Twilight: Bad Books make Good Movies

Twilight Recap: Bella has survived her first class of the morning at her new school and now has to face her classmates in the brief time between classes. Since Bella is certain she is a source of juicy gossip in the small town of Forks, she is uncomfortable with being on display to her fellow students.

Twilight, Chapter 1: First Sight

"Book Movies" - that is to say, movies that are based on a previously published novel - often get a lot of shtick for being inferior to the source material, and it is certainly true that a lot of book-to-movie crossover attempts fall severely short of capturing the beauty and originality of the source novel.

On the other hand, as Fred Clark has noted as part of his "Left Behind" deconstruction, sometimes Bad Books make Good Movies, or at the very least better movies than might have been expected given the source material. Part of this is due to the visual nature of movies - a lot of information can (and will) be conveyed on the screen that might have been lost in the original text. Take the issue we had last week with trying to figure out details as simple and fundamental as the current season - this will come across to the movie viewer immediately if only because the main characters on display will be wearing certain types of clothes: hats and shawls for a winter start date at school, short sleeves for a spring start date.

These visual cues and setting details are almost inevitable in the crossover from written page to silver screen, as is major editing and rewriting of the source material in order to boil the heart of the novel into an 2+ hour viewing experience. The editing and rewriting of the source material is crucial, and is one of the ways in which a good movie can really outshine the original novel - if the dialogue or character interactions felt a little flat or unrealistic in the novel, the screenwriters can take the opportunity to polish everything up into something more real and genuine-sounding, all in the name of brevity and film constraints.

Of course, the flip side to movie crossovers is that Hollywood casting being what it is, you're almost certain to end up with actors who may not be the spitting image of their character. So keep in mind that when we meet Eric Yorkie...

    When the bell rang, a nasal buzzing sound, a gangly boy with skin problems and hair black as an oil slick leaned across the aisle to talk to me.
    “You’re Isabella Swan, aren’t you?” He looked like the overly helpful, chess club type.

...his character is, in fact, portrayed in the Twilight crossover movies by Justin Chon.

I can only assume that thousands of high school girls joined their local chess clubs in the aftermath of Twilight, and I think we should remember that as we move forward: if nothing else, the Twilight movie franchise encourages chess playing across the fan base, and how can that be a bad thing? Moving back to the text: 

   “Bella,” I corrected. Everyone within a three-seat radius turned to look at me.
   “Where’s your next class?” he asked.
   I had to check in my bag. “Um, Government, with Jefferson, in building six.”
   There was nowhere to look without meeting curious eyes.
   “I’m headed toward building four, I could show you the way. . . .” Definitely over-helpful. “I’m Eric,” he added.
   I smiled tentatively. “Thanks.”
   We got our jackets and headed out into the rain, which had picked up. I could have sworn several people behind us were walking close enough to eavesdrop. I hoped I wasn’t getting paranoid.

One of the things that is fascinating about going through this Twilight deconstruction is how divided the readership is on how to view Bella as a character. On the one hand, her inner dialogue is almost constantly sarcastic and catty; the literature of Bronte and Chaucer are "basic" to her and classmate Eric is described in terms of stock stereotypes and ugly adjectives - he's a "chess club type" with "skin problems" and implicitly greasy hair. These particular adjectives, dispensed in this particular way, makes it seem as though Bella considers herself somewhat superior to everything around her - and yet, outside of her inner monologues, we haven't seen any of this superiority really bleed over into her spoken words and physical actions in the way I would expect it to.

It's possible to justify this disconnect as simply Bad Writing. In this case, Bella only means that Bronte and Chaucer are "basic" in the sense that they are "standard" in schools - and the author didn't fully realize the extra baggage the description would convey to the reader. In this case, we would be looking at a violation of Mark Twain's 13th rule of writing: "Use the right word, not its second cousin." In the same way, the description of Eric would not be intended to convey anything to the reader about Bella, but would rather just be a quick way of the author saying, Look, you know those guys at your school that were kind of greasy and nerdy-looking? He's one of those, ok? That's enough ancillary character development; let's move on to the sexy vampires!

