by Bailey Herdé | October 4, 2020
The year was 2007: I was in sixth grade, teeth bedecked with braces that couldn’t come off soon enough, talking happily with my English teacher as we pored over a Scholastic Book Fair catalogue. I’d established myself as an avid reader early on, and she was an excitable young teacher, especially eager to mold young minds in the first years of her career. I remember her slender fingers as they pointed to a black cover, adorned with pale white hands and a bright red apple. “You should check out this one,” she said. “I think you’ll like it.” Always thrilled at the opportunity to please a teacher, I circled her recommendation, and brought my choices home to be mailed off to the book fair gods.
A year later, like so many other tweens, I was seated in one of my hometown’s rinky-dink theaters—now a Best Buy—trying to touch as little of my seat as possible, ready for the main event of the night: Twilight (2008), starring soon-to-be mega-stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson and directed by the woefully under-sung Catherine Hardwicke. In all honesty, it wasn’t a particularly memorable movie-going experience; I remember liking the movie and finding it accurate to the book (something very important to me at the time), while also being a bit disturbed at the radical paleness of the Cullens and their fellow vampires and a bit annoyed at Stewart’s stuttering, stumbling take on Bella. But it didn’t really matter that I wasn’t in awe, because I was already hooked. By then, all four books had come out, and I’d devoured them easily. I was still pulling out my copy of Breaking Dawn on a regular basis to reread that final tender moment in the meadow, so, whether I liked it or not, I was locked in for the rest of the series.
The rest of my Twilight Saga theater experiences were much like the first: enjoyable, but ultimately not impressive. New Moon and Eclipse I remember mostly because I still have the tickets. Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2 I remember for the same reasons that anyone who saw them in theaters remembers them: the confoundingly CGI’d baby, “You nicknamed my daughter NESSIE?!,” the insane fake-out battle that caused someone in my theater to break a glass. By the time the final movie came out in 2012, my Twilight fever had faded, and I was mostly seeing it out of a need for symmetry. I’d been there since the beginning and I would see it through to the end, weird toddler baby and inappropriate imprinting be damned.
Fast-forward eight years: it’s August 2020, and I’ve just failed to wrap my head around the insane reality of a global pandemic yet again. After living in New York City, I’ve moved back in with my parents, and I haven’t seen a Twilight movie since high school. But life is astoundingly weird and more than a bit depressing, and I’m spending all of my days indoors watching movies and TV and not hanging out with friends just like I did in 2008, so I’m in a particularly nostalgic mood. It’s in this mindset that I remember: there’s a new Twilight book coming out.
Midnight Sun, the much anticipated and long-thought abandoned retelling of the Twilight story, this time from Edward’s perspective. Anyone who got caught up in Twilight fever in 2008 knows the story: Stephenie Meyer published an excerpt of this story on her website, promising a forthcoming book, but became the victim of a hack that leaked the first several chapters of her work-in-progress draft. Meyer chose to halt the project as a result, and I and many others were forced to abandon our hope for Edward’s fanged perspective.
But now it’s 2020, and despite the general downward trend of the year, it seemed that I had reason to hope again. At first, I was a bit reluctant to go pick up the book; any trip down memory lane was likely to be tinged by years of relentless Twilight discourse. What’s more, I fully expected that reading the book would do nothing to clean my tarnished image of Edward and Bella’s star-crossed love, in large part because its format forced it to stick closely to the source material. But on the day of Midnight Sun’s publication, I threw caution to the wind, grabbed my mask, and headed to the bookstore. Soon enough I found myself wading through Edward’s anxious and emotional narration, and suddenly a thought slowly swam to the surface of my mind: is Twilight—specifically the movie—actually kind of great?
Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve spent hours scrolling through prospective movie options on the various streaming services, and in these journeys I would see the Twilight movies and laugh every time. At no point in the last seven months of quarantining could I have imagined anything that would come, but I certainly couldn’t imagine a universe in which I’d be tempted to dive into the Twilight Saga again. For years I’d been telling people that the movies weren’t good—why revisit them? But there I was, against all odds, with one more book under my belt and one brooding vampire’s passionate-if-dramatic inner monologue fresh on my mind, eagerly pressing play on one of the defining franchises of my youth. I watched and I watched, drafted way too many Robert Pattinson thirst tweets, and as the sad and sultry tones of “Bella’s Lullaby” played, it dawned on me: I’ve been wrong this whole time. Twilight, of sparkly vampire fame, is good.
