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 than 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 than 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 than seek Dracula in a head to head confrontation they go after his hiding places and try to flush him out. Rather than 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 tramples 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 in 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 one's natural desire and the willingness to deny oneself one's 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 than 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 Cullens 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.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Non-Cycle of Violence

One of the major components of the modern day Left's understanding of conflicts is the notion of the cycle of violence. Group A attacks group B because group B had attacked them. Group B responds to the attack by group A by retaliating against group A which leads group A to carry out another attack against Group B. Thus a never ending cycle of attacks and counterattacks comes into being.
The most obvious example of this is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli army attacks a Palestinian target because the Palestinians carried out a terrorist attack against Israelis. This leads to the Palestinians carrying out further attacks in order to avenge the "martyrs" killed by Israel. This creates a situation in which the conflict can go on forever. Both sides see themselves as being justified in carrying out their attacks as they are simply responding to what the other side has done to them. Not only do they feel justified in continuing the conflict but it becomes a moral imperative to do so. To make peace would be to allow those killed by the other side to die unavenged. One owes it to the dead to keep fighting.
This viewpoint is attractive to those on the Left for two reasons. The first reason is that the notion of a cycle of violence fits into the official statements given by both sides. Israel claims that they are responding to Palestinian terrorism and the Palestinians claim that they are responding to Israel's attacks. So if we take both sides at their word then we would have to conclude that both sides are responding to the violent acts of the other side and hence there is a cycle of violence. By using the cycle of violence model one can create a coherent narrative that takes both sides into account and rises above the biases of both sides. This last point is crucial to understanding the second reason for why the cycle of violence model is attractive, which is that this model fits into the Left's world view and suggests some distinctively leftist solutions. While both sides, in the cycle of violence model, may view themselves as being morally justified, in the end such a war becomes an irrational act of revenge. As such the war becomes morally unjustifiable from both perspectives. What is needed are enlightened individuals on both sides, unburdened by the past, who can see past the petty prejudices of their own side to come together and reject the call for violence and instead embrace peace. In essence the cycle of violence is the product of the sins of conservativism and demonstrates the failure of conservative values. The only path to salvation and the only possible moral decision is to reject the traditional values of conservatism and instead embrace liberalism.
A lot has been written by conservatives attacking the application of the cycle of violence model to the situation in Israel. I see the cycle of violence model as being flawed in its very conception of how it sees conflict. The problem is that, as those on the Left would gladly acknowledge, it is irrational to engage in a conflict simply to avenge those who are already dead. The only reason why a country would go to war and continue to fight it is if they believed that they had something to gain by it. Whether a country actually has something to gain by fighting is a different question. My concern here is in dealing with the perspectives of leaders of countries and various groups. My operational assumption is that the leaders of America, Israel and also that of the Palestinians and Hamas are rational beings who would only fight if they had something to gain by it.
When Israel carries out an attack it does so because it believes that such an act is in its interest. Israel may hope to eliminate an enemy leader, it may hope to weaken the Palestinian ability to fight back or it may hope simply to intimidate. The Palestinians likewise have something to gain by carrying out terrorist attacks. Such actions can bring attention to their cause, it can help rally the Arab world or it can simply intimidate Israel into making concessions.
The trap here is that this notion of acting for ones benefit often gets lost in official statements. In today's world it is not enough to portray oneself as acting in accordance with ones interest one has to portray ones side's actions as a moral cause. Each side therefore portrays themselves as acting in self defense and responding to the attacks of the other. The myth of a cycle of violence is thus created by reading both sides' official statements at face value and taking them to their logical conclusions.
The irony of the situation is that it is modern day liberalism that has created this problem. It is modern day liberalism which has insisted that politics must be a tool for strictly moral ends as opposed to simple self interest. In the end the Left becomes the victim of believing its own propaganda.As much as the Left would like to deny it. War usually is a rational activity carried out by rational individuals in pursuit of rational goals.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Stardust: On Being True to a Book

I am a very big fan of Neil Gaiman's work in general. He is one of this most consistently interesting writers in fantasy. So I was looking forward to the film adaption of his novel Stardust. The story deals with a young man named Tristran Thorn who lives in the town of Wall on the border between England and Faerie. Tristran attempts to woo the love of his life, Victoria, by promising her that he would bring her a fallen star. With that in mind, he crosses over the wall into Faerie. As with any decent work of fantasy though, things are not what they seem. The fallen star is a girl named Yvaine. To add to everything, Tristran is not the only person interested in Yvaine. There is a witch out to cut out Yvaine's heart in order to restore the youth and powers of her and her sisters. The witch has been given the last bits of her and her sister's youth, which makes her young again. As the story goes on and she has to do more and more magic she ages. In addition to the witches, there are the princes of Stormhold, who are after Yvaine for a jewel she carries which they need in order to gain the throne of Stormhold.
The film is a lot of fun. Maybe not at the level of Lord of the Rings, but it definitely matches up to Narnia or any of the Harry Potter films. What I would like to talk about here is not so much the films but how it was adapted.
When reading Stardust it occurred to me that it would be a very difficult story to do as a film since there are a number of different story lines to deal with. Any film version would have to take some extreme liberties with the story. In particular, I took it as a given that any film would change the ending, which is unfortunate because its a really powerful ending and not one that you would expect. (Spoiler Alert) In the book, the witch finally catches up to Yvaine and Tristran at the Faerie side of the border to England. The witch has at this point used up all of her magic and is now left old and powerless. The witch says to Yvaine: I see you and know that it is you but I can no longer sense your heart. Yvaine responds that the reason perhaps why she can no longer sense her heart is because she has given it to Tristran. Yvaine then kisses the witch on the forehead and walks on leaving the witch defeated and forced to face the wraith of her sisters but still very much alive. On reading this I thought no Hollywood film would leave an ending like this alone. They are going to have to stick in a final fight with the witch and have Tristran and Yvaine kill her. Guess what that is exactly what the film does. Instead of the book's final confrontation, the film has the witch finally capture Yvaine at the wall and takes her back to her sisters so they can cut out her heart. Tristran tracks them down and we have a very predictable special effects showdown in which the witch and her sisters are finally killed.
What is so wrong with an ending that has less special effects and more heart to it?