sleep in coffins and they are able to enter the homes of the living without permission. Nothing has been said about garlic or crosses but I assume that these things also do not apply.
Despite all this I absolutely adore these characters and cannot praise these books highly enough. If you have great characters then you can overcome almost any problem in a book. Meyer, like J.K Rowling, has that special gift to be able to write books that, while they may not be brilliant in any technical or critical sense, have an incredible charm to them and produce characters that absolutely hook you in. I would be the first to admit that Twilight’s plot is not particularly original. This story of a teenage girl who falls in love with a guy who turns out to be a non-lethal vampire has been done before. One particular example that comes to mind is the Vampire Diaries series. These books are very similar to Twilight. Vampire Diaries even has a werewolf making an appearance. It makes a very useful comparison in that the Vampire Diaries serves to demonstrate how easily Twilight could have gone wrong in the hands of a less talented author.
Twilight manages to violate the above mentioned rules in ways that work to its advantage. The Cullen family struggle with their desire to kill in ways that make them feel very real and very human. My favorite part in the series so far, and the part that best exemplifies what these books are about, is in the first book when Edward is talking to Bella Swan, a girl he has fallen madly in love with, in a meadow and telling her that he is absolutely in love with her but that he also has an overwhelming desire to kill her and that even at this moment he is not sure if he is going to let her walk away alive. Despite the fact that I think Meyer has made her vampires too powerful to the extent that they almost become godlike, the Cullens manage to put enough personality to themselves that it makes up for their power. Since Meyer puts such a focus on the Cullens acting as human beings she manages to keep them from turning into gods.
While Twilight does not follow my first two rules it does keep the third one, it keeps the focus on a human character. The main character in the story is Bella and the story is told from her perspective using a first person narrative. Meyer is so willing to entrust the story to Bella that she is even willing to allow the Cullens to drop out of the narrative for long stretches of time, including the majority of the second book. Meyer uses Edward’s absence to bring in Jacob Black, one of the Indian reservation’s resident werewolves, as competition for Bella’s affections. Twilight is tongue and cheek storytelling at its best. Yes it has a sense of humor to it and it plays up the absurdity of the situation, girl loves nice charming boy who happens to be a vampire and while we are at it why not throw in a well behaved werewolf, for all it is worth. But above all else this is a powerful love story the likes of which I have not seen in anything written recently.
Despite the hoards of Romance novels out there it seems that few books succeed as love stories. Twilight is a rare breed in that it is about true unrequited love in all its selfless, irrational, all redeeming glory. Edward and Bella are two people who are compelled by their encounter with each other to be together despite the fact that this is most likely not going to have a happy ending and they both know it. As the ancients understood love is a form of madness; it is a beautiful madness but still madness.
While these books are not explicitly religious I would see them as textbook examples of how religious fiction should be written. These books are not preachy nor are they pushing a message. That being said these books are built around some very distinctive religious values. One of the most central themes underlining Twilight is the moral struggle to overcome ones natural desire and the willingness to deny oneself ones own deepest desires. We can view the vampires of the Cullen family, despite their many flaws, as being righteous and even heroic because they fight to overcome their baser natives and do not take the obvious cope out that they simply are what they are. To appreciate how important this is, keep in mind that we as a society have spent more then a century, one, playing down and even flat out denying the value of self control; two, we have even gone so far as to turn the abandonment of self control into a virtue and have declared self control as the vice. Moral self control is closely connected to chastity. As with the issue of moral self control, Meyer does not set out to preach chastity, but she ends up delivering a strongly pro-chastity message simply by taking chastity seriously as a value. We are dealing with a love story now spanning three books in which the two central characters have not slept together despite the fact that guy regularly spends the night with the girl in her bedroom. Edward, as a vampire, does not ever sleep so he is in the habit of spending the night with Bella watching her sleep. Meyer is a religious Mormon so I assume none of this is an accident.
In looking ahead to future books in the series, the big question is will Bella end up becoming a vampire and the eighth member of the Cullen family. The book seems to be heading in that direction. Meyer has placed a long list of problems confronting her characters all of which seem to have the one commonality that their obvious solution seems to be to turn Bella. This though is probably going to turn out to lead to worse problems. Having Bella turn seems to offer the most intriguing possibilities. I would love to see the Cullans dragging Bella off to Alaska for a few years and try to teach her how to function as a vampire. It would be Bella who would now be the one in danger of going haywire. This would also offer a new round of Alice attempting to give Bella’s life a total makeover.
Well now that Potter is finished I guess I have found a new series of books to really obsess over.


Whitney Johnson said...

Dear Benzion --

Thank you for the comment that you left on 'dare to dream' last week. I have really enjoyed reading your commentary regarding the Twilight trilogy. Particularly the commentary about Edward's moral self control. I couldn't help but wonder if I would have focused more on him had the book been written by Orson Scott Card, for instance.

My best,

Whitney Johnson

Izgad said...

It is funny that you bring up Orson Scott Card, because I have been thinking about how there are many very Cardian elements in the Twilight series.
For example Jasper is a very Orson Scott Card type character with his ability to handle people. He reminds me a lot of Peter Wiggin
Maybe I'll do a post on it at some point. :)