The Twilight Renaissance, and Telling Stories Over (and Over) Again

28
September, 2022
Allison Zhao, Blog Correspondent
Allison Zhao is an aspiring author currently studying at the University of Toronto. She haunts bookstores across the city and is forever on the lookout for beautiful moments.

In a cultural era of movie remakes and Taylor’s Versions, an author choosing to retell their bestselling novel is still a relatively rare occurrence. However, the releases of Life and Death in 2015 and Midnight Sun in 2020 saw not one, but two instances of Stephenie Meyer revisiting her 2005 novel Twilight on its tenth and fifteenth anniversaries.  Life and Death provides a genderbent take on the original, with protagonist Bella Swan being revamped as Beau Swan, and nearly all the other characters similarly altered. Midnight Sun, meanwhile, reverts to the original versions of the characters, but tells the same story from Edward’s perspective.

As someone who had never read more than fourteen pages of the original Twilight, it was difficult to understand the precise roles that Life and Death and Midnight Sun played in the Twilight universe. They apparently did not act as sequels, as they cover roughly the same time frame and sequence of events as the original (and of course, the Twilight series is usually known for the four main books). Prior to opening any of the books, my basic awareness of them was that they did not follow the typical spinoff angle of rehabilitating any character, or making a sidelined character center stage with new plot points. Hence, a casually-suggested project – reading all three versions of Twilight, to see exactly what about this story warranted such extensive re-exploration – that ended up taking much more out of me than I expected. What I expected to finish in a couple of weeks turned into several months, during which my editor heard me lamenting repeatedly as I updated her on my progress, with increasing exasperation.

Pop-culture parallels to Midnight Sun seemed to exist, such as Veronica Roth writing some chapters of Divergent from Four’s perspective in a short story collection aptly titled Four, and Meyer-inspired E. L. James reworked her entire Fifty Shades of Grey series into a second trilogy, narrated by Christian Grey. In fact, there are striking similarities between the development of James’s work and Meyer’s. Meyer shelved an earlier version of Midnight Sun after part of her draft was leaked online in 2008, stating that in her “current frame of mind, James would probably win and all the Cullens would die, which wouldn’t dovetail too well with the original story.” In 2015, shortly before the first book of the Christian Grey trilogy was due to be published, the manuscript was reported as stolen. This was the same year that Life and Death was published and Meyer reported feeling finally ready to return to her abandoned Midnight Sun draft, only to experience what she described as “a literal flip the table moment” upon seeing the success of Grey. She further delayed Midnight Sun as a result, though very little about the project’s trajectory seemed to change in the extra time.

Further back in time, Orson Scott Card wrote Ender’s Shadow (1999) from the perspective of a side character from his original Ender’s Game (1985), but events and timelines do not match up quite as closely as Midnight Sun and Twilight. While gender-bent retellings certainly also exist, I was hard-pressed to think of examples that were also produced by the original creator, and take place in the exact same setting.

Before reading the three books (in order of their publication, i.e. the original Twilight followed by Life and Death and then Midnight Sun), I did not know that each one is longer than the last. In other words, while my edition of Twilight was about 500 pages long, Life and Death was over 600, and Midnight Sun clocked in at more than double the original, with about 1100 pages. Part of the reason simply reading the books ended up taking me months was the pileup of despair that accompanied starting each book. Entirely coincidentally, the notes I took diminished drastically as I went along – highlights from the first book include “Edward does 180. Hope he improves,” “KHAKI SKIRT,” and “paused here for sleep and sanity.” He did not improve, the khaki skirt haunts me, and the pause was simply not enough to prepare me for the long haul. Generally, Life and Death and Midnight Sun were somehow simultaneously building and expanding on the original story substantially (pushing them a little closer into the more usual realms of sequels and spinoffs) while still keeping one foot firmly planted in the original text.

This duality causes a lot of strain on both the reader and the texts, as the characters and plotline of Twilight already provide such a limited foundation to work with. I learned partway through Twilight that the iconic love triangle that has become emblematic of the series doesn’t actually exist in the first book, and with my assumption on that front shattered, it was difficult to identify what the main plot and conflict were. The primary antagonists might be the non-Cullen vampires, including the tracker who nearly kills Bella, but they bizarrely only appear about three-quarters of the way through the novel and are never hinted at or referenced prior to their arrival. The main conflict might be Bella’s discovery that Edward and his family are vampires, but that is conclusively confirmed fairly early on. Another viewpoint might be that the real villain is Edward’s inhibitions, and that the plot unfolds as he opens up to romance with Bella, but even those are selective and inconsistent – he follows Bella when she makes a trip to Port Angeles, and breaks into her house and watches her sleep, which no one scrutinizes nearly as much as they should. His repeated insistences that he’s dangerous are overblown in proportion to the minimal amount of actual bloodthirsty activity a reader witnesses that might convince them.

