By Casey Wilson
I nearly titled this post “I Saw It So You Don’t Have To”. And I would have, if not for one dirty little secret: I enjoy the Twilight films.
Please let me be clear: I did not say they’re good. I did not say that I liked them, or approved of them, or suggest everyone watch them. But with some like-minded company and the right attitude, all four Twilight movies so far can be turned into a good time. They’re the kind of bad, in my opinion, that invites laughter and ridicule, rather than when-will-this-end boredom. There are plenty of opportunities for a Mystery-Science-Theater-style experience in Breaking Dawn – the vampires jumping on the house to get Edward for his bachelor party, the goofy, matter-of-fact way that imprinting is presented, the scene where it devolves into a bad SyFy original film when the wolf pack converses in wolf form. There are worse ways to spend two hours of your life, if that’s the sort of thing you enjoy.
But the film begs to be taken seriously, at least at moments, so I will give it that. At least for a moment.
As Linda Holmes writes in her review of the film for NPR, “Edward’s and Jacob’s stalker-like possessiveness and Bella’s lack of agency are well-covered territory by now.” Indeed, I’m not going to break any new ground decrying the dynamics at work within that trio of characters and wishing that Bella had more to contribute than pained silences and hugs for her menfolk. Holmes – whose review is worth reading in its entirety – goes on to explore the way that Edward’s potential abusiveness manifests in Breaking Dawn, and why we should take note of it. In fact, she calls it “profoundly irresponsible”. Despite my hesitance to embrace any notion about what we should and shouldn’t present to young people, it’s a premise that’s difficult to contest – I felt genuinely ill at ease during the sequence where Bella’s bruises are revealed, and even more so when Bella insists that it’s totally fine. Nope, no problem at all with being left bruised by a lover who lost control of himself. Not if he loves you, and you love him, and he’s really, really sorry about it.
Then there’s Dan Kois’s brilliant review in The Village Voice, which, like Holmes’s, you should read in its entirety. (Warning for intermittent but very well used language.) Kois focuses on the relationship between Bella and her parents:
For parents—dragged willingly or unwillingly into the theater to be buffeted by screams and sighs and hormones buzzing like a power line—the real horror of Breaking Dawn–Part 1 comes as we see Bella’s parents (played warmly by Sarah Clarke and Billy Burke) watch their girl disappear. They seem to know that the Cullens are no average in-laws and that once Bella becomes part of that family, she’ll cease—in a way that parents fear, deep inside, will be the case but rarely, in real life, is—to be a part of her own. Burke’s expression during the wedding is that of a man passing a stone, and I teared up a bit for the first time ever in a Twilight film when, walking down the aisle, Bella asked him not to let her fall, and he replied, “Never.”
As Kois notes, much of the credit for the effectiveness of the moments between Bella and her parents – especially between Bella and Charlie – goes to Sarah Clarke and Billy Burke, who are two of three actors in the film to play their roles at a genuinely human level. (The third is Taylor Lautner, who is warm and wonderful in most of his scenes, especially those he shares with Kristin Stewart. He brings out a level of comfort from her that is not found elsewhere in the film. (The less said about the moment Jacob imprints the better, though that’s the story’s fault, not the actor’s.)) In the midst of what are supposed to be larger than life emotions portrayed by actors who simply look pained most of the time, Bella’s parents are a welcome respite. Burke has grounded the films since the beginning, and that doesn’t stop here. He is a reminder of the stakes of the film, as the person who will get hurt the most by Bella’s decisions, no matter what they are.
What finally struck me about the Twilight series, however, is neither Bella the weak heroine nor the one genuine relationship it holds. No, after having spent more than my fair share of time with the series, Breaking Dawn, Part 1 has allowed me to place my finger on exactly what it is that bothers me so much about the message the series sends: Bella believes that her life is of no value.
That is, ultimately, the recurring theme of the series, both book and film, is it not? Whether as a human that wants to become a vampire or the mother of a creature breaking her body from the inside out, she refuses to recognize that her humanity – her sheer aliveness – is something to be celebrated, or at least grateful for. Despite her beloved’s insistence that she embrace all the moments she can only have as a human, she only has eyes for being like him. Her humanity is a liability in her relationship with Edward, so it must go. The only concession she gives when she becomes pregnant with a “demon spawn” is that they can turn her into a vampire to bring her back from the brink of death, if necessary – she soundly refuses any option that would preserve her as she is.
With last week’s release of both Breaking Dawn and the trailer for The Hunger Games, there’s been some renewed chatter about the difference between Stephanie Meyer’s Bella and Suzanne Collins’s Katniss Everdeen. That’s not a new comparison – nor is the comparison between Bella and Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s easy to play on the way that Bella would die within seconds at the Hunger Games, or that Buffy would have staked Edward and gone on with her life. But, if you ask me, the problem is not that Bella is passive and clumsy and loses herself in her boyfriend. It’s that Bella never once considers herself worth saving.
If we’re going to talk about bad messages to send young readers, I’d say that’s pretty high on the list.
Casey Wilson is a PhD student who wishes there was an entire movie dedicated to flashbacks of the Cullens and their wacky misadventures as non-vegetarian vampires.