New Moon: The Twilight Saga Returns

Stephenie Meyer’s tale of vampire romance continues amid ongoing controversy and concerns

From a Catholic World Report article

By Steven D. Greydanus

The second film in the Twilight Saga, New Moon, comes to theaters on November 20, but in some markets tickets have been on sale for months — and tickets for the November 19 midnight opening shows have been getting scarce. It’s unusual for movie tickets to go on sale so far in advance of opening day, but judging from fan frustration in areas where the early tickets haven’t been available, the practice may become more widespread in the future.

Early enthusiasm for the movie version of New Moon is only the latest confirmation of the Twilight Saga’s status as a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. Last year’s film Twilight, based on the first of Stephanie Meyer’s hugely popular tetralogy of gothic teen romances of vampire love, is currently the top-selling Region 1 (North America) DVD of 2009, with over 9 million copies sold.

In theatrical release, Twilight raked in over $191 million at the U.S. box office and over $383 globally, making it the #7 film of 2008 domestically and the #13 film worldwide. It was also the all-time #1 film directed by a woman — Catherine Hardwicke of The Nativity Story and thirteen — as well as the #1 vampire movie in history. Not that Twilight, the swoony tale of an ordinary teenaged girl named Bella Swan and a brooding but human-friendly vampire named Edward Cullen, is a typical vampire movie.

Coming to theaters just under a year after its predecessor, New Moon faced challenges early in development, with an aggressive production schedule, questions about the readiness of the screenplay by returning scribe Melissa Rosenberg, a change of directors — Hardwicke bowed out, reportedly over scheduling concerns, and was replaced by The Golden Compass director Chris Weitz — and doubts about whether 17-year-old actor Taylor Lautner had the physical stature to reprise the role of Jacob Black, who is more important in the second story. (Lautner is back for the next two films, but the third film, Eclipse, will have a third director, David Slade, director of the vampire movie 30 Days of Night.)

Whether these challenges translate into a rushed product remains to be seen. Critics weren’t impressed with Twilight — it scored a dismal 49% at the critical review aggregator site RottenTomatoes.com, and a tepid 56% at the similar site Metacritic.com — but that didn’t hurt the film at the box office, and New Moon could well outdo its predecessor financially, with or without critical approval.

The books remain hot as well. The final volume in the series, Breaking Dawn, sold 1.3 million volumes in its first 24 hours of release, and in January 2009 was selling at a rate approaching 20,000 copies per week, breaking a sales record previously held by The Da Vinci Code. In fact, in the first half of 2009, the parent company of Meyer’s publisher Hatchette Book Group reported a growth of more than 11% in its publishing unit, largely “driven by a surge in new sales in the United States on the back of the Stephenie Meyer phenomenon” as well as in France, the UK and Australia.

There is even a Twilight tourism industry, centered on Washington State, where much of the story is set. While Robert Langdon fans get to go to Rome and Paris for the Dan Brown experience, Stephenie Meyer aficionados converge on rainy Forks, Washington to take “Twilighter tours” of locations more or less corresponding to settings in the books, from a Craftsman-style house similar to the Swans’ to a locker at Forks High School designated Bella’s locker.

By early September, Forks’ visitor center had seen about 55,600 guests in 2009 alone, compared to less than 19,000 in all of 2008. And that was before the weekend of September 13 — Bella’s birthday in the books, celebrated in Forks as Stephenie Meyer Day for the past three years, complete with birthday cake and a fan costume lookalike contest. This year the festivities expanded from one day to a weekend celebration, and spread to at least one other town, nearby Port Angeles, where Bella and Edward have their first date.

Port Angeles’ TwilightFest included two couples renewing their marriage vows in a Twilight-themed ceremony, a Bella’s Ball dance, and Quileute Indian storytelling, reflecting Jacob Black’s Quileute Nation heritage and kin. Oh, and Bella’s entrée from that first dinner — mushroom ravioli at Port Angeles’ Bella Italia — has become the restaurant’s specialty, having been served to more than 4500 fans this year alone, according to David Bentley of CoventryTelegraph.net’s Geek Files blog.