I think this is what Mark of means when he describes the Twilight series as some of the worst books ever (my interpretation of his posts - I don't have a direct quote to that effect handy), and I can't honestly say that he's wrong... and yet, for purposes of this deconstruction, I really feel that the Bad Writing explanation is anathema to the process. It's impossible to really deconstruct and draw conclusions from a text if you're always having to assume that the author meant something other than what was actually written.

So if we come back to the text and take it as is, we have to wonder what it says about the character of Bella that of all the ways in the world to describe Eric, she uses terms that deliberately put him in the worst light possible: "overly-helpful" makes him seem clingy and annoying, "skin problems" seems to single him out as being especially noteworthy and unattractive among the hordes of other acne-laden students, and "oil slick" immediately makes the reader think of greasy scalps. Of course, it's possible that this description fits Eric perfectly and we are merely meant to see Bella's description as factual and honest... but what throws a wrench into that is the mere fact that words have connotations in addition to their definitions, and it's possible to be "factual" several different ways with each way connoting a different meaning overall.

Basically, it's the difference between describing Edward Cullen's skin as 'cool as marble' versus 'cold as a corpse'. Both the descriptions may be factual, but one of them is going to give you the heeby-jeebies and the other one (S. Meyer hopes) won't.

So on the one hand, it's easy to see Bella as a completely unlikable character who goes through her first day of school mentally meting out judgment upon the other students and building a paranoia complex around everyone's understandable interest in her. And yet, on the other hand, I do sympathize with Bella a little here: it's not easy being the new kid in a small school halfway through the school year when all the social groups are already pretty firmly established, and I would imagine it would be even harder in a small town where everyone knows each other reasonably well and the only thing that you know that they know about you is that your mom took off from your dad when you were an infant.

So I'm actually very much inclined to give Bella a pass for being somewhat paranoid about everyone staring at her, and I can even sort of understand her mental aggression towards Eric and her other classmates - she's already demonstrated so much angst about fitting in and being accepted that it's possible that she's either (a) trying to prevent being absorbed into any specific cliques until she's had a chance to make her own choice or (b) trying to convince herself that she is so much better than everyone else that she doesn't need friends or acceptance, just in case they aren't ever offered to her.

Neither of those coping strategies are automatically bad or unhealthy - it's actually fairly wise to choose your associations carefully, and it's very healthy to maintain a strong sense of self-affirmation and to not let your feelings of self-worth be driven entirely by the other people around you. However, both of these strategies can very easily turn unhealthy if religiously adhered to or taken to an extreme. Which is to say: it's wise to choose your friends and associations judiciously based on your values, but it's important that your "values" don't start and stop at "prettiest person in the room".

   After two classes, I started to recognize several of the faces in each class. There was always someone braver than the others who would introduce themselves and ask me questions about how I was liking Forks. I tried to be diplomatic, but mostly I just lied a lot. At least I never needed the map.
   One girl sat next to me in both Trig and Spanish, and she walked with me to the cafeteria for lunch. She was tiny, several inches shorter than my five feet four inches, but her wildly curly dark hair made up a lot of the difference between our heights. I couldn’t remember her name, so I smiled and nodded as she prattled about teachers and classes. I didn’t try to keep up.
   We sat at the end of a full table with several of her friends, who she introduced to me. I forgot all their names as soon as she spoke them. They seemed impressed by her bravery in speaking to me. The boy from English, Eric, waved at me from across the room.

I think S. Meyer is going for a sort of "small town people are shy" thing here, but I have to laugh a little at two mentions of 'bravery' in three paragraphs - as if Bella is such a stunning, impressive personality that merely approaching her is some kind of litmus test for self-confidence and bravado. This is another area where the movie crossover has the upper hand - Hollywood screenwriters hold as an article of truth that all high schools are ruled by a queen bee who is quick to challenge any perceived threat to her authority, hence we are given a strong contrast between this unnatural acceptance on the pages of Twilight and the more natural opening salvo in the movie:

   "I'm Jessica, by the way. Hey, you're from Arizona, right?"
   "Aren't people from Arizona supposed to be, like, really tan?"
   "Yeah. Maybe that's why they kicked me out."

