By Maria Gaura
SANTA CRUZ, Ca. (Dec. 4, 2008) - Harry Potter appeared on the literary scene a decade ago, and transformed the bookselling world with a flick of his wand. Ever since, the muggle publishing industry has been frantic to produce another fantasy franchise that appeals to kids, adults and movie executives alike.
Enter the Twilight books, a four-volume series about teenage vampires and werewolves, set in the gloomy woods of the Pacific Northwest. The fourth volume in the series was released in August with a 3.7 million press run, and a movie based on the first volume hit the theaters in November.
SEEKING HARRY POTTER
The books have been bestsellers and the movie may well be a blockbuster. The marketing campaign has proclaimed Twilight to be the new Harry Potter. But parents –don’t get sucked in by the spin. Aside from being printed on paper, and running into the thousands of pages, these two series are nothing alike.
First off, the Potter books are wonderfully written, and were written for children. Author JK Rowling’s fantasy world offers intelligence, wit, menace, heroism, and a deeply felt morality. Rowling’s tightly-plotted tale arcs from the first book through the seventh, and her young heroes mature as the tale progresses.
The Potter books are appropriate for most elementary school readers, though beloved characters die as the story progresses, which can be traumatizing for young or sensitive readers. Also, there are some very scary bad guys.
Twilight, on the other hand, is not a children’s book at all. It is a grocery-store romance novel retooled to include teenaged characters. And like any cheesy bodice-ripper, the theme is sexual tension, enlivened with a bracing splash of battery and female victimhood.
DAMSEL IN DISTRESS
Twilight’s heroine finds herself in peril again and again, and the hero with the muscular chest must swoop in repeatedly to rescue her sorry butt. That is the plot, in a nutshell, of the first three books. The twist is that the hero is a vampire, who fights an overwhelming urge to kill the heroine himself. The heroine, meanwhile, is so smitten with her homicidal lover that she doesn’t much care whether he kills her or not, so long as they can be together.
Twilight has been billed as a “chaste” romance, and the first book in the series does limit the sex to scenes of passionate snogging, the occasional crushing embrace, and fully-clothed sleeping together. There are few restraints on the violence, however, as the heroine is brutally beaten in a pivotal scene. And in subsequent volumes the sexual situations and violence escalate to truly bizarre levels.
In the final book, for instance, the heroine finally has sex with her vampire lover, who can’t help beating her black and blue during this sexual debut. (It’s all good! They’re married.) She is impregnated with a half-vampire fetus that proceeds to beat her to death from inside her uterus, snapping first her ribs, then her pelvis, then her spine, before it is gnawed from the womb in an emergency caesarean. Yes, gnawed. Sorry if I spoiled your breakfast.
She dies, but is reanimated as a vampire, and rises from her deathbed dressed in a sexy frock and stiletto heels. She is now beautiful and strong, and very, very ready for sex. Vampires, it turns out, can have house-shaking sex all night long without getting tired, (or sore). No condoms, either, as neither pregnancy nor sexually-transmitted disease is an issue.
This is “the new Harry Potter”? The comparison is grotesque.
SEX AND DEATH
Even if you feel your child is ready for titillating "literature", the sexuality in Meyer's novels is notably perverse. Teen sex is portrayed as a dangerously forbidden obsession which, somehow, the boy is given the responsibility of denying. (OK, it is a fantasy.)
Look out, Meyer tells us. Sex can kill!
But once you're dead, (as a result of sex), sex is great! Really, really great! Sex is better for dead people than it is for living people! Confused yet? Probably not as confused as the Twilight reader whose only sex education is of the abstinence-only variety.
To be fair, Twilight publisher Little, Brown and Company isn’t overtly aiming these books at children younger than 12.
The Twilight books have been labeled “young adult” books by the publisher, though parents should know that there are no industry standards for the “young adult” category. According to booksellers and librarians, “young adult” is simply a marketing term indicating that, at a minimum, the book in question features teenaged characters.
Whatever the bookshelf label may say, Twilight’s promoters are clearly connecting with younger audiences. The books are being widely read by pre-adolescent children, primarily girls.
About half the girls in my 10-year-old daughter’s circle of friends have read the first book in the series, or know the basics of its plot. My daughter’s nine-year-old best friend recently read the first volume of Twilight along with her entire fifth-grade class at a Catholic school.
Some parents are happy that their kids are reading, no matter the content. Others are reassured that the sex in Twilight, or at least the first book of the series, gets a soft-focus treatment.
On the other hand, these are not good books, and they are certainly not good literature. The Twilight books lack believable characters, consistent motivation, a moral center, and any pretense of a unifying theme.
It is also disappointing that a book aimed at girls offers a heroine as flaccid and self-destructive as Bella Swan.
Bella has no accomplishments, skills or interests, nor does she have an identifiable personality. Her character is little more than a sequence of random, plot-advancing impulses. She is sometimes passive, sometimes erratic, sometimes suicidal. She is uncontrollably eager for intimacy, and willingly risks death (a likely complication of rough vampire sex), by repeatedly trying to seduce the lethal Edward Cullen.
Bella has no value for her soul, declaring that she would rather lose it than grow old and, you know, ugly. She does not value her humanity, and ultimately discovers that humanity is a pathetic weakness she is well rid of. Being undead is unimaginably better than being human, in this sunless world.
These are dark and nihilistic messages to aim at “young adults”, especially cloaked in the language of romance, and more especially in a real world plagued with AIDS, domestic violence, teen suicide and unintended pregnancy. But hey, that’s entertainment.
Many older teens and adults say the Twilight books are enjoyable mind candy, an undemanding fantasy that is easy to laugh at. I agree that parts of the books are perversely funny, and the story is written in a headlong rush that can be exhilarating, so long as you check your brain at the door.
But if you believe that literature is meaningful, or that children learn important lessons from what they read, think twice before handing Twilight to your child. As they say in the programming world, “Garbage in, Garbage out.”