“I don’t have the strength to stay away from you any more,” says Edward Cullen to Bella Swan in the first Twilight movie. “You’re like my own personal brand of heroin.”
Thus began the unforeseen addiction of millions of human teenagers to the five-film vampire saga, which took $3.3 billion (Dh12.11 billion) worldwide, became a cultural phenomenon, and altered the future of female-led cinema forever.
Ten years ago this month, when Twilight premiered, no one was sure whether the success of Stephenie Meyer’s young adult novels would transfer to the screen. The saturnine lead actors — lip-biting human Kristen Stewart and neck-biting vampire Robert Pattinson — were almost unknown. Director Catherine Hardwicke had a 44-day shoot and a scrimp-and-see $37 million budget compared with the going rate of $200 million for such CGI-fantasy-action movies.
At first glance, the story seemed ridiculous: Dracula for ditzes. Stroppy 17-year-old Bella arrives in the town of Forks in the Pacific Northwest to stay with her divorced father. At school she meets the pale, distinguished, distant Edward, who is poleaxed by bloodlust for her. (There’s a hilarious scene in which Bella sniffs her own armpit in the school lab, because her science partner Edward seems so repelled. Of course, he’s just trying to control his vampiric hunger.) Edward keeps saving Bella with his supernatural powers and they fall in love, but he must hold back in case cuddles turn to canapes. Plus, their love match is opposed by local werewolves, vampires and parents. What can possibly go wrong?
Many critics excoriated the tweenie trash (Roger Ebert described it as a “tepid achievement”) and its supposed sexual-abstinence message got a drubbing from feminists — more on that later.
But the two young leads had almost nuclear chemistry, and young women identified with Bella’s determination to choose her own fate — as well as her realistic Seattle-grunge clothing choices. To his credit, this paper’s reviewer Peter Bradshaw ponied up four stars and asked the question: “Which of us, in our impressionable teenage years, has not displaced an irrational horror of sex into a freaky emo crush on a moody vampire with sky-high cheekbones and a taste for human blood?”
On Twilight’s opening weekend in the US, it turned out that the emo-crush was bordering on mass hysteria. The film made $69 million by Sunday. The fans, known as Twi-hards, were on a roll. A five-film franchise was launched — Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, Breaking Dawn I and II — and the rest is haemoglobin-soaked history.
“The part that shocked Hollywood was that the film’s stunning success was fuelled by ‘girl power,’” says Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood. “The general consensus in Hollywood is that films and books made for men and boys are seen as ‘universal’, and things that are made for women and girls are somehow seen as ‘other.’ Women are seen as a ‘niche’ audience. This ‘nichification’ of women has been one of the most enduring problems facing the much-maligned chick flick.”
The sensation of Twilight in 2008 caused Hollywood studios to perk up and pay attention to a new ticket-buying demographic — young women (and, let’s be honest, their vampire-struck mums). For years, the superhero and adventure franchises had faithfully served the 12- to 25-year-old male audience, without taking the economic power of the handbag into account.
The race to satiate the imaginations of teenage girls was on. In 2012, Jennifer Lawrence premiered in the first of four box-office-busting Hunger Games movies; in 2014, Shailene Woodley appeared in the first of three dystopian Divergent films. Meanwhile, at the younger end of the market, Disney’s Brave in 2013 and Frozen that same year gave the traditional princess narrative a good kicking.
But The Hunger Games and Divergent were all directed by men. It was not until Patty Jenkins took on Wonder Woman that a female-directed film outsold Twilight. Only now, after 20 male-directed blockbusters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, will the 21st, Captain Marvel, be directed by a woman. At the Comic Con preview in New York last month, which pre-Twilight was home only to fanboys and rare fangirls, Hardwicke spoke about her film’s long-term effect: “Twilight changed the perception, the idea that a movie about a girl wouldn’t be popular, wouldn’t make a lot of money. It blew it out of the water. A novel written by a woman, a movie directed by a female. We broke records. People can use that for ammo — when another female director goes to a meeting, they are gonna say, ‘Well, I don’t think you can do this,’ and they can respond with, ‘Well, Catherine did it, Twilight did it.’ You use it as a building block to the next thing and the next thing.”
Hardwicke, who made the indies Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, fought for her version of Twilight, written by Melissa Rosenberg, which stayed close to Meyer’s book. A previous version had Bella escaping the FBI on a jet ski, which somewhat destroyed the moody, mossy, forested vibe of the ancient vampire cult. Yet the director’s guiding hand and production design skill was not properly valued by the franchise. When Hardwicke was told to make the second film New Moon in less than a year, to a tight budget, she baulked.
The studio, Summit Entertainment, then asked Chris Weitz to step in. He was director of The Golden Compass, a franchise that failed to take off. No matter. New Moon and the rest of the often-shoddy Twilight films were directed by men: David Slade and Bill Condon. Hardwicke went on to make Red Riding Hood and has just finished an English-language remake of Miss Bala.
Hardwicke and her casting director also deserve credit for spotting the nascent star-power in Stewart and Pattinson, who have used their fame to greenlight many an art-house movie, regularly appearing on the red carpet at Cannes. Pattinson made Cosmopolis with David Cronenberg and Good Time with the Safdie brothers; Stewart made Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper with Olivier Assayas.
Stewart had previously played Jodie Foster’s daughter in Panic Room and appeared in Into the Wild, while Pattinson’s main credit was playing Cedric Diggory in the Harry Potter franchise. Hardwicke ran chemistry tests between Stewart and four potential co-stars. “It was like blind-date central,” she said. Then they clicked.
At certain points, Pattinson and Stewart were lovers on screen and off, which perhaps added to the veracity. Certainly, young women were happy to wait through three-and-a-half films before the relationship was consummated in a bed-breaking honeymoon scene after a glitzy wedding in Breaking Dawn I.
Bella always had a streak of determination, and the strange power of being able to close her mind to Edward’s thought-reading. In Breaking Dawn I, she courageously handles the gruesome problems of giving birth to a hybrid human-vampire baby, but by Breaking Dawn II, she takes on vampire shape herself, and arm-wrestles the rest of the Cullen coven into submission, just after she has chased a mountain lion and sunk her teeth into its jugular. In the end, Bella is active and empowered, a leader in battle, and the Twi-hards loved it.
Hardwicke quietly slipped some of her own politics into the first film, too, particularly when it came to casting a few actors or colour, who were not in the books, which depicted all vampires with pale, white, glittering skin. (The werewolves of the Quileute Tribe were mostly Native American.) Hardwicke tried to encourage Meyer to cast Alice Cullen as Japanese, to no avail, but she did persuade the author that there could be some diversity among the school pupils and that Kenyan-American actor Edi Gathegi would play the vampire Laurent.
Yet, overall, Twilight’s legacy is a positive one, for young readers, for Twi-hard cinephiles, for the future of female-led and directed blockbusters. I’ll leave the last word to K-Stew in Interview magazine: “Anybody who wants to talk shit about Twilight, I completely get it. But there’s something there that I’m endlessly, and to this day, fucking proud of. My memory of it felt — still feels — really good.”