Any discussion of Twilight has to begin with the novel on which it is based. Stephenie Meyer's story first came onto my radar a year and a half ago, when I suddenly noticed a lot of people posting about it on internet message boards. I resisted reading it because the book seemed fundamentally aimed at teen girls - a demographic that definitely does not include me. But then a lot of adults started telling me that I had to read it. The word repeatedly used was "amazing" (one of the most overused and, thus, meaningless words in our culture's current vocabulary). Granted, everyone who recommended it to me was female, but these were people whose taste and opinion I trusted. They all assured me that my maleness would not be a barrier to enjoying the tale. A few weeks ago, I relented and bought a copy - and I have to admit that I kind of dug it. No one will ever accuse "Twilight" of being great literature - it has clunky dialogue and way too many descriptions of its heroine swooning over the vampire she falls in love with - but it was definitely a fun read.
I really understand why the novel has become a teen girl phenomenon. This story of how adolescent Bella Swann falls for vampire Edward Cullen uses the subject of vampirism as a metaphor for sexual abstinence. Edward desperately wants to suck Bella's blood, but fights that temptation because he loves her so much and doesn't want to give her the standard treatment. Even when she makes it clear that he can suck her blood if he really, really wants to, Edward reins in his desires. "Twilight" is also the ultimate "bad boy" fantasy; Bella falls for the dangerous guy whose passion for her is so intense that it makes him want to be a better (undead) man. If not for Edward, Bella would probably grow up to be one of those women who write love letters to Death Row inmates.
The movie version casts Kristen Stewart (Into the Wild) as Bella, recently transplanted to the tiny town of Forks, Washington where she lives with her previously estranged father Charlie (Billy Burke). Bella becomes fascinated with local physician Carlisle Cullen (Peter Facinelli) and his five "foster children." Most appealing to her is Edward (Robert Pattinson), a moody, somber guy who wants her blood like he's never wanted the blood of another before. The two begin a tentative courtship, with Edward repeatedly warning her to stay away from him. Of course, she can't. The Cullens are good vampires; they eat animals because the thought of feeding on humans is too monstrous for them. They also welcome Bella into their clan. Other vampires are not as ethical. Edward puts Bella's life in jeopardy when he inadvertently exposes her to a "tracker" vampire named James (Cam Gigandet) who finds her blood every bit as alluring. To protect his true love, Edward not only has to avoid biting her neck, but also rally his family to destroy James.
Here's the question that's on the minds of every "Twilight" fan: Did they screw the movie up? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that, while possessing some very admirable traits, there's little chance that the film will live up to the unreasonably high expectations of diehard Twilight-ers.
What's good about the movie is the style. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown) was absolutely the right person for the job. Through various stylistic techniques, Hardwicke perfectly translates the book's tone to the screen, while adding original atmospherics that compliment Meyer's vision. Rainy, dreary Forks becomes a character unto itself and feels like a place where such supernatural goings-on could occur. I particularly like Hardwicke's inventiveness in scenes like the one in which Bella figures out that Edward is a vampire, as well as the one where she confronts him with this knowledge. Working with her editor and cinematographer, the director takes what could have been a melodramatic moment and instead makes it energetic and clever. Hardwicke also does a good job of bringing the novel's famous "vampire baseball" scene to life. Quite frankly, I didn't think that scene worked real well in the novel (it seemed out of place), but Hardwicke manages to find a visual style for the sequence that allows it blend more naturally into the plot.
Other positives are some generally good casting, a great soundtrack, and an overall faithfulness to the book.
The filmmakers are not really at fault for the things that don't work. In some ways, "Twilight" is not an easy novel to adapt to the screen. Part of the reason is that Meyer intentionally made Edward Cullen something of a blank slate. On the page, he's all fierce looks and changing moods. Everything else - the deeper stuff - is intentionally left for the reader to fill in. Put another way, at some level Meyer left Edward mysterious enough that her young female readers could project onto him whatever they chose. He is a genuine fantasy creation. That creates a problem when the character is portrayed by an actor. Nothing against Robert Pattinson, but he has little to do here other than - you guessed it - throw off fierce looks and have mood swings. At times, Edward's glowering is almost unintentionally comical. For this character to work, the screenplay needed to find another level for Edward that the book didn't explore. That would have made his feelings for Bella more cinematic, while also making his intensity more defined.
The other problem is that the transfer to celluloid only serves to point out how silly some of the stuff in the book was. One of the key traits of Meyer's vampires is their lightning-fast speed. It's a basic fact that, despite astounding advances in CGI effects, there is still no way to make characters move in fast-forward without it looking like an old Benny Hill sketch. The Cullen family's pasty white complexion also fails to translate. The first time Carlisle comes on screen, he looks more like someone's stereotypical idea of an albino rather than a vampire.
And, of course, it's hard to translate an essentially interior story to film. Twilight the movie has all the same events that "Twilight" the book did, but the clarity of the abstinence theme gets lost as the focus shifts toward action and suspense.
Rabid fans of the "Twilight" series will line up in droves, no matter what. The most devoted of them may find the movie to be anti-climactic, or even a letdown. While I enjoyed the book, I don't have the attachment to it that many do, so it didn't bother me that Twilight was not, like, totally the most amazing adaptation ever. It's a well-made but thematically flawed film based on a book that was ingenious in conceit but generically written. The strengths of one are the flaws of the other, and vice versa.
( 1/2 out of four)
Twilight is rated PG-13 for some violence and a scene of sensuality. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minutes.
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