Pure poetry. In four short lines, we get the full gist of all this unnecessary angst about skin coloring, wrapped up in a clear explanation for Bella's relatively painless integration into the school: the alpha queen has issued a challenge, and the interloper immediately capitulates through submissive body language and with a self-deprecating joke. Having shown that she doesn't intend to be a threat, Bella is ushered grudgingly to the cool girls' table so that the attention being shown to the "shiny new toy" can also fall on her new best friend. It's high school politics at its best, and much more realistic than this sweet, nonthreatening, curly-haired, as-of-yet-nameless girl adopting Bella as her newest friend despite Bella's open and stubborn refusal to either remember her name or listen to anything she says.

And yet here we come to another puzzlement brought to us by either Bad Writing or incredibly complex characterization: Why does Bella remember the name of the overly-helpful boy from two or three classes ago, but she can't remember the name of the overly-helpful girl who has been by her side for two classes straight? Is it merely a fluke that we get treated to three mentions of "Eric" in as many pages, but we won't hear a "Jessica" until a few pages later when Bella remembers the girl's name just in time to grill her about the pretty vampires in the lunch room? Is "Eric" more noteworthy to Bella just because he's a boy? Or is it rather that his character is more noteworthy to the author because he's a boy?

The problem isn't just that Bella can't remember her newest friend's name - it's that she's openly uninterested in anything her new friend wants to say to her. When you contrast Bella's narrative disinterest ("I smiled and nodded as she prattled about teachers and classes. I didn’t try to keep up.") with the fact that she was more than willing to provide us with the full transcript of her utterly boring and completely unnecessary conversation with Eric, the difference is disconcerting to the reader.

Is this difference in focus within the narrative due to Bad Writing, where the reader hears more about Eric because he's a more important character in terms of plot propulsion? (His bad driving will provide the first clue to the Cullens' paranormal natures.) Or are we meant to take this as some kind of reflection on the character of Bella Swan - perhaps that she pays more attention to Eric's introduction and conversation because he's a boy who is romantically interested in her, and as such he contributes to her feelings of self-worth more than a nice curly-haired girl looking to be genuinely helpful and friendly? Or does the narrative instead reflect on the character of the author - perhaps that she pays more attention to Eric's introduction and conversation because he's a boy who is romantically interested in the protagonist self-insert character, and as such he contributes to her (and the readers?) feelings of self-worth more than a nice curly-haired girl who is merely there for vampire exposition?

The hardest thing about analyzing Twilight is that there's just so many layers.


Jeannette Ng said...

On the subject of Chess Club Eric, I remember in our reading of the book that there was no actual indication from him that he's actually a member of the Chess Club or if there even is a Chess Club at this school. It is an assumption that Bella makes of him (that he is a "chess club type") and saddles him with this moniker forevermore.

Which is part of the larger problem of Bella's internal voice being really rather unpleasant. That level of misanthropy can work, but usually through the voice of someone much wittier and funnier. The judgmental tone and arrogance doesn't work with the low self work. Though I suppose I can sympathize with someone who feels so lost that that they're clinging onto anyone who shows them kindness (conversation, etc) regardless of whether or not they are actually interested in the source of that kindness as another human being. Desperately attempting to make friends with people whom in other circumstances you may have ignored (or simply have gravitated away from) for sharing different interests.

Sorry, rambling.

Ana Mardoll said...


Yeah, at least in the movie, he was - IIRC - an A/V club guy and involved heavily in the school newspaper. It's a little sad and frustrating when the movie characters have more in-depth characterization than the book version of the same.

Does anyone know enough about inferiority complexes to lend some thoughts on whether or not Bella might be suffering from one herself? As much as she seems to hate everyone around her, she doesn't exactly seem to like her own self that much either, in my opinion.

jetso said...


