The Power of TwilightBook Reviews, Culture, Ethics, Film, Philosophy — By David Nilsen on July 1, 2009 at 12:01 am
A few weeks ago, millions rejoiced as the first trailer for New Moon, the second book-turned-film in the Twilight saga, premiered at the MTV Movie Awards. These wildly successful books continue to draw a loyal following that rivals that of Harry Potter. This is remarkable when one considers how counter-cultural these books are, and how atypical they are of traditional vampire tales. Not unlike Harry Potter, these books represent a number of conservative and often Christian themes, especially when it comes to sex (warning: Spoilers ahead!).
Vampires have always represented the dark side of sexuality. Their unending lust for blood parallels the human lust for flesh that, if unchecked by the confines of marriage, can be radically self-destructive. In the Twilight books, specifically beginning in New Moon, Bella is eager to engage in the most intimate expression of love with her soul-mate, Edward. But Edward is a true gentlemen, raised in an age long past, and refuses to have sex with Bella until they are married. One of his primary motivations, aside from his traditional upbringing, is the fact that he has taken human life in the past. He now feels that chastity is his last virtue. This highlights the fact that sexual purity is not only a virtue, but a virtue on par with refraining from murder. Edward Cullen is one of only a few role models who takes sexual purity seriously, and who actually embodies it in an attractive manner.
This is not to say the books are without fault. Despite the fact that Edward spends three and a half books trying to convince Bella not to become a vampire, she is turned anyway. And both she and the reader are glad of it. We are meant to envy the power, beauty and perpetual youth of these creatures. From the very beginning of the saga it is clear that these are not the monsters of classic lore, but heroes (despite Edward’s protests to the contrary). These vampires lack nothing that would make them envy normal human beings. Bella herself becomes even more beautiful and graceful than she was as a human. She is not affected by the problems normally associated with “newborn” vampires. In the Twilight universe, it would be folly for Bella to remain human.
Is this a good thing? Our culture idealizes unrealistic standards of beauty. A vampire bite may not be quite the same as plastic surgery, but the message is the same. And the vampires’ ability to live forever as teenagers reinforces the idealization of youth. Age-wrought wisdom is rarely sought after in our culture.
Still, these problems may not be so great. For example, the fact that even the evil vampires are beautiful suggests that outward beauty isn’t everything. Additionally, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the desire to be immortal may actually be a strong intuitive apologetic for Christianity. These books will inevitably create a desire to cheat death. But as Christians, we believe that we have defeated death through Christ’s death and resurrection. Finally, even though Edward and Bella will be teenagers forever, they will continue to grow and learn. While Edward is a perpetual teenager on the outside, he is almost a century old on the inside, and his character often demonstrates the maturity that comes with age (as with, for example, his strong sexual ethic that we have already mentioned).
The Twilight saga embeds these elements in a powerful, dramatic narrative that captures the imagination. It’s no wonder, then, that they would meet with such success in a culture so deeply rooted in Western Christianity. ‘