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I'm an author, historian (Ph.D., WVU), musician, professor, and mountaineer. I have published two books, To Live Again, a classical myth set in contemporary Appalachia, and Defending the Homeland, a collection of essays on radicalism and national security. Welcome to my blog.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Is Twilight just Dracula meets Pretty in Pink?

“So what’s your take on Twilight?”

I’ve been asked the question about a dozen times over the last couple of weeks. Everywhere I look I see film posters, television spots, and weary-eyed men who are being mercilessly dragged into cinemas either because they really love their girl or they are irrevocably whipped. My oldest friend whom I’ve known all my life (I’ll refer to him as Dr. Tack) was lucky. His wife opted to go with her sister and have a “girls night out.” This allowed Dr. Tack to focus on sophisticated, important, manly issues…. namely, playing Halo 3 with me until two in the morning. The good doctor was spared but fortune did not smile upon everyone. Last Friday I ran into my cousin and we talked for a short spell. He asked me what I was getting into over the weekend and I told him. When I asked what he would be up to I noticed a glazed, undead look in his eyes. “Gotta go see that New Moon. I thought I was going to get out of it, but my wife found a babysitter. She told me she wouldn’t give me any grief for hunting all next week if I take her. So I gotta go.” He then shook his head and solemnly walked away beneath a grey, overcast sky. Or as Professor Van Helsing said, “It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries and woes and troubles.”

So what’s the deal with the Twilight series? I see all these girls in my classes pouring through these books like they hold the key to life. I can’t help but think: of all the books in the world to choose from, why these? When I was an undergrad I read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gordimer – many of the classic authors if, for no other reason than to find out why they were called classics in the first place. So, why skip a wealth of literary greatness to read a series that a friend of mine referred to as Dracula meets Pretty in Pink?

I have to admit; I have neither read the books nor seen the films. Usually when a student of mine tells me that I “just HAVE TO read these books” I give a smirk and roll my eyes. Teen vampire love story just doesn’t seem to float my boat. Of course, I've heard a lot about the story and I’ve seen the trailers for the films. A number of reviewers have also made the 80s teen flick/ Twilight connection. But an important point is that almost all romantic stories are formulaic and this series is no different. There are several formulas. For instance, you have the “Love Triangle Formula.” Titanic is the most obvious example. In this formula, a young girl (Kate Winslet) must choose between two men. One man (the guy she is in a relationship with at the beginning of the story aka Billy Zane) is usually rich, upper class, and everyone thinks they are the perfect couple – but he really isn’t right for her. Then there is the lower class guy. This guy is usually an artist (like Leo) or musician or some kind of rough backwoods character. The lower class guy (Leo) opens up new worlds to the girl (Kate) and she eventually leaves upper class guy for the lower class guy because that’s exactly how it works in the real world. The “Love Triangle Formula” gives a lesson that material things don’t matter and true love can break through all boundaries (class, cultural, racial, etc…).

Then there is the classic “Cinderella Formula.” The film Pretty Woman is nothing more than Cinderella as a hooker. She’s lower class, gets a makeover by a prince (Richard Gere in this case), they fall for each other but she runs away because they come from two different worlds and it could never logically work, and he chases after her and tells her that her station in life doesn’t matter to him and he loves her for who she is as a person…. and she’s Julia Roberts. This formula has all the romantic elements women love. The formula fulfills the fantasy of dressing up in elegant gowns and being the prom queen. To some characters in the story, the guy is a cold hearted businessman but she sees his tender side and gets him to open up. Finally, the formula wraps up by fulfilling the fantasy of a man chasing after his woman and publicly confessing his love for her. By the way, I believe you can tell a lot about a woman by which formula story she likes the best, but that’s another blog for another time.