That is rather frustrating. My memories of the film version are really very vague, I'm afraid. A friend and I were joking how this could be seen as an extension of Bell as Mary Sue's reality-warping powers, though usually it applies to snap judgements of such-and-such a character being evil rather than being part of a chess club (something rather innocuous, but as someone who was member of a chess club, I would say that. Mwahhahah, steepled fingers, etc)

For someone who spent many, many words worrying about not fitting in and not making friends, Bella responds, well, rather poorly, too overtures of friendship. Again, perhaps relating too closely to myself, but I have been in situations where I conceded talking about topics that I wasn't necessarily entirely interested in (nailpolish, first aid, duck penes, etc) because people around me have professed an interest in it. And no doubt they've done the same for me (Twilight, lit crit, medieval England, etc). The self-isolation is intriguing and potentially good characterisation, though I suppose what makes in actually cross over into annoying is that despite all that she is effortlessly popular and sought after.

I suppose you can argue that it taps into a certain sense of the forced socialising that small towns and small schools can create. That is, due to a small social circle, you're more or less stuck with the people you're stuck with as your friends. So you end up being friends with people who are pleasant enough but you wouldn't necessarily choose to be friends with given great choice (due to lack of shared interests beyond immediate surroundings). Thus easy to relate to for a teenage audience, or really anyone who similarly "trapped" in friends of circumstance rather than choice.

Sorry, point rather laboured there. But I think what I'm trying to get at is that Bella is enacting a very exaggerated version of something that is potentially relateable.

This has made me reread the Loinfire Club review of "Twilight" that I wrote many moons ago. I suspect I will end up rehashing many of the opinions expressed here as the most excellent deconstruction continues. I apologise in advance.

Kit Whitfield said...

I find 'overly helpful' a particularly interesting phrase, because it seems to pull two ways.

On the one hand, it's euphemistic: it might be the tactful, self-abnegating way of saying 'creepily intrusive.' As in: 'Eric's being following me around all day. I wish he wouldn't. I don't mean to be ungrateful or anything, he's just kind of ... overly helpful?'

On the other hand, it equally reads as Queen Bee-ish and spiteful: cool requires an appearance of effortlessness, and Eric is just, like, so obviously trying *so* hard, I mean, could be *be* any more overly helpful?

The reason it's contradictory, I think, is that the two words contradict each other. If you're actually helpful, then you can't be it to excess, because that wouldn't be helpful. If you're being 'overly' something, then that something is, as it were, the 'second cousin' of 'helpful'. So which is it?

Given that it's Twilight, very possibly both, of course - and indeed, in the right culture, a girl may need to maintain her Queen Bee status by keeping her insults tactful, or at least indirect. The 'chess club type' seems to weight it towards the Queen Bee end of the scale, I'd say, because she's assigning him a 'type' rather than reacting to his actual behaviour - she actually assumes he's going to be 'overly helpful' before he's had much of a chance to do anything beyond saying hello. But to my ears at least, the euphemistic phrasing makes it seem cattier than it needs to be.

After all, there's nothing inherently wrong with not wanting to become friends with a 'chess club type': if that's not your scene, you won't enjoy hanging out there, and in a new environment with established cliques you could wind up stuck there if you get perceived as a 'chess club type' yourself early on, and wind up having no fun. It's not philanthropic, but it's human, and if the book was more clear that Bella was thinking, 'Oh boy; I'd better end this conversation quickly if I don't want to be playing chess from now till graduation,' I personally think it'd be more sympathetic.

Ana Mardoll said...

Jetso: The self-isolation is intriguing and potentially good characterisation, though I suppose what makes in actually cross over into annoying is that despite all that she is effortlessly popular and sought after.

Kit: ...if the book was more clear that Bella was thinking, 'Oh boy; I'd better end this conversation quickly if I don't want to be playing chess from now till graduation,' I personally think it'd be more sympathetic.

This, yes! It's one more reason why I wish the text was more detailed. If Bella was snubbed for being aloof, or if her aloofness were better explained as just - "wow, I don't want to get sucked into the chess club by accident" - then I think it would be a lot easier to follow.

It's worth noting that there's also the genuine concern of the "stealth boyfriend" - Bella has professed a disinterest in relationships at this point in her life and she's also incredibly passive about turning down romantic advances. I can understand her feeling that the best way to prevent any awkwardness is to keep Eric at arm's length until he realizes that she's not available and that being her tour guide isn't going to suddenly make them an item. Again, an explanation in text would be nice.