Let me be clear: Twilight, especially as it came to be under Hardwicke’s original vision, is overdone. It’s overly-saturated, over-acted, over-sincere in its objectively ridiculous moments (here’s looking at you, baseball scene). Watching Bella stutter through basic human (or in this case, vampire) interaction or Edward continuously fail to mask the look of utter self-disgust/bloodlust on his face feels akin to watching someone on a first date reveal way too much way too early or show up to a formal party in full costume; the whole saga is a masterclass in provoking second-hand embarrassment. But Twilight’s blue-filtered emotional intensity does not indicate a failure of artistry or filmmaking; instead, it shows an acute understanding of what made the series such a resounding success in the first place. It is a story about the insanity and inanity of being young and in love wrapped up neatly in a supernatural setting. It has intrigue, subdued but compelling sexiness, and Stewart and Pattinson making eyes at each other, all set to one of the greatest movie soundtracks of the aughts. What is that, if not art?
The other thing about art is that it makes us feel, and god, does the Twilight movie evoke feeling. Good or bad, doesn’t matter, there’s a reason we’re still talking about it twelve years on. There’s a reason that when I read the book for the first time, I found myself thinking: now, this is love. There’s a reason I listened to the soundtrack on repeat as I replayed scenes from the movie over and over again in my head. It’s supremely compelling stuff. The crushes I’d read about in books and seen in movies paled in comparison (wink wink) to the thrilling, lovely agony of Edward and Bella’s instant connection. Of course, I still found Edward a bit creepy and Bella vaguely annoying, but the appeal of Twilight lay beyond the traits of its individual characters: for me and millions of other girls—and women—it was a formative example of the all-consuming nature of passion and a lesson on desire. We wanted that kind of unadulterated love for ourselves—though probably without the late-night peeping Tom moments and complications of the undead—and the movie only intensified that want.
The film masterfully portrayed the intensity of the desire between Edward and Bella—and reader and story—while faithfully committing Stephenie Meyer’s deceptively good world-building to the screen. Pattinson, especially, should be proud of his performance, though he is wont to ridicule it; with the added dimension of Edward’s inner dialogue from Midnight Sun, it’s clear just how expertly and subtly he portrayed Edward’s constant agony only through his face and voice. It’s actually a supremely impressive performance that, in my opinion, should be put alongside his other, more critically-favored roles. But as with most things that ignite teenage (female) passions, Twilight became an object of intense ridicule almost as soon as it became popular. The problem was that Meyer was no Bram Stoker, that these high-school attending, glittering vampires were ridiculous. (As opposed to the usual, very serious blood-sucking, cross and garlic fearing vampires, I suppose?)
Here’s the thing, though—though no one likes to admit it, teenage girls are society’s tastemakers. The Beatles, Instagram, Robert Pattinson’s very career—all of these things owe their success to mobs of vocal-frying, “like”-saying, romance-loving teens. We—adults, but adult men especially—love to put them down for their passionate, market-moving love, and then reclaim the object of that love as our own. (Think of every reply guy you’ve seen singing the praises of The Beatles online!) But the fact is that the teens were there first. They always knew what I and many others have only just remembered: that Twilight was never bad, it was simply catered to a certain demographic.
Twilight works precisely because its teenaged, female intensity is empathetic and, more importantly, consistent. Sure, it’s a movie in which a young Pattinson must utter the line, “You better hang on tight, spider monkey,” with a straight face, but the drama and the camp are the point. Hardwicke—who despite the unprecedented success of her vision got boxed out of the later sequels—and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg are able to do what so many Hollywood adaptations of YA novels fail to do: take their source material and audience seriously. It’s clear to anyone who read the books that these women set out to understand what drew people into the story and tried earnestly to recreate and cater to that. The Twilight Saga is about a lot of things: the dangers of premarital sex, the inherent safety of Volvo sedans, the unfortunate consequences of giving your kids weird names. But really it’s about how everything feels like the end of the world when you’re a teenager, even if you’ve been one for almost 100 years. Everything, even the most inane things, happen much more violently during our adolescent years. So it makes sense that the Twilight movies exhibit such an impressive commitment to over-wrought drama. Sure, they’re a bit ridiculous, but why is that a bad thing? So is being a teenager.