Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Vampire weekend

Unless you’ve spent the past year in a coffin, you’ll have noticed that vampires have suddenly taken a large bite out of pop culture. So much so, that multiplexes across the nation are probably garnishing popcorn with cloves of garlic in anticipation of a vampire weekend as hordes of mostly female fans line up to see New Moon, the second film of the phenomenally successful Twilight series.

Over on the CW channel, another book adaptation, The Vampire Diaries, is a proving to be a hit. (I call it Twilite). HBO's buzzy True Blood, adapted from Charlaine Harris’s novels, is an allegory in which vampires are a discriminated minority of social outcasts -- bigoted Americans apparently just aren’t down with that whole neckrophilia thing -- who seek refuge in the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps and get frisky with the locals. (This being HBO, more than just fangs are bared.)

No wonder Hollywood studios are circling books such as the Vampire Academy series. A book publisher has even tried to cash in on the craze by releasing a Dracula sequel co-written by the great, great nephew of Bram Stoker. What's next, a Quentin Tarantino update of Blackula?

These fangtastic creatures have been around since John Polidori wrote The Vampyre in 1819. But this generation of bloodsuckers is decidedly different. These modern vampires often symbolize restraint. In True Blood and Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, heroic and chivalrous vampires drink packs of blood and feast on small animals rather than the women they love. Twilight's Edward Cullen is so chaste that he doesn't even do hickeys. (Side note: I fail to understand why millions of women are smitten with Robert Pattinson, the actor who plays the marble-skinned immortal in the films. If you ask me, dude needs an industrial-strength comb more than Malcolm Gladwell. And a month of solitary confinement in George Hamilton's tanning booth wouldn't hurt, either.)

Abstinent vampires are an interesting twist on the venerable genre. Any good romance story is heightened when passion is bridled and desire remains longingly unfulfilled. The romantic spark comes from the frisson of the thrill of the chase. It's the reason why Jane Austen remains enduringly popular in an age of sexual frankness. (Speaking of which, following the success of the Jane Austen book mash-ups Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters -- what's next, Mansfield Park and Mummies? -- there's now a book called Mr. Darcy, Vampyre.)

But as writer Sarah Seltzer points out in an astute newspaper opinion piece today, the chastity message in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (a reflection of her Mormon beliefs) should rightly raise any feminist's hackles. Bella Swan, the main character, is a gawkward and vulnerable teen who is entirely submissive to Edward. She so longs to be with him that she forgoes college. When they do get married and consummate their relationship in "Breaking Dawn," the fourth book, Bella is literally ravaged by Edward, leaving her bruised. According to Entertainment Weekly's horrified book review -- spoiler alert -- the honeymoon deflowering leaves her impregnated with a young vampire who breaks one of her ribs while kicking her inside the womb. Her pregnancy craving: Human blood. Edward denies Bella the option of an abortion.

Compared to Edward Cullen, Nosferatu suddenly looks like quite the catch.

As Seltzer observes in her op-ed, "the well-meaning but stringent control he exerts over her – are reminiscent, as some readers have said, of abusive relationships."

I didn't think I'd like Twilight (my idea of a great vampire movie is this year's Swedish art-house import, Let the Right One In) but, much to my surprise, I enjoyed the movie and found it thoroughly romantic. Even my dubious wife liked it. We'll go see New Moon once the rabid Twihards have had their fill (and the concession stand soda machines dispense more than just holy water). But I dread the coming installments of the movie series and fervently hope that the filmmakers offer a more enlightened message. After all, hasn't our understanding of womanhood progressed since Bram Stoker's time?