It's interesting to note that Eric *does* later appear to be creepy and clingy. If I recall correctly, after the near-accident, he tells everyone in school that he is going to take Bella to the prom - this is presented as a way of making up for the accident even though she is, at this point, the most hotly pursued girl in the school. Note that he doesn't tell everyone that he is ASKING her to prom - he tells everyone he is TAKING her to the prom. This is awkward for Bella because (a) she's terrible at telling people "no" and (b) she risks social disapproval if everyone thinks that she and Eric had an understanding and then she backed out to go with a Cullen instead.

So, if Eric really is "overly helpful" (in a clingy, stalker-y kind of way), is it just a good guess on Bella's part or does she - as Jetso notes - have Mary Sue powers of precognition?

Kit Whitfield said...

*So, if Eric really is "overly helpful" (in a clingy, stalker-y kind of way), is it just a good guess on Bella's part or does she - as Jetso notes - have Mary Sue powers of precognition?*

I think Bella's definitely a Mary Sue of sorts - she is, at least, a point of identification more than a complex character, and her major narrative function is to *have* things - Edward, the admiration of others, an exciting life - that the reader can then vicariously enjoy.

I don't think I'd call it precognition exactly, though. The way the story is told, I get the impression that we're supposed to take Bella's opinions at face value. Her actions often look morally questionable from the outside but she's still supposedly worthy of perfect love; to me, that read as a book whose assumption was that whatever Bella wanted was justified and that didn't ask itself too many questions about making her look deserving beyond a bit of lip-service to insecurity.

If that's the case, it's not even as complex as precognition. Bella sees somebody, forms an impression of them, and that impression is correct. She's correct that Edward is profoundly desirable; she's correct that Eric is a nuisance; the narrative simply doesn't throw events at her that cause her to revise any of her first impressions. Doubts about Bella's judgement open the reader up to doubts about Edward's desirability, and there goes the point of the story. I could be wrong, but to me it read like a story where Bella's impressions were supposed to be considered authoritative, but which suffered from a show-not-tell problem and that presented Bella in a rather contradictory way - or rather, assumed her judgements were authoritative enough that it neglected to check whether, to a reader who didn't automatically accept them, she might be coming across badly.

Kit Whitfield said...

Thinking about it, I'd speculate there may be another reason why Bella dismisses Jessica's talk as 'prattle'. If we take Bella as a character on her own terms, there's something that stood out about the book to me: while she frequently laments the loss of the Arizona landscape and climate, she never laments the loss of any Arizona friends. She doesn't stay in touch with anyone from back home except her mother; she doesn't compare the social scene in Forks to the social scene she's just left; all in all, she really arrives in Forks as Ms Billy No-Mates.

If we imagined this was a real person, we'd have to assume that she was either extremely anti-social or extremely unfortunate. The latter seems less likely; she doesn't arrive in Forks hoping the fresh start might give her a chance to make friends at last, but rather regards pretty much everyone with a hostile eye. She's interested in romance with Edward, but that's it.

At the same time, she has no plans for college, and Edward's later refusal to vamp her on the grounds that she should have a life falls on deaf ears. She really doesn't want anything in life - friends, work, interests - except Edward. In keeping with this, her only comparisons to school back home are about how dull it is to read the same books and about the physical environment.

One might say that she has a sensuous appreciation of things, be it her surroundings or her boyfriend, but that everything that doesn't stimulate her senses is dull, as far as she's concerned.

Hence, Jessica's conversation is mentally classed as 'prattle' because it concerns such things as teachers, classes, and other things that are non-sensual. It's not about the things Bella cares about ... because that would be an awfully tall order: Bella cares about very little, and what she does care about can't be delivered in conversation. Even her appreciation of Edward is largely visual and sensual; when she remembers his voice, it's mostly the sound of it rather than the things it says that interest her.

One might say that Bella is, to an extraordinary degree for the narrator of a novel, non-verbal and non-social. Being heterosexual, she notices that Eric is displeasing to her senses and classes Jessica as a non-presence because she's neither pleasing nor displeasing. She's a sensation seeker and not much else.

J.D.M. said...

Ana, first, love it with a capital love. And the subsequent comments.

