Monday, April 8, 2013

Breaking Dawn Shatters Viewers' Trust

Note: The following post includes spoilers for the Twilight series, not that anyone will likely care.

A couple weeks ago, my wife and I celebrated nine years of marriage, no small milestone. Through thick and thin, weal and woe, she has stuck by my side, and I would do just about anything for her. Which is why I sat down to watch The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 this past week.

Long-time readers know that I don't share the genre community's reflexive hatred of Stephanie Meyer's super-successful series. The Twilight books are decent-enough reads if you're sprawled on a beach blanket or confined to bed with the flu. But that's not to say I'm a fan. Fear not, you who hate sparkly creatures of the night: I won't sing the praises of the Cullen clan. Instead I'm going to skewer the final cinematic installment for a writing sin so egregious that it left me gaping at the screen.

For those unfamiliar with the story to this point, hapless heroine Bella Swan has met and married Edward Cullen (the blood-drinking denizen of her dreams), become pregnant with a human-vampire hybrid, nearly died while giving birth, and gotten transformed into a member of the undead to save her life. So far so good, but the existence of her child has drawn the attention of the Volturi, a manipulative vampire clique that enforces its own brutal sort of order. They think Bella's spawn is a forbidden baby vampire, and so they plan to eradicate her entire family. Much of the film is taken up with the Cullens recruiting sympathetic supernaturals to stave off the coming conflict. In Meyer's world, each vampire has a unique ability in addition to the whole blood-drinking-eternal-life thing, which proves important when the confrontation finally comes. Alice Cullen (who can see the future) clasps hands with Aro (a Volturi who can read minds through touch), showing him the truth about Bella's offspring. Then she recoils as he rebuffs the evidence, and the battle begins. Over the space of ten or fifteen minutes, major characters fall left and right, some beheaded, some crushed, some burned, and the clash concludes with Edward tearing Aro's head from his shoulders. His eyes stare sightlessly up into the camera ... which then cuts to Alice, who's staring at Aro on an unblemished field—an Aro whose head still remains firmly affixed to his neck. The whole interlude was a vision, a foretelling from Alice of how the battle would go for the Volturi.

It made me want to scream.

The TV Tropes Web site calls this the "All Just a Dream" convention and warns that "this really grates on the audience." No kidding. Only the best stories can successfully pull off such a twist. Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits manages it, but only because it calls the entire structure of reality into question in a hilariously tongue-in-cheek manner. Breaking Dawn – Part 2 doesn't even try for a satisfying rationale; the film simply lies to you into order to pad its running time.

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott wrote, "We want a sense that an important character, like a narrator, is reliable. We want to believe that a character is not playing ages or being coy or being manipulative, but is telling the truth to the best of his or her ability ...We do not wish to be crudely manipulated ...We want to be massaged by a masseur, not whapped by a carpet beater." So include your twists if you must, but do so with skill and tact and (most of all) respect for your readers.

(Picture: CC 2009 by JuditK)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think there might be another adage going on here: if you have to break narrative promises, give the reader something they actually want more than what you've just served up. And make sure that everything is important, even if not in the way viewers expected.

(Sidebar: It seems weird to say that people want beloved characters to get decapitated, head-crushed, &c., but that was fulfilling a promise that this would be a final fight that mattered, with weight and heft. It's not that people want their favorites killed, but that they do want the sense of seriousness of storytelling that implies. One of the things, I would argue, that makes Harry Potter so popular is the permanence of death; by not toying with that dark element of our own lives, it actually feels more hefty.)

I could imagine a film that has an epic battle, then turns it to being all a dream. But if so, that dream will have to MEAN something (other than an excuse for SF and a single plot point.) Perhaps Bella realizes Edward has a secret power that he never told her about, and there is emotional fallout. Perhaps some people turn traitor in the vision, which leads to complications in the real world. Perhaps Bella sees herself become a monster (of a different type than what she already is), and has to prevent it. In all these ways, the dream-sequence would just be a preamble to a story that readers don't expect, but which they really enjoy and appreciate. In that case, sure they're deprived of an epic battle that means what they thought--but all its elements remain meaningful, just not in the way they expected.

(Perhaps the most well-known example of this is The Wizard of Oz, whose "it's all a dream" ending annoyed me, but only a little bit since Dorothy's revelations about the main characters point towards a future in which she better understands the truth of her friends as revealed through her dreams.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

It may have worked the first few times the device was used but by now, we are screaming whenever we see it coming.

Chestertonian Rambler said...


What about The Matrix?

Loren Eaton said...

The big problem with BD:P2 is that the trope baldly serves to pad out the film's running time. Seriously, there's really not any other reason for it to exist. There was too much story for one film and too little for two, so the director had to do something.

I think the first Matrix film did a good job with the convention because it was using it to explore greater philosophical themes. It felt a little like a cinematic incarnation of Descartes with guns -- and kung fu.