The first crush I ever had was on David Bowie’s Goblin King from Labyrinth. He was a big haired, pale skinned other worldly bad boy who wanted to keep teenage Sarah with him forever despite being vastly older than her. I was 9.
So I get Twilight. Based on the series written by Mormon Stephenie Meyer, who at the time proudly confessed to never having seen a horror film, the first of the films came out in 2008 to wild commercial success, almost instantly generating a rabid fanbase of largely (but definitely not only) teenage girls. Nicknamed ‘Twihards’ these fans were obsessed not only with the films and books but also with the stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, who at the time were a couple in real life. It was intense. It was a lot.
Four subsequent (and lesser) films followed and while the fans got louder, so did the sneers. Now the series has landed on Netflix and is potentially reaching a whole new generation of viewers, as well as scratching a delicious nostalgic itch for original Twihards more than a decade on. Outside of the cultural phenomenon of the franchise, it’s easy to forget how genuinely intelligent the first film really was. The main reason for that was director Catherine Hardwicke.
Hardwicke gets teenage girls. If you have any doubt about that, watch her feature directorial debut from 2003 Thirteen. Co-written with then 14-year-old co-star Nikki Reed, it’s a painful drama about a destructive teenage friendship that taps perfectly into how achingly important and casually destructive certain things are when you’re that age. Twilight taps into the same thing, focusing on incredibly melodramatic teenager, Bella Swan. Mocking Bella is no smarter than mocking Kayla from Eighth Grade or Tracy from Thirteen. It’s not news: teenage girls can be a bit like that, and Hardwicke sets out her stall from the off.
Indeed the first lines of Twilight are Bella’s voiceover pondering her own mortality, “Dying in the place of someone I love seems a good way to go,” she mopes, with absolute sincerity.
There is no way these films would have been the teenage catnip that they were without the perfect casting of the two leads. Hardwicke found Stewart first, an up and comer at the time who is both preternaturally beautiful but somehow incredibly awkward with it (as a case in point of how this could have gone wrong – take the miscasting of Chloe Grace Moretz in Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie – Stewart would have been far better). Hardwicke ran ‘chemistry tests’ to find her Edward and to say there was chemistry between the two would be an understatement. Stewart carries Bella’s heavy earnestness with empathy while Pattinson is pointy, brooding, pale faced and interesting in all the right ways.
Yep, Catherine Hardwicke gets teenage girls.
Armed with the perfect leads, but only a tiny budget for a blockbuster – $37 million – Hardwicke made a romance fizzing with the kind of burgeoning sexuality coupled with melodramatic obsession that can be so common to pre-teen or teenage fantasy.
Forget the later movies which feature buff werewolves walking around with their tops off. The genius of Hardwicke’s movie is a similar innocence to Meyer’s books. It is pure fantasy.
Edward is the embodiment of the ‘safe’ boyfriend young teens fantasize about – an older, more experienced man who still looks young and handsome. A man who doesn’t like anyone else at all, but loves you completely. A man who desires you endlessly but – and this is crucial – can’t have sex with you. And a man who will love you, and only you for all of eternity.
Bella and Edward do shag, and get married and have a baby later on in the series, which is all somehow less interesting than the tingly but chaste first installment but that’s not to say part one isn’t about sex, because it absolutely is.
Edward wants to eat Bella so badly you can smell it. Or at least, he can certainly smell it – he’s driven crazy by the pheromones she gives off.
While Edward is ‘safe,’ he is also dangerous – he points out very clearly that she is powerless against him. She could never outrun him, he is far stronger than her. In a scene where he asks her to dance and she refuses he even says “I could make you.”
There is something a bit kinky about this, and rightly so. Lest we forget, Twilight was the inspiration for the tame erotica series which began with Fifty Shades of Grey. Bella is the young version of Anastasia, learning that maybe she quite likes being submissive.
There is no reason young teens (of any gender) shouldn’t explore different parts of their sexuality. Love it or hate it, the romance works.
Rewatched years on and Twilight is a lot more than that though. It’s easy to forget how intentionally funny it is. Though we are on Bella’s side, that doesn’t stop Hardwicke gently poking fun at her. An early scene in science class sees Bella walk in and pose right in front of a fan like it was a wind machine. Later in the same lab, Edward sits in front of a taxidermied owl so he looks like he has literal angel wings. For a girl as melodramatic as Bella, it’s perfect (and if you need any more proof of how utterly melodramatic Bella is take the scene after Edward saves her from a car crash where she tells Edward “Why didn’t you let the van crush me, and save yourself the regret?” As if he would genuinely rather a girl he barely knows was dead…)
Twilight is funny. But Bella isn’t funny. Which is part of what makes it funny. Another weapon Hardwicke has in her arsenal is Anna Kendrick, as Bella’s very lovely friend Jessica. Kendrick is massive now and very clearly has great comic timing but Twilight was a breakout for her. Jessica is the anti-Bella. Cute and comfortable with her cuteness, incredibly tolerant with Bella, she’s a generally speaking well adjusted young woman, and Kendrick nails it. It’s notable, for example, how often she responds to Bella by saying “ha ha yeah, that’s really funny” (and not sarcastically) which actually draws attention to how NOT funny Bella is. Or how, while Bella is mooning out the window pining for Edward, Jessica is commenting on how good her boobs look in the prom dress she’s trying on. She’s a wonderful antidote, and Hardwicke knew exactly what she was doing in casting her.
The elephant in the room is perhaps Taylor Lautner as Jacob. Not the strongest of the cast and less of a breakout post-Twilight than the two leads and Kendrick (though Lautner did prove he can also do comedy with his regular role in Brit show Cuckoo), Jacob did become a counterpart for people who liked their chaps a bit less pasty and a bit more buff.
Hardwicke made Twilight an enormous hit, grossing more than $400 million worldwide and setting up a franchise which would go on to gross over $3.3 billion. But after the first film she was out. Though she was offered part two it was on the proviso that it come out just a year after part one which gave her too tight a turnaround to be able to deliver the film she wanted to make. Instead the rest of the franchise went to male directors.
Talking to Vanity Fair in 2018, ten years after she launched the franchise, Hardwicke points out that her film kicked off a trend of female-led YA movies including the three Divergent films and the four Hunger Games movies none of which were directed by women, saying “that was a heartbreak for me. There are other badass women out there that could have done those.”
Whether you like Twilight or not, it was an undeniably successful movie which truly understood its audience. Years later studios are still trying to capture that magic again – YA romances have come and gone to various degrees of success, but Twilight is the one that endures. Whether teenagers of 2021 discovering the film for the first time will still identify as acutely remains to be seen, but either way, as a cultural phenomenon Twilight is way smarter than a sparkly vampire movie deserves to be.
The Twilight movies are available to stream on Netflix now.