Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: Of Blockbusters and Bestsellers

Anne Morey (ed.), Genre, Reception and Adaptation in the "Twilight" Series, (Ashgate Studies in Childhood, 1700 to the present). Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate. 2012. Print.
ISBN: 9781409436614 hbk.

Mary F. Pharr and Leisa A. Clark. Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: critical essays on the Suzanne Collins trilogy. (Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. 2012. Print.
ISBN: 9780786470198 pbk.

Reviewer: David Beagley

YA literature is the area in which the direct linking of text and film modes has most directly occurred over the last few years. Whether this is simply a marketing ploy by publishers and film companies to get maximum return from the limited life of a teen fashion, or whether it demonstrates the versatility of the YA audience in its reception of alternate modes of storytelling, is yet to be determined. Both options would appear to have plenty to support them. Certainly, these two series, Twilight and The Hunger Games, have achieved staggering popularity as multiple mega-bestsellers in both text and film in a time span that traditionally would have had books still just finding their market niche.

Such impact immediately attracts the eye of social commentators, and literary critics are no exception. Both these texts come from well established and authoritative publishing series: Ashgate's Studies in childhood, 1700 to the present, and MacFarland's Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and each considers the series of its title from both a social perspective (such big hits and so focussed a target audience!), and as a formal artistic literary creation (are they actually 'good' literature?).

It would be very easy, as many have done, to dismiss such phenomenally successful examples of popular culture as superficial fluff with the limited lifespan of any teen fad (and bearing out the marketing ploy option). However, both these titles afford their subjects the courtesy that formally grounded and authoritative analysis demands and both, therefore, present thoughtful, though-provoking studies of these significant series.

The 13 essays in Morey's Twilight collection may be grouped in several thematic categories. Five consider textual and literary elements such as intertextual connections, representational readings such as sexuality, power or race, or the construction of fantasy realms. Five more explore the role and reactions of the series' fans in building the culture that surrounds, even engulfs, the texts themselves. Two examine the films in particular as both adaptations of the print originals and as creations in their own right, while a final study looks at how the series' popularity in Korea can be taken to reflect changes on the role of women in modern Korean society.

SImilarly, Pharr and Clark's Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games groups its 21 essays, though it gives specific titles to these sections that could suggest an emphasis more towards the sociological than the purely literary: 1. History, Politics, Economics and Culture, 2. Ethics, Aesthetics and Identity, 3. Resistance, Surveillance and Simulcra, and 4. Thematic Parallels and Literary Traditions.

In both cases, these conceptual groupings suggest that it is the impact of the stories as pop culture icons that has grabbed the attention of commentators, more so than questions around their lasting literary merit. Yet, both texts have strong studies of the stories as creations. Morey's own opening essay in Genre, Reception and Adaptation makes strong links with Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, particularly in the gender politics of upright girls and dangerous older lovers. The rebelliousness of both heroines fuels their tempestuous relationships, highlighting the extremes of "the Bildung in the romance". (p. 25). The essays that follow, by Jackie C. Horne, Kristine Moruzi and Sara K. Day, all develop this central narrative theme of Bella's agency in terms of her sexuality and identity. Horne builds an intriguing framework based in the capacity for Bella's (and, thus, the reader's) moral and personal freedom in the enclosed 'space' of a fantasy secondary world.

The identification of the largely female readership with the desires, trials and triumphs of Bella Swann is implicit in all these essays and feeds directly into Catherine Driscoll's cultural examination. From its opening line - "Twilight is girl culture: popular culture for girls, about girls, and circulated by girls" - the diverse and conflicting anxieties about, and expectations of, girls is tracked through the series, culminating with the problematic situation of Jacob and Renesmee.

Driscoll's perceptive study shifts the focus to the active role played by the readers and fans in the creation of the Twilight phenomenon. In particular, Anne Gilbert's survey of the landscape of the 'Twi-hards' and 'Twi-haters', and Sarah Wagenseller Goletz's puzzling over the"Giddyshame" of love/loathe reading, raise the paradox of the intensity in responses for and against Twilight. Adore or despise the series, it would appear that it must be done intensely - there is no middle ground!

Pharr and Clark's collection on Twilight's nearest rival, The Hunger Games, has more but shorter chapters. As a result they tend to focus on specific aspects and references more precisely than the discursive and conceptual studies of the Ashgate text.

For instance, Tina L. Hanlon draws out the strong historical and cultural connections between District 12 and Appalachia ("Coal Dust and Ballads"), while Valerie Estelle Frankell highlights the artifice of TV construction and reconstruction of appearance in her "Reflection in a Plastic Mirror" chapter. Shannon Mortimore-Smith's "Fueling the Spectacle: audience as gamemaker" takes the TV structure (and commentary) of the story further through the role of audience as active agent rather than just passive receiver, a theme also developed by Katheryn Wright in her "Revolutionary Art in the Age of Reality TV".

Contemporary politics is a key theme with articles considering the use of food and hunger as repressive tools - Bill Clemente's "Panem in America: crisis economics and a call for political engagement" and Max Despain's "The 'Fine Reality of Hunger Satisfied': food as cultural metaphor in Panem" - as well as Guy Andre Risko's challenge about power and morality in "Katnis Everdeen's Liminal Choices and the Foundation of Revolutionary Ethics".

Gender politics also feature strongly particularly in the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. Their respective roles could be see as a 'queering' of the public expectation by Katniss's reluctance/rejection of the restructuring/feminising of her appearance, as suggested by Jennifer Mitchell, or a reinforcement of traditional war stories and heterosexual romance through the maintenance of a hetero-normative pairing (one partner aggressively physical, the other domestic and nurturing) as argued by Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassell.

The final collection of essays draws parallels with texts from Shakespeare's Henriad plays, through other dystopian literature like Ender's Game to the obvious Twilight and Harry Potter though, again, the themes of politics and gender representation dominate.

Both these collections give plenty of material for debate around their respective series. The studies in Morey's Twilight collection are probably more grounded in the formal discourse of modern literature and tend to more involved discussion, while those in Pharr and Clark's Hunger Games text pick out individual textual elements and make precise points about them. Both place their series firmly as expressions of the contemporary world despite their fantasy formats and, as such, provide relevant, coherent and cogent arguments for the immense impact of both series in popular culture.

However, one aspect that neither really confronts is 'What now? Having achieved all this impact, what will it change?' The current world of teenagers and TV and politics is clearly targeted but most of the essays are more observational of those clear links rather than predictive or prophetic. These mammoth best-sellers, Harry, Twilight, Hunger Games, have clearly changed the landscape of publishing and marketing in the short term, but what impact will they have over the next few years? Have they changed reading habits or styles? Are the movie versions part of the same story as a multi-modal expression, or are they finally taking over? Does the growing confidence of fans in their own re-versioning of the stories mark the beginning of a return to the shared oral tales of pre-modern society?

These two collections do not raise or address these questions, but they both present well-argued and thoughtful examinations of the two series as they exist now: phenomenally popular, culturally challenging, and clearly commenting on where we are now.


David Beagley

Volume 16, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, September/October 2012

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