Contains spoilers – by this point you’ve probably read or seen or at least heard the plot of Twilight, but just in case you haven’t, beware this post will tell all
TLDR: I have feelings about Life and Death. Not all of them are pleasant. I will say I enjoyed the premise of a teenage boy falling for a powerful female vampire. I cannot say it works as a re-telling of Twilight. I also cannot say that Meyer has achieved her central goal of rebuking the criticisms that Twilight is a fundamentally gendered story.
For the tenth anniversary of Twilight’s publication, Stephanie Meyer published a re-telling of the first novel in the saga. Alas, it was not Midnight Sun – back in the late noughties we Twilighters were very disappointed that this gem never made it off the internet. Instead of telling the Twilight story from Edward’s perspective, as in the aforementioned Midnight Sun, Meyer went one step further. Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined is a re-telling where every character, with a couple of notable exceptions, is gender-swapped.
Before we begin, let’s do a brief recap of the original Twilight. It’s a fun story and one that undeniably captured the teenage imagination, becoming one of the best-selling books of all time in the UK. If you’re anything like me, you probably haven’t read Twilight in a decade and the plot has slipped into a shadowy corner of your mind, waiting to be forgotten at last…
TLDR: A shy, clumsy teenage girl falls in love with a brooding, moralistic one-hundred year old male vampire. When a rival vampire clan comes to town and starts a hunt for the girl, she sacrifices herself, but her boyfriend saves her from being turned into a vampire.
Our heroine, Bella Swan, is an awkward, bookish young woman. She moves to her father’s hometown of Forks, in the ever-rainy Olympic Peninsula, to give her recently remarried (and chaotic) mother some space. On arrival she enrols in the local high school and her appearance is possibly the most exciting thing to happen in Forks for a decade. Consequently, she ends up with several suitors (Mike, Eric, Tyler) trailing after her. Edward Cullen, on the other hand, seems unimpressed. After a tense chemistry lesson where he pointedly ignores her, he doesn’t show his mysterious black eyes in class again for several weeks. When he does return, he is a changed man – charming, intelligent, with butterscotch yellow irises. Bella is, of course, enchanted.
Then ensues a near-death experience. When Tyler’s car almost crushes Bella to a pulp, Edward miraculously saves her, leaving an Edward-shaped dent in the vehicle. She’s understandably astounded and demands to know how he did it – but he refuses to explain himself. We have to wait a few chapters to find out but the long and short of it is: he and his attractive, elusive family are vampires, of the good kind, and Edward reads minds, but he can’t read Bella’s. Against Bella’s better sense and Edward’s self-control, they fall in love in a meadow with the sunshine glittering across Edward’s skin (vampires don’t burn, they sparkle – duh).
And then there’s some drama with a rival vampire clan and Bella sacrifices herself to save her mum – or so she thinks. In reality James, the crazed evil vampire intent on killing Bella, tricks her into willingly going to him. He bites her and she almost changes into a vampire, but Edward – desperate to save her soul – sucks the poison out of her bloodstream. She remains human, she and Edward go to prom, and it’s all very teen romance.
Now, onto Life and Death. You may be thinking, “why would a writer celebrate the 10th anniversary of her massively successful debut novel by re-writing it?”. The answer to this lies in the controversy surrounding Twilight’s central storyline: a teenage girl risks her life for a relationship with an older man, who must protect her from the forces of evil in his world. That’s a reductionist version of the story, but you get the point. Meyer has been criticised widely for writing a damsel in distress narrative that we’ve all read and criticised before.
In the Foreword to Life and Death, Meyer responds directly to this criticism, saying:
“Bella has always gotten a lot of censure for getting rescued on multiple occasions, and people have complained about her being a typical damsel in distress…But I’ve always maintained that it would have made no difference if the human were male and the vampire female – it’s still the same story. Gender and species aside, Twilight has always been a story about the magic and obsession of first love.
So I thought to myself, Well, what if I put that theory to the test?”
The result of that test is Life and Death, the “gender-swapped” version of Twilight. I was very much here for Meyer’s premise. I don’t happen to think Bella is a straightforward damsel in distress, but she is very much a gendered character – as is Edward. Literature at large needs more strong women and vulnerable men, so when I read Meyer’s Foreword I was excited for what I believed would be the same story I loved as a teenager from a new perspective.
The pivotal word in that sentence is the same story. Even Meyer herself admits that Life and Death is not, in fact, the same story as Twilight. Meyer justifies this on both artistic grounds (fair enough) and gendered grounds (less fair enough).
Let’s look at our central characters. Bella becomes Beau, and Edward becomes Edythe. Beau is a lanky teenage boy who isn’t half as shy or bookish as Bella. In fact, at several points in the book he comes across as arrogant and a bit manipulative. He also lacks Bella’s depth. Where Bella swears she is “unconditionally and irrevocably in love” with Edward, Beau says Edythe was “everything I wanted”. Where Bella dreams of a terrifying, dangerous vampire, Beau dreams of a seductive temptress, dressed in black lace with rouged lips. Beau comes across more like a caricature of a teenage boy than a realistic character. Meyer even admits that she changed Beau’s character, explaining that “he’s not nearly so flowery with his words and thoughts, and he’s not as angry – he’s totally missing the chip Bella carries around on her shoulder”. My question is: why change those things that made Bella a complex, interesting character? The only answer I could come up with in the context of this re-write is…he’s a boy. Meyer simplified the character when she made him a boy. That, dear reader, is just bad writing.
Edythe, on the other hand, is a character you can sink your teeth into (pardon the pun). Edward was always the more complex of the protagonists in Twilight, and Meyer develops Edythe’s character with the same level of depth. It’s refreshing to see Edythe order Beau around in the way Edward ordered Bella, worry just as much about Beau’s soul as Edward worried about Bella’s, and exhibit her ridiculous vampire strength in just the same way Edward did. As I read I found I enjoyed the dynamic between Edythe and Beau more than I now (as a grown woman who understands the problematic stereotypes at play) enjoy the dynamic between Edward and Bella.
Yet the whole thing is upset for me by the ending. I mentioned earlier that I was looking forward to reading the same story from a different perspective – well, Life and Death is made unconditionally and irrevocably not the same story by its ending. Instead of fighting to save Beau’s humanity and soul by removing the poison from his bloodstream, as Edward did for Bella, Edythe gives up. She lets him become a vampire. Instead of agonising over everything that Beau would have to leave behind, as Edward did for Bella, Edythe hardly seems remorseful at all. Again, my question is: why change those things that made the story complex and interesting? Again, the only answer I could come up with is…Beau’s a boy. In the original saga, Bella is saved at the end of Twilight, only to become a vampire in Breaking Dawn when childbirth almost kills her. For obvious reasons – because this was a binary, cis-centric gender swap – that storyline wouldn’t work for Beau, so it seems Meyer decided to change him into a vampire in one fell swoop. Beau is not saved as Bella is saved, for entirely gendered reasons.
Personally, I hate the ending. It’s rushed, forced, and makes no sense for Edythe’s character arc. It also completely changes the story, which is fundamentally at odds with Meyer’s assertion that “it would have made no difference if the human were male and the vampire female – it’s still the same story”.
So, do I recommend it? Yes, if you want to read an interesting take on the same old paranormal romance we’ve been reading forever. No, if you’re expecting a readable exploration of the same characters from a different perspective. Gender is a slippery fish and Meyer on this occasion fails to grasp it. The result is tepid stereotypes and proof that Twilight really was a gendered story in first place.