For five hundred pages and the beginning of a cultural phenomenon, it was astounding to me simply how little happens in Twilight, and how underdeveloped all of the characters were, without exception. Bella is a tenuous collection of traits that never particularly inform anything she does; she is coolly uninterested in the plebeian life of non-supernatural people, who in turn desire her company or are otherwise resentful of her appeal. Instances of potential, like Bella relationship with her father Charlie, and the genuinely interesting backstory of Edward’s sister Alice, were infuriatingly glossed over as the text marched forward. I can’t say that as a pre-teen, I wouldn’t have been immune to the text inviting me to fill in all of Bella’s blanks with myself, but she is essentially a list of descriptors rather than someone who comes alive on the page, which is perhaps a feat in itself considering there are so many pages and they are all from her perspective. For both Bella and the text of Twilight at large, there seemed so little to make a fuss over, positive or otherwise.

The blandness of Bella and the narrative tendency to simply have events occurring around her is a common point of criticism, as is the rapid escalation of her relationship with Edward (perhaps there is an element of accuracy for a high schooler to declare herself “unconditionally and irrevocably in love” with someone, but unfortunately Meyer means it without a hint of irony). In 2015’s Life and Death, Meyer includes a preface in which she explains that these criticisms, among others, are precisely what the book intends to counter. Essentially, Life and Death is a several-hundred-page thesis arguing that if Bella were a boy, the events of Twilight would have proceeded in the same way, and that her damsel-in-distress behavior and fixation on romance was separate from her gender. Everyone, with the exception of Charlie and Renee (Bella’s parents), is renamed, and their physical descriptions adjusted accordingly.

Life and Death is an incoherent and exhausting read, especially if picked up immediately after Twilight. In the same foreword Meyer claimed that, while seventy percent of the changes she made were simply adjustments that she’d wanted to make in retrospect, about five percent of the changes she made to Bella’s point of view were “because Beau is a boy,” without any elaboration on what that might imply. Another five were “because Beau’s personality developed just slightly differently.” The latter included Beau being “more OCD,” less “flowery” in his words and thought, and “not as angry” as Bella. Dated use of mental health terminology aside, this description most clearly expresses Meyer’s dubious theory that the psychology of high school boys and girls are fundamentally the same, and sets the tone for her clumsy foray into interrogating gender dynamics.

The amount of text that is copy-pasted from the original Twilight renders Beau incomprehensible as a character on his own, as he is utterly inseparable from Bella and yet not supposed to be her. It was impossible for me to progress through Life and Death without wondering if every minor change that I saw, even if it were only a single word or phrase, was intended as a commentary on gender. Examples include the text’s epigraph – where Twilight refers to the Book of Genesis, implying a parallel between Bella and Edward’s relationship and that of Adam and Eve, Life and Death uses a quote from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas that invokes the sublime. This new epigraph might have been anything from a change Meyer had wished she could make for Bella (unlikely), to a result of Beau’s slightly altered personality (unclear), to Meyer inadvertently reinforcing uninspired gender tropes by changing the quote to be more adventure-focused for the boy character (highly unfortunate).

There are multiple slight changes to the language that Beau uses, and there is a heightened emphasis on Beau’s role as a caregiver for his mother, who remains his mother – Meyer writes in her preface that she chose to keep Charlie and Renee as Beau’s parents rather than gender-swapping them in order to adhere to some contemporary accuracy about parental rights and custody. (In other words, it was very unlikely at the time that a father would get custody over his child, so it made more sense for Beau to be living with his mother. This was a genuinely odd point for Meyer to be a stickler for, considering the scope and focus of the story). A teenage girl who has gotten used to picking up her single mother’s loose ends, including needing to remind her where her clothes are, likely has a very different perspective from a teenage boy who does the same and more. All of these points hint at some wider discussion of gender and the impact of the gender swap, but Twilight and Life and Death are very much alike in how much they resist any conclusive analysis.

Occasionally, Meyer gets maddeningly close to some kind of self-awareness on the point of gender, but it’s always haphazard and heavy-handed. Beau questions himself on whether or not he wants to be the one who gets asked out, rather than the traditional structure of a boy asking a girl out, and Edythe mentions outdated stereotypes about the role of women on dates. The Port Angeles scene where Bella is harassed by several strangers in an alleyway – which would be harrowing if only it weren’t so blatantly a plot device for Bella to be rescued in the nick of time by Edward – is revised with the threat adjusted to account for the fact that Beau would be less at risk as a teenage boy walking alone. The scene unfortunately does remain out of place and ridiculously easily forgotten by Beau and Edythe.

The existence of Life and Death brings up an interesting question: would this book be equally as convincing and effective for its original audience if the initial version was Beau’s? Meyer explains her goal for Life and Death quite explicitly, but her explanation only demonstrates how little she’s really grown from her first book. A lot of Twilight’s text is rooted in the misogynistic trope of Bella’s not-like-other-girls personality and her similarly characterized romance, and the same stereotyping leaks through into Life and Death. Edythe’s delicacy, smallness, and seeming fragility is mentioned multiple times, when of course no such descriptions existed for Edward. Is there any larger point about gender being proved here? Answer me, Stephenie Meyer.