While Twilight book and ticket sales represent a mere fraction of the Harry Potter juggernaut, all of this suggests that the series’ fan base — almost entirely female — is possibly even more devout. “Obsessive Twilight Disorder” is the self-diagnosis of many fans, and while the series is aimed at young adults, it has considerable appeal for a large contingent of the target audience’s mothers.

At an online community of Meyer’s adult fans, Twilight Moms, moms share Twilight-related dreams, confess what they should be doing while indulging their obsession, discuss how their preoccupation has affected their kids, worry about weight loss and other symptoms, and wonder whether their lives will ever be normal again. Although this is not language that many mothers would use of activities that they would normally wish to share with their children, many Twilight moms happily share their literary obsession with their teenaged daughters.

Part of the reason for the guilt-free mother–daughter Bella bonding, perhaps, is a perceived strand of moral traditionalism running through the stories. Stephenie Meyer, a Mormon housewife and a mother of three, has Edward and Bella wait until the fourth volume to get married and only then have sex (Meyer’s vampires can do that, though they apparently don’t ordinarily reproduce that way).

This literal sexual abstinence is mirrored metaphorically in Edward’s abstinence not only from Bella’s blood, but also from all human blood. Edward belongs to a humane vampire clan who call themselves “vegetarians,” meaning that they subsist on animal blood rather than human — to vampires a physically sustaining diet, but thin gruel.

These themes have won the Twilight phenomenon some approval in Catholic and non-Catholic Christian circles. At Catholic Answers Forums, a two-year-old discussion thread on the books has generated numerous a number of positive comments and observations. One regular member listed themes deemed to be supportive of Catholic teaching under a number of headings: Pro-life, Pro-faith, Pro-family, Pro-chastity, Pro-marriage. For example, “The Cullens are the light within the darkness of their world because they make a conscious decision to accept their fate without caving into the pressures around them to give in to their basic desires. They choose not to become monsters by living a ‘vegetarian’ lifestyle (feeding only on animals, not humans).”

Taking a more nuanced position, Catholic writer and blogger Nancy Carpentier Brown gave some credence to the first book’s chastity themes in a 2008 article at Busted Halo while also acknowledging the series’ unsavory side.

“It does present a challenge to teens to resist temptation,” Brown was quoted as saying in the article. “It’s actually a very counter-cultural message in Twilight.” But the article seems to have soft-pedaled Brown’s distaste for the book, made clear on her own blog. Brown reported that she struggled to read the first volume, didn’t like the characters, found Edward icky, objected to the characters’ moral choices, and concluded, “I will not be reading the rest of the series. (Wipes hands.) I’m done with Twilight … forever.”

Well-known pro-life blogger Jill Stanek counts herself among the Twilight faithful. Having devoured all four books after seeing the first film last year, Stanek felt sheepish about having been sucked into a series aimed at young adults, but felt “a tad better” when she learned about the “Twilight Moms” phenomenon. “[V]ampirism aside,” she wrote in a December 2008 post at her blog, www.jillstanek.com, “I think Edward represents the yearning in every woman’s heart for the knight in shining armor that is only satisfied in the person of Jesus.”

Stanek was also impressed with the story’s chastity theme. “Bella wants [sex], Edward refuses. This is often attributed to Edward’s fear that he will lose control and physically hurt or kill Bella. But there‘s another reason given in book 3. Edward was born during virtuous times in the early 1900s, and he maintains those sexual standards 100 years later. ‘[T]his is the one area in which I‘m just as spotless as you are.’ Edward says. ‘Can‘t I leave one rule unbroken?’”

Catholic blogger Kate Bryan of True Rebellion agrees. “Some people think ‘Twilight’ is demonic and evil,” she writes, “because it deals with Vampires and they also think that the story is too ‘racy’. Then, there are others who saw a ‘completely different’ aspect of the film and book series … I was able to see a story of true and pure love. A love story that promoted chastity, among other virtues. I think this is an important discussion to have, because I was thrilled to ‘Finally’ see a movie that promoted pure love!”

At the other end of the spectrum is the anti-Twilight blog Spes Unica, written by an anonymous Catholic mother with a master‘s in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. Highlighting the books’ eroticism, increasingly disturbing and disordered imagery, and moral, philosophical and even theological problems, the author argues that the Twilight books not only offer a distorted and carnal vision of love, but even promote the occult.

