If you have been to the movies, visited your local bookstore, or scanned the tabloids at the supermarket within the past four years, then you have probably heard something about Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books. The film adaptations have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, and the books remain on best-seller lists nearly two years after the finale was published. If your neighbors have not read Twilight, then their teenage daughters almost certainly have.
Though most of the books' central characters are vampires, the genre of the book is more Young Adult romance than vampire novel. The illicit sensuality, however, that often dominates both romance and vampire genres is noticeably absent from this series. Instead, themes of abstinence, self-control, and fidelity within marriage abound. But before we get into central themes, here are basic plot summaries.
Twilight. The heroine Bella Swan has just moved to the perpetually overcast Forks, Washington. At the local high school, she meets and falls deeply in love with the pale, handsome Edward Cullen. It turns out he's a hundred-year-old vampire who is desperately thirsting for her blood. Fortunately, Edward and his vampire "family" have determined to be "vegetarians" who live only on animal blood. Unfortunately, a less noble vampire, James, comes into town and decides to have Bella for lunch. Yet the Cullens save the day and rescue Bella.
New Moon. With an heir of chivalry that fits his true age, Edward decides that he and his family are too dangerous to remain around Bella. She goes catatonic for several months when Edward leaves. A Native American teen, Jacob Black, befriends Bella and helps her to recover. Oddly enough, Jacob also has a secret. He (and some of his tribe) are becoming werewolves in response to recent vampire activity. Apparently James's mate, Victoria, is lurking nearby for revenge on Bella. Meanwhile, Edward hears a false report that Bella has committed suicide, and so he tries to persuade the Volturi, a vicious and powerful sect of Italian vampires, to end his misery. This time Bella saves the day, racing to Italy in time to rescue Edward. However, they only escape the clutches of the Volturi because Edward agrees to turn Bella into a vampire.
Eclipse. Bella is conflicted–Jacob or Edward? Edward has agreed to make her a vampire only on the condition that she marry him first. Jacob, however, has no such conditions and is "better" for her. But Bella has more immediate problems–Victoria is still out for revenge and has raised a small army of vampires to destroy her. In a climactic finish, Edward saves the damsel, kills the bad guys, and persuades Bella to marry him (though she loves Jacob, too). Jacob runs off into Canada in lupine fury.
Breaking Dawn. A lovely wedding, a better honeymoon, and the conception of a vampire-human baby whose birth nearly kills Bella. Edward saves her by transforming her into a vampire. Unfortunately, the Volturi are back to remove this "unnatural" child from the happy immortal couple. The Cullens assemble an international cast of vampire friends to defend the child and testify that she is harmless. In a final showdown, the Volturi begin to attack, but at the last moment another vampire-human arrives on the scene to testify for the child. Everybody literally lives happily and forever after. The End.
What is so appealing about this blood-sucking teen drama? To put it simply: self-sacrifice. The Twilight series really is founded upon the power of self-sacrificial love. Yes, Edward Cullen is nearly god-like in his power–incredibly strong, impossibly fast, nearly indestructible, and perpetually beautiful. Yet his truest power is his ability to control himself for the sake of his beloved Bella.
Meyer upholds chastity and fidelity as fundamental virtues of her books. Though the very essence of Bella's blood creates burning thirst within Edward (a thirst that thinly veils sexual desire), he always restrains himself. Instead, he watches over her as she sleeps, protects her from all danger, and (inexplicably) finds her to be the most beautiful and fascinating woman he has met in a hundred years. One gets the sense that Meyer is writing a rather heavy-handed vicarious fantasy both for herself and for every teenage girl. Nevertheless, the virtue is real.
Moreover, Edward has learned self-control from his "family," a group of genetically unrelated vampires who have chosen to live together and deny themselves. Because they drink the blood of wild animals instead of regular people, their eyes have turned from vicious red into a softer gold. In fact, Carlyle, the father of this family, is so disciplined around the scent of blood that he works as an ER doctor. And just to reinforce the chastity theme, every member of this family is paired off and married, except (conveniently) for Edward. As one outsider vampire observes, "I have witnessed the bonds within this family–I say family and not coven. These strange golden-eyed ones deny their very natures. But in return have they found something worth even more, perhaps, than mere gratification of desire?" (Breaking Dawn, 737).
Alongside these Judeo-Christian values, however, Meyer also slips in some decidedly Mormon theology. It is no coincidence that the happy ending of the series concludes not just with marriage but with an eternal marriage, not just with a child but with an immortal child. This is not far from the Mormon vision of eternity with God–marriage, sex, and procreation are the fastest way to get there.
Another important factor in the Mormon schema of eternal reward is compliance with a morally good life. For example, Edward is conflicted about turning Bella into a vampire because he is certain that all vampires are damned, that they are creatures without souls by their very nature. Of course, Bella and the rest of his family insist that this is nonsense, that Edward is far too good and kind and self-giving to be damned. This example perfectly demonstrates the Mormon (and Pelagian) view that human conscience and free will are unfallen and sufficient for salvation. In fact, some branches of Mormon doctrine go further than this, asserting that the Fall was good because it gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to be married and procreate as a result. Anything sound familiar?
Apart from the subtle Mormon insertions, Meyer's books certainly deserve critique for stylistic quality (or lack thereof). Yes, Meyer has written a highly moral and imaginative tale with interesting characters and page-turning plots. But this does not mean that her characters are not one-dimensional or that her plots are not predictable. Again and again the story descends into navel-gazing, stream-of-consciousness teen angst (which no doubt suits the intended audience). Moreover, much of the imaginative detail is either borrowed (via Anne Rice) or overused. To quote my wife, "If I have to read about how Edward's chest looks like it was carved out of marble one more time, I'm going to retch."
In conclusion, Twilight is an excellent entry point for discussing any number of issues with your neighbor or your neighbor's teenager. Given the mediocre quality of the writing, it is probably not worth your time to do more than skim the first novel (although I freely admit that I was hooked and read all of them). Even if you have time only to see one of the movies, it is worth the effort. Twilight is too much of a cultural phenomenon for the Christian not to engage with it on some level.