I don’t want this to become a knock-down of Twilight, because, well, frankly, that’s just too easy. Yes, we all know that it’s a feminist nightmare written in purple prose that barely deserves to be called English, let alone literary. But despite that, I can’t deny that it is one of the three series (along with Harry Potter and The Hunger Games; I haven’t yet finished The Hunger Games, though, so this will mostly focus on Harry Potter and Twilight) that have captivated my generation over the past few decades, and I have to wonder why that is.
Look, I think it’s fair to say that, by and large, the people who like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games aren’t usually fans of Twilight (though that’s not always the case). I think it’s also fair to say that, objectively, the former two series are much, much better than the latter one (though, to be perfectly fair, all have their flaws). And yet they are all fundamentally, surprisingly similar in some very important ways – they all deal with the failure of authority, with the battle of good and evil turning into one of varying shades of gray, with learning to grow up and deal with this increasingly screwed up world. It’s no surprise, I think, that they are all predominantly popular among an audience of a certain age – it’s much easier to deal with the underlying darkness of the world when this darkness is couched in something foreign like the supernatural or an improbable dystopia.
It’s in how they deal with this darkness, however, that separates Twilight from the other two series. See, the basic contention of Twilight is that the evil can be controlled (and, yes, turned into something that sparkles). Twilight operates in a world of no consequences, and while this is often (rightfully) argued as a narrative flaw, it also speaks to the intrinsic assumption of the series. In Twilight, Bella can become a vampire but not deal with the weaknesses associated with that transformation, a battle can be built up over an entire novel and fizzle into a bunch of people talking at each other, and, more generally, monsters become cuddly boyfriends whose scariest characteristic is that they watch you sleep. In Twilight, darkness is just misunderstanding, which, while perhaps narratively unsatisfying, is nonetheless, in a certain light, evidence of a shade of gray.
This, though, is why Twilight is fantasy, while Harry Potter and Hunger Games can actually have an effect on their audience. In Harry Potter, there are consequences. Heroes make mistakes, and sometimes even do bad things on purpose. Darkness isn’t something that is the domain of the hypothetical “other;” it is something our heroes take ownership of. Consequences have meaning (heck, several characters die because of the stupidity of the Harry Potter protagonists), and this creates a world that is much more uncomfortable – though also much closer to life.
I think you can also bring a series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer into this discussion. See, on one level (one very, very unimportant level that I hope to never have to visit again), Buffy and Twilight are somewhat alike. A teenage girl falls in love with a centuries-old vampire, who has to fight his nature to be with her. But where Twilight jumps off this premise at the nearest romantic comedy, Buffy rides it out, really engaging with the implications of this idea. Buffy is willing to deal with the ickiness, the practical impediments, and – most importantly – the ultimate breakdown of the situation. Buffy shares with Harry Potter that readiness to delve into consequences and deal with its own darkness.
I said at the beginning that I didn’t want to make this into a Twilight smack-down, didn’t I? Well, I suppose that it was to some extent inevitable. Twilight presents such low-hanging fruit that it’s near impossible to avoid beating it up at least a little. But it must be said that Twilight, regardless of what anyone with a brain must think of it, is at least as popular – and correspondingly influential – as Harry Potter. Now, as much as I’d like to take this opportunity to bemoan the state of our culture, I have to admit that Twilight does succeed in one area Harry Potter fails (okay, folks, put the pitchforks down), and that is in its ability to work as escapism.
True, who didn’t want to be Harry Potter when they were a kid? Who wasn’t at least a little bit disappointed when their eleventh birthday came and went without an owl stopping by? And yet, it can’t be denied that the Harry’s world is kind of a crappy place to live. Cracked has gone over this a few times, mostly tongue-in-cheek, but it’s undeniable that the quality of Harry Potter I praised as making it superior – its willingness to engage with consequences – is also the quality that destroys it as a fun fantasy jaunt. I’m not saying that Twilight is better (good God I’m not saying that), but I will say that, sometimes, in order to deal with the darkness you’ve discovered in reality, you need to be able to relax in a world where everything bad and evil is just a rumor.
So, yeah, I get why my generation has divided itself among Harry Potter/Twilight fault lines. Both series grew up just as we were doing the same, and some people choose to deal with maturity by wallowing in it, whereas others choose to ignore it. I truly don’t mean to condemn one or the other (which I know is hard to believe, seeing as even I noticed my inability to prevent my derision for Twilight from eating up half this discussion). Personally, I want my fiction to engage with the bad stuff, to deal with it and come out stronger, but hey, I still watch sitcoms where everything gets solved in 22 minutes. Is Twilight as smart as Harry Potter (or Hunger Games, or Buffy)? Well, duh, but it still serves a cultural purpose, fills a certain need. Sometimes, we need to pretend that the main character is special and good and loved and can solve everything by talking it out, and, literary abomination aside, I can’t fault Twilight for doing just that.
All of these series provide some level of escapism – yes, sometimes, when I have three papers due in as many hours, a sadistic death match run by an evil government sounds, at the very least, like a nice change of pace. But Twilight is the only one that really gives into that escapism, and while that makes for terrible literature, it also makes for easy literature. Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Buffy help you deal with the darkness in real life by providing a fictional reflection thereof, but Twilight invites you to ignore it altogether, to go somewhere safe and light for awhile. Is its popularity, then, any wonder at all? Growing up is tough; my generation was just lucky enough to do so with wildly popular instruction manuals from both sides of the coin.