Monday, November 24, 2008

A Vampire Connoisseur Contemplates TWILIGHT

One of my best friends is a vampire buff. He's an omniverous consumer of vampire fiction in all media. His fascination with vampires dates from childhood, but he's developed a connoisseur's appreciation of the genre. "What I like about vampires," he tells me, "is the way the myth has evolved over time, from the bogeyman in the night to the immortal romantic fantasy." At the movies he's firmly rooted in the Anglo-American tradition. The few European vampire films he's seen have left him cold.

In anticipation of Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight, my friend "Wendigo" bought Stephanie Meyer's novel and its sequels. Judging the movie as a literary adaptation, he rates it above average. Inevitably, the movie alters the story structure, but in most cases he thinks the changes were fair. In particular, he cites the inclusion of a subplot involving a murder spree as a corrective to the first novel's relatively unthreatening presentation of vampires. The "bad" vampires, as opposed to the "good" Cullen clan, are emphasized more in the movie than in the book, and the climactic fight between hero Edward and villain James is more graphic on film -- necessarily, since the book fight takes place offstage.

Wendigo credits screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg with a sensitive adaptation that renders Meyer's dialogue more cinematic. Too literal an adaptation would leave the characters sounding relatively stilted, he claims. A telling difference he noted is that, while in the novel Edward and Bella are constantly declaring their love for one another, neither character in the movie ever says "I love you" to the other. This was probably done to make it more palatable to audiences beyond the target market of teenage girls. There's also more outright laugh-out-loud humor in the movie than in the book.

Hardwicke's direction, in his view, is generally well done. She stages scenes to include background details that readers will recognize even when she doesn't have time to bring them to the forefront. She works well with her actors, particularly Kristen Stewart as Bella and Billy Burke as her dad, who reportedly does a lot with very little material. The relatively low-budgeted (and thus destined to be very profitable) movie shows its limits occasionally in effects that are "sometimes hokey," including the usual obvious wirework.

Overall, Wendigo rates Twilight "pretty good, actually, and better than the reviews I read." How should horror fans approach it? "It's more of a horror film than the book is a horror novel," he says, "but the movie is still more a romance than a horror story. It isn't really a 'vampire film,' since it adds nothing new to the concept apart from 'sparkling in the sunlight.' It's really a fairy tale with vampires in it. Edward is the handsome prince under a curse. Bella is the classic romantic heroine who finds someone who loves her for what's inside. Together, they're iconic star-crossed lovers. I'd rate it relatively low as a vampire film, but much more highly as a romance."

If anything, my friend views the movie as a retrograde vampire film, but to some extent he considers it a step in the right direction. As readers get deeper into the novel series, he says, Meyer drives home more forcefully than in the first book that there's a downside to being a vampire. Too many vampire stories today, including some movies he's liked, present vampirism as if there were no downside, and vampires themselves as nothing more or less than cool fantasy creatures who only benefit from their condition. Twilight, my friend concludes, partially bucks that trend while re-romanticizing the vampire concept.

I have no plans to see Twilight, so I'll let Wendigo's comments stand as the final word unless someone wants to post a different viewpoint. In the future, I hope to convince Wendigo to contribute a list of favorite vampire films along with further thoughts on the genre and the directions it's taking.

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