Jessica Thornton, who blogs at A Catholic Mom’s Guide to Books, takes exception to both extremes, saying she has “very mixed feelings” about the books. While acknowledging that “Bella and Edward do wait until their wedding night, and she does choose to keep her half vampire baby against everyone‘s advice,” Thornton also notes that “just because Edward and Bella don‘t do anything but kiss and clutch, they still share the same bed night after night, all the while keeping her father in the dark.” In her view, the books “keep Bella alive, safe from friends, good vampires and bad ones, so that she and Edward can test their willpower while they fool around with each other‘s lips and bodies.”

“The mood of the novels creates suspense and tension, specifically sexual tension,” Thornton wrote via email. “Over and over again, Edward and Bella are subject to occasions of sin. Though they avoid intercourse, they are not great examples of chastity.”

At the same time, she added, “I do not see these books as a gateway to the occult. I do not believe that fantasy and magic necessarily lead to the occult. The Twilight books are not great works of literature comparable to The Lord of the Rings. They are romance/fantasy novels. Mature readers know the difference and can appreciate each to different degrees.” Thornton’s overall verdict on the books: Not recommended.

Twilight and Catholic Girls” was the title of a recent post at the Catholic teen blog No Question Left Behind: Teens Helping Teens, a Q&A blog run by Catholic author Maureen Wittmann. The bloggers at the No Question blog are committed Catholic teens whose responses to questions submitted by their peers are edited by Wittmann and when necessary reviewed for theological soundness.

The issue was raised by a youth minister concerned about the effects of the books on young fans: “I asked them to help me understand the allure of the books and the response I received was that they liked how Edward was so protective of Bella and that they were chaste until marriage.” On the other hand, some fans also said that “the eroticism was consensual but they didn’t take it all the way so it was a lesson in self-restraint.” The writer was also concerned about “behavioral changes away from modesty and purity attitudes” among fans.

The respondent, Catherine, is a 16-year-old who cites “writing, philosophy, theology, history, and Latin” as interests and hopes to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville. Catherine acknowledges having read all four books (“it’s to the point that if you’re a girl and haven’t read them, people wonder where you’ve been”), and while she confesses enjoying reading them, she adds, “I’m not surprised that Christian girls are being lead astray by these books.”

Bella’s and Edward’s relationship, Catherine writes, is “abusive at times. Basically, Bella is obsessive, and Edward is possessive (which, unfortunately, most girls translate into ‘protective’). Bella’s always raving over Edward’s body and how he’s like a ‘god’; Edward’s drawn to Bella’s seductive scent and her blood, and watches her every move, even to the point of watching her in her sleep. Sounds like the common, abusive relationships we have today, minus the vampire aspect, doesn’t it?”

The author of Spes Unica makes similar points about the series’ increasingly problematic and disturbing imagery in a recent post focusing on the dynamic between Bella and Jacob Black, a major character in New Moon whose infatuation with Bella eventually leads in the fourth book to a scene with disturbing rape-fantasy overtones, among other things. The author also highlights the horrific childbirth imagery, in which Bella, who has had to drink blood to keep Edward’s child alive, is physically shattered by the vampire child’s emergence from the womb, necessitating Bella’s final transformation into a vampire.

While those episodes are still a couple of movies off, New Moon ups the ante over the original Twilight, with themes of suicide and self-destructive risk-taking. The film name-checks Romeo and Juliet early and often, as Edward casually mentions the practical difficulties of vampire suicide, which he acknowledges would have been his contingency plan had Bella died in the climactic act of the last film. Then, after Edward walks out of Bella’s life, Bella begins a pattern of danger-prone thrill-seeking when she learns that (for reasons unexplained) at moments of stress or danger she sees visions of Edward urging her to safety.

While the Romeo and Juliet references underscore that self-destructive behavior among young lovers is both a perennial fact about human nature and a long-standing motif of romantic drama, Shakespeare at least gives a tragic if not cautionary context to his protagonists’ suicidal tendencies. Romeo and Juliet is also about other things than young love — for example, the family rivalry of the Montagues and Capulets, without which the tragedy would not have occured and which is finally put to rest by the deaths of the lovers. In New Moon, the Edward–Bella–Jacob triangle and the characters’ happiness or unhappiness is all that really matters.

Tags: Twilightery, Vampiric

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