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Back in 2008, Catherine Hardwicke took Stephenie Meyer’s young adult vampire romance novel, Twilight, adapted it into a movie, helped Summit rake in massive profits, and lit the fuse on a YA trend that’s long since snuffed itself out. (All this before unceremoniously getting booted off the sequels by Summit in favor of dudes, though this is another story entirely.)
Turning ten on Wednesday, Twilight, and the subsequent chapters in the grandiloquently named Twilight Saga franchise, is an oversized pencil tracing the arc of the beginning and the end of its niche; after its success turned “YA genre cinema” into an industry, its 2012 climax meant the gears and levers driving that industry ground to a halt. The Twilight films’ impassioned, soupy tenor, couched in aesthetic and performance, is a primeval appeal to populist tastes, and tastes change: Where audiences once craved the soap opera blueprint that made Meyer into an international literary titan (whether or not her books are your thing, you can’t deny that they make a lot of people money), they have, over time, moved on.
Maybe that’s the inevitability with YA material. As the young grow older, they gravitate toward new culture to invest themselves in: New music, new stories, new movies, new clothes and new ideologies. The albums you listened to as a kid? They probably sucked. Ever revisit your favorite childhood film and discovered, as Adam F. Goldberg (of The Goldbergs) did after The Star Wars Holiday Special abruptly called into question his every geek obsession, that it’s a heaping garbage pile? That’s what we call the painful transition from teenhood to adulthood, a cruel process that illuminates the pop culture bedrock of our salad days and shows us that The Goonies is awful. (Sorry.)
So the YA boom of the aughts, and its eventual exhaustion by the mid-2010s, is partly a product of a maturing core audience letting go of childish things. It’s unfair, and likely incorrect, to blame the forbidden romance of sparkle vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and plain toast regular strength human person Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) for YA’s post-2008 proliferation in theaters. At the same time, Twilight, though no one saw it at first, was peak YA right out the gate, and was frankly a different beast than Harry Potter, a series that hews closer to the classic fantasy blueprint of The Lord of the Rings than Twilight’s angsty teen amour; the Potter books and films feature young love, but they orbit world-ending peril.
Twilight, on the other hand, has young love at its forefront. (Aside: If Edward was born in 1901, can his and Bella’s mutual infatuation really be characterized as “young”? Food for thought.) Tired as the concept may be — forbidden romance is an idea older than even Shakespeare — it’s the element that sets Twilight apart from its contemporaries, whether Harry Potter or the YA properties to follow in their wake: The Hunger Games films, the Divergent films, The Maze Runner, Percy Jackson, and Mortal Instruments films and the list goes on. In these, the object of the exercise is a cataclysm of one sort or another: Evil wizards fomenting holocausts against non-wizards, post-apocalyptic dystopias, the death of the gods. In Twilight, it’s smoldering adolescent obsession.
Breathless, blase and burdened by bad writing folded into muted, contrasty visuals, the Twilight movies both spurred the rise of YA genre films and burned us out on them. As we rolled into 2011 and 2012, the years Harry Potter wrapped up, The Hunger Games began in earnest and Twilight inspired the sub-trend of splitting single books into two movies (copied by The Hunger Games in 2014 and 2015, expanded on by The Hobbit in 2012, 2013,and 2014), box office returns on YA productions diminished. The two halves of Breaking Dawn, Twilight’s concluding text, both pulled in less bank domestically than New Moon and Eclipse with almost double the budget; the two halves of Mockingjay, the finale to The Hunger Games movies, both made less money than the first Hunger Games. Other YA franchises failed to gross a fraction of either’s ultimate box office take; the Divergent series in particular performed so poorly that producers canned it before it even finished, relegating it to a TV movie that has never materialized.
Money talks. Money tells us that for whatever reason, audiences lost interest in YA films as entertainment after Hollywood briefly ordained them as the next lucrative venture in franchise filmmaking. Twilight is an entity nursed on money, and in its mad gamble to make as much money as possible, it overstayed its welcome and the welcome of its peers. This effect isn’t seen in the reception of Breaking Dawn parts one and two; the latter made more than the former. But Mockingjay part two made $56 million less than part one; the Divergent and Maze Runner movies each made less in succession. Viewers didn’t want to see them, and didn’t want them needlessly drawn out.
It’s not that YA movies aren’t made in 2018; see Love, Simon, or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or The Hate U Give. But today’s YA movies lean toward reality, focusing on social concerns of their day instead of the supernatural or science fictional. Maybe that’s less to do with Twilight directly. Maybe Twilight’s audience cares now about the worldly problems facing them as they merge into adulthood, rather than vampires and werewolves and the high school girls who fawn over them. But Twilight wore us down, and time left a chasm between it and its fans, and even its detractors. Even its leads, Pattinson and Stewart, have evolved beyond Twilight’s trashy appeal. They grew up. So did we all. And so did YA storytelling.
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