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Issue #1462      7 July 2010

Culture & Life

Twilight and paranormal romance

In a perspicacious review of Eclipse, the third part of the Twilight film quartet, based on Stephenie Meyer’s serial novels, Paul Byrnes wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that “these movies take seriously the depth of emotion that a young person feels in first love.

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart star in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

“That is where their [the films’] power lies, not in the beauty of the actors. That is why Romeo and Juliet features strongly in their school scenes: Shakespeare also took it seriously.”

At the end of his review Byrnes poses the rhetorical question: “Does anyone go to these films to see a fight between werewolves and vampires?”

The answer, of course, is only the more brain-dead among adolescent males, although you would think they could find more than enough explosions and other mayhem in the run-of-the-mill exploitation movies that choke our screens most of the time.

As Byrnes points out, Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the first film in the series, “concentrated on the depth of emotion”. She set the tone and the look of the series, and was very faithful to the book. Like the book on which it was based, the first Twilight film was phenomenally popular, and not just with teenage girls.

The unfortunate Ms Hardwicke was presumably confident that she would go on to direct and help set up the subsequent films too, but it was not to be. Banks, not creative people, run the film industry. Ms Hardwicke was unceremoniously dumped and a succession of directors have helmed the later films in the saga.

For my money, hers remains the best of them so far. It has more emphasis on the people in the film and less on special effects. As Byrnes indicates, she emphasised emotion over violent action.

Under capitalism, films are big business, requiring big investments. Financial institutions back films if they think they are going to make money, not otherwise.

That is why there have been so many films that are sequels (or sometimes “prequels”), or remakes of earlier popular movies, or films based on popular TV series or even on computer games. The essential element is that the proposed film be something that is “presold”, whose potential return can be calculated by an actuary.

Banks and other financial sources considering putting up money for a film have formulae they use to determine the likely return on their investment. According to these formulae, they can calculate very precisely how much money a remake will take, for example.

It is a known percentage of what the original took, modified by how long ago the original was released, by the pulling power of the actors who will appear in the new version, sometimes by the popularity of the director as well, possibly by the topicality or otherwise of the theme.

This is why a totally original film without well-known stars is simply not “bankable” these days: without a big studio behind the project able and willing to invest its own money in a film, independent productions languish on the vine.

The Twilight films, however, are based on a very successful series of novels. They are part of a phenomenally popular literary genre that today fills lots of space in any modern bookshop’s shelves: paranormal romance.

There is plenty of other paranormal fiction to choose from as well – sword and sorcerer fantasy, sci-fi fantasy, horror, and much more.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books are a slow exploration of a love affair between a human and a vampire. By contrast, her sci-fi novel, The Host, is about a love affair between a human and a violet centipede, part of an invasion force of parasitic creatures that have taken over the Earth. It is told from the point of view of the parasite, whose human host is also in love with the same man.

In many ways, I like it better than the Twilight books. They will have great trouble making it into a film, however!

The various genres of paranormal and fantasy fiction inevitably overlap. Their range extends from Philip Pullman’s very imaginative His Dark Materials series (Northern Lights, etc) at one end to Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels at the other end.

Pullman’s series encompasses not only intersecting universes but also a war with Heaven. The villain in this series is very much organised religion. The film version of the first book in his series was called The Golden Compass and it did fair business, but any sequel has been blocked by the hostility of the Catholic Church in particular, which has frightened off the necessary investors.

Harris’ novels about Louisiana telepath Sookie Stackhouse are a delightful mixture of mystery, adventure and romance (with a dash of sex). Harris includes almost every kind of magical being in her books, but the setting remains rooted in normalcy.

There is a lot of trashy paranormal literature around, such as Nancy Collins’ novels about the vampire Sonja Blue or Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter novels (advertised as Buffy The Vampire Slayer meets Sex And The City!). Many of these are loaded with almost pornographic sex scenes, but their mix of magic and violence is so divorced from credibility it simply becomes boring.

One series that is well worth finding in your local library (or bookshop) is Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments (City of Bones, City of Ashes, etc). This is genuinely exiting, highly imaginative and very well written. Its array of magical creatures includes fairies, vampires, demons and angels, all of them portrayed with great conviction. I can thoroughly recommend Clare’s dazzling trilogy.  

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