But, I'd like to point out that a more accurate title for your post might be "Bad Books Make Slightly Less Bad Movies". I've read Twilight and I've seen the movie. Both were middling--the movie only slightly less so than the book. Strictly my opinion, of course. :D

Ana said: "It's one more reason why I wish the text was more detailed."

Double-edged sword alert. One thing that annoyed me greatly with Twilight was the meaningless details spewed throughout. (Did we really need to know what Bella ate for breakfast as opposed to her motives for wanting to avoid Eric?) But, I agree that Meyer should have dispensed more necessary *character* details while removing the unnecessary ones. (Makes me wonder if the character ambiguity was deliberate. Get the people debating actual vs.implied meaning == Literary history.)

Tangentially related: Kit Whitfield just singlehandedly convinced me to read 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' (or, at very least, see one of the various movie iterations).

Kit Whitfield said...

@JDM: if you see a movie version, see the one with Glenn Close and John Malkovich, as it's far the best and quite closely captures the spirit of the book. But the book's definitely worth reading.

Silver Adept said...

Hrm. I wasn't that impressed with either of the materials, source or adaptation, but since we're early on in both, we haven't had time to get to the parts where the wheels really fall off in both bits. I do like, though, how the movie can excise some of the really bad bits of writing, either for time or because you have to deal with actual people in front of the camera.

Looking forward to the next.

Ana Mardoll said...

But, I'd like to point out that a more accurate title for your post might be "Bad Books Make Slightly Less Bad Movies".

But then my title loses its smug pithiness! :D

I will confess that I like the movies SO much more when enjoyed with their associated RiffTrax:

Hyusband and I rent them from the library as they come available, queue up the RiffTrax, and then delightedly choke on our popcorn with laughter.

I also deeply enjoyed the parody movie "Vampires Suck", but I think I was one of the few who did. o.O

Silver Adept said...

@Ana in comment 11:

I also saw Vampires Suck. Laughed quite a bit at it. I think what stopped me from deep enjoyment, though, is that parody movies like that are often over-the-top in their presentation, to try and cram as many obvious jokes in. I think they would do better if they were a little less obvious about themselves, so I don't go "Huh. Lots of funny jokes in a paper-think plot that tries too hard."

But that's me.

Dez said...

I know this is kind of late, but I just wanted to point out that it's Tyler that almost kills Bella and tells everyone that he's taking her to prom, not Eric.

Reader of Books said...

"[...]makes it seem as though Bella considers herself somewhat superior to everything around her - and yet, outside of her inner monologues, we haven't seen any of this superiority really bleed over into her spoken words and physical actions in the way I would expect it to."

Or she's just way better at hiding it than she appears. I consciously try to come off as nice and helpful and knowledgeable when I talk to some people online. If I'm playing multiplayer video games, my microphone sound is muted so I can rant and call people horrible names because at heart I'm a terrible elitist with almost no patience. I just don't let people see it if I can help it. It's a quality, when I read the series, I was able to pull off myself and put on Bella with no problem. (Hi, I'm a terrible person, please don't hate me, I'm quite insecure underneath it.)

On top of the issues of connotations and words have meaning, damnit, I could make the argument that Bella/SMeyer is seeing/describing warning signs of a Schroedinger's Rapist or something without being at all conscious of them and it's ratcheting up her nervousness level and triggering stereotypical description. In a strange twist, my current boyfriend is someone who hit all the buttons to label himself a danger to me in high school so I would not trust him for the next eight years. And then we started dating. But popping up at random times as a giant of a man with close-cut hair that resembled a thug and ignoring all of my frantic "I'm a nice-girl following the rules go away now" cues because those are "demure, coy" behaviors to an interested boy...well, I can be reading too much into it, and Eric could be exhibiting the beginnings of stalker-y behavior.

Ignoring the fact that Bella could have undiagnosed mental illness. :) Says the very paranoid Reader. I do like your theories on her reacting so hard as a logical yet not very useful coping strategy.

I agree so hard with the comments about being a sensation seeker--it makes so much sense. She wants that tactile sensation because it's there in the moment and she doesn't have to worry about details like what they're going to talk about because she's too busy enjoying the moment.

Post a Comment