THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE Directed by David Slade
As a genre, romance has always been nearly as obsessed with class as it has with gender—whether it's wealthy Richard Gere whisking prostitute Julia Roberts off to the opera in Pretty Woman or the lusty gamekeeper, Parkin, showing Lady Chatterley the meaning of working-class love in Lady Chatterley's Lover or even the finer gradations of status in Pride and Prejudice. The goth/romance phenomenon Twilight follows faithfully in this tradition—though with, you know, more fangs.
For those of you who've been living in a tween-proof bunker for the past five years, Twilight is a series of four novels by Stephenie Meyer that's been turned into a mind-bogglingly successful movie franchise. The books and their screen adaptations chronicle the romance, heartbreak, angst, and abstinence of clumsy, obsessively conscientious Bella Swan (played onscreen by Kristen Stewart) and her true love, the devastatingly handsome, obsessively conscientious vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). The inevitable love triangle is completed with euclidean punctiliousness by Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), a childhood friend of Bella's who also happens to be Native American and a werewolf. Fans of these two male protagonists are often referred to as Team Edward and Team Jacob—though they might as well call themselves Team Effete Aristocrat and Team Earthy Ethnic.
As with all things Twilight, the class tropes work not because of their subtlety but because of their ham-fisted earnestness. The third book in the series, Eclipse—the movie version of which opens this week—is the one in which the Edward-Bella-Jacob triangle reaches peak angst, melodrama, and preposterousness. As such, it's also arguably the book in which boneheaded class typing is most thoroughly exploited. What sets the tween heart racing is not that Bella has two boyfriends, but that she has two venerable romance narratives to choose from.
In this corner, there's Edward. Extravagantly cultured and ridiculously wealthy, Edward composes classical ballads, writes in an immaculate hand, and, in the book, offhandedly buys his sister a Porsche as a gift. Like a real product of the inbred upper crust, he lives with his brothers and sisters, who are all paired up as husbands and wives. His family has amorphous connections to Italy and is obsessed with blood (as it were). He's foreign, exciting, steeped in ancient traditions, and ludicrously pale-skinned. As Bella says in the film, Edward is "old school," dropping on one knee to propose and giving her his mother's ring. Meyer name-drops Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, and Shakespeare's Romeo, but Edward is more like Prince Charming—a fantasy noble who sweeps Bella into a deliciously decadent life of luxury.
And in that corner, there's Jacob, a Native American living on the res. He's literally hot-blooded: werewolves have higher-than-normal body temperatures, just as vampires have lower-than-normal ones (in one of the romantic highlights of the movie, he slips into Bella's sleeping bag to warm her during a snowstorm while Edward looks on helplessly). Like the Incredible Hulk, Jacob has massive self-control issues: whenever he gets angry or upset, he starts to shake violently and then turns into a giant deadly wolf. Also like the Hulk, werewolves have a problem keeping their clothes from tearing when they transform, so the yummy Taylor Lautner spends most of the film bare-chested. And he's good with tools, and he eats a prodigious amount—as opposed to Edward, who doesn't eat at all (at least not normal food).
If Edward is the aristocrat who treats Bella like a delicate queen, Jacob is the swarthy, sweaty working-class hero who won't take no for an answer. Edward is obsessively safety-conscious and will barely allow himself to kiss Bella for fear that he'll lose self-control and bite her neck. Jacob, on the other hand, literally overpowers her when he wants a smooch. In human form, he gives Bella a chance to be a little bit wild, riding motorcycles, diving off cliffs, and generally getting in touch with her inner delinquent. When he turns into a werewolf, Bella risks her safety just by being with him, since he has less control over himself than the proper, uptight Edward.
Differences in social standing are great drivers of melodrama, but they're also sexy in their own right. The boy next door—represented in Twilight by Bella's classmate Mike Newton, who never has a chance—is dull. There's nothing romantic about winding up with the person everybody expects you to wind up with. But a prince who pulls you up to the castle or a wastrel who drags you down into steerage—that's the sort of exotic tale that sets the bodices ripping.
Meyer's genius (if you want to call it that) is having figured out how to repurpose the same old cliches for an era in which even tweens may occasionally feel embarrassed about fetishizing people at the top or bottom of the social scale. Edward has gobs of money and cultural capital, but the fans will tell you the reason he's enchanting is because he's immortal and mysterious and goes all sparkly in the sun. Jacob is exciting and exotic because he's living close to the land, but the fans will tell you it's because he's impulsive and physically powerful. The two of them would like to kill each other, but as Meyer would have it, that's simply because vampires don't like werewolves. In the novels, when Jacob calls Edward a bloodsucker and Edward calls Jacob a dog, these are not epithets of the class struggle but literal descriptions.
In short, Meyer covers the class tension with a patina of fantasy; those tensions may be important, but the fantasy is as well. At the end of the movie—and take that as your spoiler alert—Bella chooses the alabaster prince over the dusky gardener, declaring that she wants to become a vampire herself. In the human world, she says, she's "always felt out of step," but with the vampires she feels "stronger and more real." She wants to lose her place in the world—and one's place in the world includes one's class. Twilight resonates because it manipulates stereotypical romance narratives but also because it denies them. Bella plays with various social roles at the same time as she gets to transcend them all.