I am being perfectly sincere when I claim that Stephenie Meyer's Twilight is the worst book I've ever read all the way through (there are at least a couple of worse novels that I abandoned early on). It has a perfect combination of dreadful prosody, ill-formed characters, an unengaging narrative (in those rare moments when it has any narrative at all), and a morally outrageous anti-feminism that only a Mormon housewife could appreciate. Naturally, this combination of awfulness has led Twilight to become one of the best-selling novels of the modern age, the first in a series that has, in monetary terms if nothing else, emerged as the heir-apparent to the Harry Potter books.

The new film adaptation of Twilight, it must be confessed, isn't nearly as bad in its own medium as the source material was, though it's still quite a chore to endure. For a start, it provides a useful compendium of nearly all of the terrible Gothy shit that has all but killed the vampire genre in the years since Anne Rice first decided to set pen to paper. The emo vampire tragically immortal anti-hero who is the perfect love because of the amazing sensitivity that's also the reason that he has renounced drinking the blood of humans. Plus he's shiny!

In the tremendously cloudy town of Forks, Washington, a dour seventeen-year-old girl named Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) has just moved in with her cop dad (Billy Burke). Live in Forks is an unmitigated agony for Bella, who can't stand being the prettiest, smartest, most interesting girl in school until she meets the brooding, mean, and super hot Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), one of five children of the wealthiest, most secluded family in town. Fast-forward some 45 minutes, maybe an hour, and Bella has correctly intuited that Edward is a vampire, and that he loves her more than he has ever thought himself capable of loving anyone.

Now, I'd argue - strenuously - that there was never going to be a good film or book made from that storyline, but even setting aside my strong biases against emo vampires, there are very particular reasons that Twilight falls apart as a narrative, and in both the book and the movie the first and most important of those reasons is named Bella Swan. Frankly, her only possible worth as a narrative construct is that she provides a convenient hook for romantic teenage girls to hang all of their own myopic notions of love on - certainly, with so little personality to call her own, Bella practically demands that the reader/viewer pours a bit of themselves into her, just so that she can actually resemble a human being enough to keep the plot functioning. And then you add the good Miss Stewart, one of the most disaffected young actresses out there. With the exception of a shockingly sensitive performance in the generally vile Into the Wild, Stewart has established herself time and again as a performer given to glassy stares and mumbled line readings. Twilight is probably her worst work yet, as she accomplishes the Sisyphean task of making a literary character whose entire arc consists of talking about how cute her undead boyfriend is, seem even more boring.

Thankfully, there's nothing else about the film that genuinely counts as worse than the book, although "better than Stephenie Meyer's source novel" isn't praise. Saddled with an essentially unplayable character, Pattinson manages to be at least marginally charismatic, although weirdly, he's among the least-cute male members of the cast. Nobody is really trying to be better than the absolute minimum here, of course, but for the most part, they succeed.

Melissa Rosenberg's screenplay is in almost all respects an improvement over the book. The single best change is that all of Bella's interminable monologuing about Edward's physical perfection has been necessarily eliminated, and most of the moony teen romance has been scrapped in favor of moving the plot along at a tremendous, headlong pace. This has its own negative side-effect, in that the middle of the film moves so quickly that it stops making sense: scenes are compressed and composited right and left, and several reasonably important details have been consigned to the pages of the novel, apparently on the assumption that anyone who really cares has the book committed to memory. Otherwise, having less of the story is necessarily a step in the right direction, until eventually we reach the point where you just don't see the film at all: for if less Twilight is good, no Twilight is best.

Stylistically, it's just as much of a floppy bit of mediocrity as it is narratively. Director Catherine Hardwicke (of a very different teen film, the nasty-minded indie Thirteen) either lacks the talent or the desire to make much of anything from this source material, with only a handful of exceptions: the scenes in the early part of the film, where Bella is still finding her way around Forks, are shot with an appealing vΓ©ritΓ©-lite handheld camera, leading us to a brief and ultimately wasted suspicion that the film is going to be some kind of interesting social study cum horror romance. It is not; but it is very blue. Blue and diffuse. That is the only stylistic statement that the film makes. That, and the poor editing (including one of the worst cuts I've seen all year: one of Bella's new classmates introduces herself in a jarring insert shot that suggests that they forgot to film the line when they were shooting the scene). Blue, diffuse, and poorly edited. The overpowering sense of doing whatever is expected & unimaginative just to get the damn film over with pulses in every frame.

If the book was a train-wreck, the movie is only a banal mediocrity; this is doubtlessly why it pulled down such giant numbers at the box-office. Banality sells, and like all sure-fire box office hits, Twilight didn't have to be good at all, and I assume that's why Hardwicke and her crew didn't bother. It must be tremendously demoralising to work on a shoot like that - it's certainly demoralising to watch the results.

(Want a really great "lonely young person loves a vampire" story? Let the Right One In is still kicking around theaters...)

Reviews in this series
Twilight (Hardwicke, 2008)
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Weitz, 2009)
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Slade, 2010)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 (Condon, 2011)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 (Condon, 2012)