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This Week in Genre History: Twilight was the dawn of a new age and made vampires sparkle

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Nov 19, 2020, 1:00 PM EST

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

Do we still live in the same universe as the one that released Twilight onto an unsuspecting populace? To look back at the movie, and the insanity that surrounded it is to look onto an entirely different planet. Twilight merged two genres — creature fantasy and teenage romance — that don’t even seem to exist on the same plane of reality, and not only became a global phenomenon, it led to a movie that was so anticipated that the casting of the main characters was as monumental as casting a Harry Potter movie, or, now, a Marvel movie.

It was obvious from the get-go that the two main actors cast in Twilight would have their lives dramatically changed forever. But it turned out to be even more than we thought. And even a guy who would be president got involved.

Thus, today, we look back at Twilight, released on Nov. 21, 2008, which is both 12 years ago this week and also a million years ago. 

Why was it a big deal at the time? It is worth remembering that the rights to the movie version of Twilight had been sold before the book had even been published, let alone had become such an earth-shattering hit. That was back when it was just a manuscript with a lot of buzz. But when Stephenie Meyer’s book exploded, becoming a New York Times No. 1 bestseller, the original script that came from that sale (which was reportedly dramatically different from the book) was turned around and completely rewritten. This time, Meyer's vision, and being loyal to it, was paramount.

“They let me have input on it and I think they took 90 percent of what I said and just incorporated it right into the script,” Meyer said at the time. That official stamp made all the difference because as Twilight became so huge, being as faithful to the book as possible became the utmost priority. 

That lent itself to the casting, specifically the key roles of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. For Bella, director Catherine Hardwicke (herself an unconventional choice, with a background in independent film) had seen Kristen Stewart in David Fincher’s Panic Room and had watched her grow into an indie actor with a “steely fierceness.” Robert Pattinson was much less well-known, working mostly on the London stage before being cast as the heroic Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, his first movie role. (He barely beat out Henry Cavill, who was ultimately considered too old.) The two were an odd mix to helm a juggernaut in the making, but it was obvious from their first scene together that the most important thing they needed, chemistry, was not going to be a problem.

At that point, it was going to be hard for Twilight to miss.

What was the impact? Critics didn’t like it, but honestly, who cares what critics thought? The movie was a huge success before anyone had seen it, pre-selling the fifth-most tickets ever at the time, and the most ever for a non-sequel. After a massive, $69 million opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada, Twilight brought in a total of $392,616,625 at the international box office. As often happens with movies that try incredibly hard to be faithful to a book, the minute the film came out, everyone forgot Bella or Edward had ever looked like anyone but Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Taylor Lautner would have a moment as well (or at least his abs would), especially in the sequels, as the werewolf Jacob Black, but, ultimately, this was always about Stewart and Pattinson.

They were immediately, forever linked, particularly because they were together off-screen as well in what would end up being a millennial Burton-and-Taylor, on-and-off romance. Packaging the two allowed the sequels to become massive events in the gossip pages as well as the multiplex — the way Hollywood had done it from the beginning, really — and it wasn’t just teen girls who took notice. This guy did:

There were 12 more tweets after that one.

Beyond the impact Twilight had on a certain future politician, the film spawned four sequels, as the fourth and final book in the series, Breaking Dawn, was split into two parts, Deathly Hallows-style. If the Twilight books were a hit, the movies made them a phenomenon. Twilight pretty much single-handedly revived the town of Forks, Washington, where the series was set, turning it into a major tourism destination for pilgrimaging fans. In the pop culture space, there were hyperbolic, gatekeeping complaints that the films "ruined Comic-Con." That's how popular they were. Lines for all things Twilight grew to Phantom Menace lengths, and in 2012, a woman was killed when she was hit by a car while trying to keep a spot in line for a Twilight panel at San Diego Comic-Con.

And, of course, the Twilight books and movies inspired an unfathomable amount of fanfiction, including one story that went on to become Fifty Shades of Grey. 

Has it held up? Hardwicke was an excellent choice to direct Twilight. Her film Thirteen displayed her ability to do moody teen romance in a more rough-hewn way, and going glossy and dreamy in Twilight didn’t lose anything in translation. The movie is ridiculous, but it was always going to be ridiculous. It needed to be. And Hardwicke still makes you believe. 

But, really, it’s the work of those stars. For all the talk of the Harry Potter movies, this is the franchise that launched some top-shelf movie stars and legitimately respected actors.

Stewart has become an international star and put together some incredible performances, from Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper to Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. (She’s still on plenty of gossip pages too.) And Pattinson is an even bigger star, alternating between indie fare like The Lighthouse, High Life, and Good Time, and big-budget blockbusters like Tenet and the upcoming The Batman (in which he plays the titular Dark Knight). Stewart and Pattinson will be connected forever, but they have gone on to splendid careers individually, careers that are really just getting started.

Twilight had to get one thing right: Its romantic leads. It succeeded splendidly. We’re still in Bella and Edward’s world, 12 years later. 

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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