The Twilight series, on the other hand, appears to fall into the “Girl Must Choose between the Bad Boy and the Nice Guy Formula” category. Not to be confused with the "Love Triangle Formula," the "Bad Boy and Nice Guy Formula" has a different twist. By just viewing the film trailers, the basic story reveals itself pretty easily. The girl has an unstable family life, she’s probably a misfit or at least not very popular at school. The vampire is the bad boy and, in New Moon, a werewolf comes along and listens to all of her problems. He’s a nice guy, this werewolf. But her true passion is for the vampire bad boy. A key element of this formula is that the woman tames (or tries to tame) the bad boy (Grease/Beauty and the Beast). In this particular case, the bad boy wants to suck the girl’s blood. They probably don’t have sex because he might “lose control” and be overcome by his savage nature and kill her. He won’t hurt her though, because he loves her too much. He probably even runs away and tells her that it’s for the best. Of course, the fact that they can’t have sex makes it even more romantic for a lot of women. Ladies see this plot device as romantic drama, men see it as a tragedy (quick question: can vampires get blue balls? If anyone knows, email me). I’ve not figured out exactly what the werewolf wants, other than to walk around without his shirt on and show his tender side. As I watched the trailers on YouTube, I found myself wondering if the author is metaphorically stating that all men are either vampires or werewolves. And, if so, which one am I? I guess it doesn’t really matter much. As long as ladies aren’t comparing me to Frankenstein’s Monster or Igor I’ll be fine. This formula (or series) can end in two different ways. In the case of Grease the girl ends up with the bad boy. In Casablanca, (and I am in no way saying that Twilight is on the same level as Casablanca, just a similar formula) Ingrid Bergman makes the responsible choice and sticks with nice guy over Bogey (but they’ll always have Paris).

The critics have been pretty harsh on the Twilight films and a lot of academics cringe at the thought of Twilight’s popularity. As an academic myself, I can see their point. Earlier today I stopped in at a local bookstore and read the first few chapters of New Moon. The writing quality isn’t exactly on par with Marquez, the dialogue seems to be taken from direct quotes of top forty pop songs, and the prose is filled with cliché after cliché. Reading along, I was about to pull my hair out in frustration over the fact that such a poorly written story could be so popular when suddenly I thought of something that made me see Twilight in a different light. The other night, while flipping through the channels (I watch much more television now that I’ve moved away from Morgantown) I ran across an old classic, The Goonies. Great! I thought, I hadn’t seen Goonies in over a decade! This was one of my favorite films as a kid. By the time I found the movie on TV, the kids were already underground and had made it farther than Chester Copperpot… and he was a pro! Chunk was in the hands of the Fratellis and the race for One Eyed Willy’s gold was on. What I’m going to do now is paraphrase the scene that was playing when I turned the station.

The kids run into the bottom of a wishing well. At first they think they’ve found the gold, but quickly realize they’re grabbing handfuls of pennies and nickels. Andy (the Token Hot Popular Girl) holds up a penny and wistfully says, “You know, I’ve always believed that when you threw your penny into the well and made a wish, that wish came true.” The kids continue to rake up the coins as Stephanie (The Token Hot Popular Girl’s Cynical and Less Popular Friend) tells everyone to put the coins back where they found them. “You can’t take these coins” She yells. “These are somebody else’s wishes. Someone else’s dreams!” The kids feel guilty and drop the coins, except for Mouth, who sticks a penny in Stephanie’s face and says, “I’m keeping this one. This one right here. Because it was my wish, my dream, and it didn’t come true!” Then he swims away in the well water.

The dialogue couldn’t be cheesier, the acting is horrific, the plot is filled with clichés, everything about the story is ridiculous ….. and I loved every minute of it. Goonies isn't high art or literary drama, but I remember watching the above cheezy scene when I was twelve and, at that time, I was hanging on every word. I was desparate for the kids to find the pirate treasure so that they wouldn't get kicked out of the Goon Docks. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way about Twilight. In that sense, I get it. Twilight is formulaic romantic fiction with vampires and werewolves thrown in. Maybe it is nothing more than Pretty in Pink meets Dracula, but it fulfills a romance fantasy for a lot of women and it’s a lot of fun. Nothing wrong with that. And since filmmakers are going with eighties films and horror themes, they might as well make a horror version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Now that I would go see. Wait a minute, they kind of already did that, it’s called Teen Wolf.

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