On Harry Potter, Twilight, and Why They’re Both So Popular

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 PotterHunger 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.

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7 responses to “On Harry Potter, Twilight, and Why They’re Both So Popular

  1. I really love the idea that Harry Potter & Twilight represent the two sides of maturity. Those who wish to hide behind fantasy and escapism, and those who face a form of reality and try to improve themselves. Thanks for another great article.

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  2. I like your analysis of the different stories. Can’t help but wonder though why you tagged ‘Supernatural’ when it doesn’t get mentioned. Would have been interesting comparison material as well. Do you still watch Supernatural? If so, what do you think of it now? Just curious!

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    • Thanks! I actually meant that tag more as a reference to supernatural fiction in general than to the show, but you’re right, it would have been interesting to bring that into the analysis as well. I stopped watching after I finished season 6; I feel like it got really directionless after the (absolutely PHENOMENAL) season 5 finale, and I didn’t really like what they were doing to the characters. The soulless!Sam arc kind of derailed him for me, and both he and Dean had the perfect conclusions at the end of season 5. Even though I stuck it out through that, I got so disappointed at the beginning of the seventh season that they just ignored the awesome potential of the god!Cas arc in favor of the arbitrariness of the Leviathans that I gave it up. I did watch the James Marsters/Charisma Carpenter episode because I’m incapable of resisting a Buffy reunion, and I have heard that the eighth season gets better, so I want to watch it at some point.

      All that being said, up to season 5, Supernatural was some of the most tightly plotted, rewarding television I have ever seen. I adored the way that they explored the religious aspects of their world – while I will defend Buffy to death, I think Supernatural handled religion better than the running joke Buffy made out of it (though I found that entertaining as well, and again, this is up to the end of season 5). I thought the first 20 minutes or so of Lazarus Rising were absolutely gorgeous, and (with the possible exception of the credits sequence to Changing Channels) the best thing the show has ever done. Later attempts to mimic that (the reunion of the brothers after Sam gets his soul back which, sorry, still bitter about) are evidence of clearly diminishing returns. Ultimately, I think Supernatural had a fantastic five year plan, and most of the stuff after that is fanfic. 🙂

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  3. Sorry, very late reply! I’ve kept on watching Supernatural and I feel like being rewarded with the story-arc of season 8 for staying faithful. I must say, I like how the characters are developing. There is constant growth and there are life-like complications that make them regress but still move forward. What I like the most is that Sam and Dean have grown up, they aren’t the same as in the beginning, and the show acknowledges that while keeping true to the characterizations. Are you familiar with the wonderful analysis and meta on the show and episodes from Bardicvoice on LiveJournal? She is so much better at expressing her thoughts than me. Anyways, I love Buffy too. Somehow Supernatural feels deeper and more grown up though, there are so many layers to the story.
    If you ever return to Supernatural, I do hope you enjoy it! And I’ll stop hijacking the comments with this off-topic subject now… 🙂

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    • Don’t worry about it, I love hearing your opinions! Have you seen Angel (the show, I mean)? I love Angel because it takes all the stuff that makes Buffy great but looks at it from that more adult perspective you were talking about with Supernatural. Honestly, and this is just my opinion, but I think Angel actually does a better job with doing that than Supernatural does. Angel gets very, very bleak, and it gets very, very dark, and in doing so, it makes some really startling and fascinating points. Also, as much as I do enjoy Supernatural, it does have some pretty bad spots, and I don’t think Angel quite ever reaches the same lows that Supernatural does. Just my opinion though 🙂

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  4. Okay, you’ve asked for it, now you’re getting a really long comment.. I’ve seen some early Angel, but stopped watching. I don’t even know exactly why, it was just ‘not my cup of tea’. I think it has to do with that I didn’t really connect with the characters and the fact that Angel shows the monsters as monsters – visually. Just as Buffy did. Then when the monster is killed, it is over. Of course what happened is still important for the story continuation, but to me it feels a bit superficial. Bleak and dark, as you put it, can be really awesome but if it doesn’t underline something significant it’s just empty darkness. I confess I don’t know what points Angel makes and I’m possibly shortchanging Angel here. Sorry if that’s the case.
    Supernatural also shows its monsters sometimes, but not as often. They are mostly in human form. The monsters are amongst others choice, fate and destiny, even love – set in a supernatural world. And everything has consequences and comes back to haunt. The visual – to be slain – monsters are second to the story of what happens to the brothers. And I truly love that. You are right, there are definitely some excruciatingly bad episodes (the Becky/wedding ep comes to mind..) but that doesn’t matter to me, it just makes me appreciate the rest even more. Haha! The show-runners have a lot of guts to try new and unexplored territory and sometimes they get it wrong. Even in story arc, not just episode wise. The beauty to me is that the story in general is still propelling forward, it’s not a repeat of former seasons or repeat of behavior from the brothers (as some critics say). I see it as mirrors to past actions and -sometimes subtle- shifts in perspective. Deliberate callbacks lace the current storyline, just as it did in the first 5 seasons. I am very excited to see where it is going.
    As you might notice, Supernatural is my one true tv-show love. It has everything I want from a story, plus sublime acting and production.
    As you wrote in an earlier blogpost, I believe it’s a very very smart show that pretends to be dumb. Probably just to stay on the air, to trick the audience into the pretty of Jensen and Jared and the action sequences. And then it bombards with deep and meaningful and teaches the onces watching. What’s not to love?

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