Of course, Life and Death could not let me rest. In a final, truly bizarre blow that threatens Meyer’s thesis (that the story would have played out in exactly the same way regardless of the characters’ genders) more than any of questionable instances previously mentioned, the ending of Life and Death takes off in a wildly different direction and fast-forwards to incorporate some story elements that do not appear for Bella until the sequels–at least one as late as Breaking Dawn. Unlike Edward, Edythe is unable to save Beau from the vampire bite he sustains at the novel’s climax, and he undergoes the full, painful transformation into a vampire. Where Bella gets a prom night like a regular high schooler and Edward shoots down her ideas of marriage, Beau watches his own funeral, confronts the werewolves in a tense exchange alongside the rest of the Cullens – including revealing Jules (Jacob) as a werewolf more explicitly – and talks to Edythe in a tree about getting married, with the general understanding that he will never see his parents again. At this point I no longer had any idea of what Meyer wanted to demonstrate, having deviated so fundamentally from the conclusion of Twilight in a text meant to prove that Twilight would have proceeded essentially in the same way regardless of gender.

This complete unravelling then left me with Midnight Sun to tackle, the longest of the three books by far, and the one where I nearly abandoned my note-taking entirely. In theory, Midnight Sun has more flexibility than Life and Death because it is told from Edward’s perspective, and he spends quite some time out of Bella’s presence, at least in the first half of the story. It is true that in Midnight Sun, we see the slightest bit more of what Twilight could be in the hands of a writer who understood what parts of her novel might be developed into something more compelling. For example, Edward’s ability to read minds is generally glossed over in the original text because he cannot access Bella’s thoughts, and while he does use it in front of Bella to communicate with his family members, he essentially does not have any other relationships with other characters. This power naturally becomes much more prominent in Midnight Sun, and without the need to build up to the reveal that Edward is a vampire, the story is characterized more clearly as a supernatural text right off the bat. Unfortunately, very little is done with this new narrative avenue, other than Edward wondering about Bella, and what other people are thinking about Bella.

Similarly, Alice Cullen – perhaps the most compelling character of the original book, and woefully sidelined in favor of Bella’s singular focus on Edward – and her unique power to see visions of the future get to take up much more space in Midnight Sun. The extent of her abilities get adjusted as convenient for the narrative, but perhaps that can be forgiven in the light of the many other exhausting problems of Twilight and Midnight Sun. Edward is painfully fixated on changing the potential future that Alice sees where Bella ends up being killed, introducing new elements of fate and the fluidity of reality that Meyer struggles to integrate into her plot. Rather than grappling with the nuances of how Alice’s visions work, all Edward wants to do is internally agonize, mostly about Bella. None of these flashes of potential come to fruition, and instead, some of the worst parts of the original narrative get doubled down; without the flimsy excuse of Bella’s general naiveté and ignorance, actually witnessing Edward in the act of breaking into her room with full knowledge of what he is doing just gets more cringe-inducing and disturbing.

A remarkable feat by Meyer: despite the massively increased page count and the opportunity to spend much more time developing the Cullen family members outside of Edward, expanded conversations between the Cullens do very little to actually increase a reader’s understanding of them. Backstories are detailed further, but Meyer never quite breaks away from making them flat and impersonal. After Twilight and the chaotic mess that is Life and Death, Midnight Sun lacks anything new and demonstrates terribly little authorial growth. It is, however, very convincing evidence that Twilight would be significantly better if Meyer had the self-awareness of how funny Edward’s angst can be: for example, Bella traces patterns across his hand and he is convinced that she might be writing “EDWARD PLEASE GO AWAY.” When unable to find any discernible letters or shapes, he decides that that is because he doesn’t “deserve” answers about what they are. As it is, though, the “brooding hero” trope struggles to hold up after fifteen years and after readers actually get to know the brooding internal monologue.

The three versions of Twilight clash with each other in such a confusing and chaotic way that it is hard to justify the creation of the Life and Death and Midnight Sun. The same narrative is rehashed, but at every turn to revitalize it or take it in a new direction, Meyer refuses to actually explore or stretch her writing muscles. This stubborn adherence to a story that barely worked the first time around is honestly quite disappointing, considering the fan support that could have carried much more ambitious retellings – instead the books bank on nostalgia, with the least amount of effort and impact possible. It is so exhausting to read them in rapid succession that they were obviously never designed with effective co-existence in mind. There are new directions in which stories do not need to be taken, and then there is reprinting the same book three times; Twilight appears to have found the absolute worst of both worlds.

Entirely coincidentally, the notes I took diminished drastically as I went along – highlights from the first book include “Edward does 180. Hope he improves,” “KHAKI SKIRT,” and “paused here for sleep and sanity.” He did not improve, the khaki skirt haunts me, and the pause was simply not enough to prepare me for the long haul.

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