To those of you who found themselves excited about next month’s release of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 for the sole reason that it finally wraps up the saga of Bella, Edward and Jacob as gifted to the world by Stephenie Meyer, you may want to sit down for a second; I have some bad news. According to reports that appeared online last week, Summit Entertainment is considering continuing the movie series past the story from the original novels, with sources suggesting either movies or TV show spin-offs “merely set in the same world as the one in the movies, but not featuring the main trio,” with particular attention being paid to the Native American werewolf pack that appears in the original. You may start your gnashing of teeth now.
It’s not just Twilight haters who should feel nervous about this development. The history of cinema is filled with attempts by studios, executives and well-meaning-but-misguided moviemakers to find some way to extend the lifespans of successful film series well past their time. An entirely unscientific survey of my Twitter feed recently revealed that the common consensus was that every long-lived series has gone at least one installment too long; sure enough, when you look at this list, it’s hard to make an argument otherwise. It’s one of those things that exposes the tension between artistic integrity and business acumen in the world of modern media—turning whatever surprised and entertained us in first blush into commodities to be repeated, repackaged endlessly on a regular basis is something that we instinctively recoil from, I think, because we want our stories and ourselves to be “better” than that. We are not numbers, we think to ourselves, and what we enjoy has something “more” to it than pre-packaged ingredients mixed in a particular formula, right…?
Worse still, the Twilight potential spin-offs or sequels may make the biggest mistake of all—continuing on without the central characters. You can look at some of the better-known examples of this trend and judge for yourself whether or not it’s a good idea, but it does suggest that a particular movie series has stopped being about consistent characterization and a coherent narrative in favor of “more of the same, but less so.” An unexpected, but not unconvincing, example: Look at what happened to the American Pie series as it continued sans the original cast. Or the Planet of the Apes series, in which two separate astronauts — more, if you include the television spin-off — had exactly the same freak accident that threw them into an ape-dominated far future, because Charlton Heston knew to quit after his first movie.
These days, of course, we expect movie audiences to be more evolved, with tastes so refined that such casual creative sleight-of-hand would be rejected outright. That’s why we have reboots, after all; same end result of cheaper, younger casts, but without the need to lose the comfortable familiarity of the central characters that everyone knows and loves. Everyone wins, as long as you don’t count the original cast. But, as this year’s The Bourne Legacy ably demonstrated, the idea of replacing your big names with newcomers playing the younger brother/distant relative/employee of your favorite character lives on, with Bourne performing surprisingly strongly at the box office for a sequel devoid of the leads of the earlier installments. Consider it either a solitary throwback to the days where the Apes movies were successful no matter who the humans in question were, or a shape of things to come; after all, 2014′s Transformers 4 is also reported to be moving down the same “actors and characters are interchangible, it’s all about the toys” route. (It’s an easier pill to swallow on television, it seems: Consider the success of something like Frasier as a continuation of Cheers, or Lou Grant as the next chapter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.)
I’m tempted to push Marvel Studios’ mooted SHIELD TV show in with this trend of dumping your heroes for their newer counterparts. Yes, it’s not a direct replacement for the Avengers movies, but it is a spinning out of one background concept in an attempt to keep the hunger for the original, far different, concept satiated. Is that really so different from following The Twilight Saga with The Saga of Those Werewolves That Don’t Like Shirts Out’ve Twilight?
Of course, SHIELD has one thing going for it that any potential The Twilight Saga: Those Other Guys movie would: the active participation of Joss Whedon, the writer and director of The Avengers, the movie that got everyone interested in SHIELD in the first place. As unclear as the future of a future Twilight project is, not one report has suggested that Stephenie Meyer is involved in any practical capacity, and she’s certainly remained mum on the subject since the rumors broke. Sources are, of course, saying that any continuation would only happen with her “blessing,” a wonderfully vague concept that allows her to stay out of the fray should the new projects flop, but claim credit should they succeed, and all without much direct involvement at all. The importance of Meyer’s commitment to the future of the Twilight franchise, however, points towards something that Summit should be taking very seriously as it considers whether or not to go forward with any post-Breaking Dawn projects for The Twilight Saga: how best to handle the fan base.
More than any historical suckiness of new cast sequels and more than the concern about accidentally overstepping the mark and making one Twilight too many, the biggest danger for additional Twilight projects is alienating the franchise’s core audience. After all, the “Twihard” relationship with Twilight is something particularly intense. Fans hold the novels up as the central texts far more than the movies and are therefore more likely to be suspicious of anything that steps outside of the boundaries and relationships created within the books, perhaps deeming them either superfluous or, worse, blasphemous.
The best parallel to this is the reaction to DC Comics’ announcement of Before Watchmen, a multi-series prequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking Watchmen comic that featured no creative input from either Moore or Gibbons. DC was attacked for “turning [the original] into bland, infinitely reproducible genre product”, with the project described as heresy while the creators responsible were described as “rancid scabs” for working on the project. (Despite this anger, the comics continue to sell well, with the first issues released breaking into the top ten for that particular month.) While I doubt that any Twilight follow-up would result in quite as vitriolic a response, there’s no getting around the fact that, when you engage a fan base as passionate as that of Watchmen or Twilight, you’re playing with fire. As easily as the audience can embrace you for doing something that they approve of, they can turn on you for doing something deemed unacceptable, with the line between the two not entirely clear to “outsiders.”
And any future Twilight project risks the wrath of the Twihard faithful in an even more obvious way: it won’t actually be Twilight. As countless people have argued, the appeal of The Twilight Saga isn’t the idea of sparkly vampires or shirtless werewolves co-existing in the Pacific Northwest where they can brood and smolder at each other, but the central relationship between Bella and Edward (a love that cannot speak its name and goes against societal norms, but nonetheless makes both characters into more complete, better people; a relationship in which the female is put on a pedestal while taking an active, nurturing role within the relationship to “heal” the more aggressive side of the male). Once you try to tell a story in the Twilight world that isn’t about Bella and Edward, you immediately lose that draw for readers and, worse, risk undermining the book’s not-too-subtle positioning of the pair’s relationship as both the Greatest Love of All and also the Center of the Universe. Attempting to recreate the Bella/Edward dynamic with new characters may make sense from a “give them what they want” approach, but doing so could all too easily diminish the adolescent self-importance that’s essential to Stephenie Meyer’s original story. When you take Bella and Edward out of Twilight, all you’re left with is a fairly generic vampire and werewolf story.
Cinematic history has demonstrated that removing your main characters from a movie series often leads to lesser — and less successful — results. The idea of a sixth installment of a series that features an all-new cast in a story removed from the central arc of the first five movies would appear to be a potentially troubling possibility. Add to that the opportunity for upsetting fans by going beyond the core text of the original novel series for the first time, raising the potential to be seen as “exploiting” the property and its fan base instead of just faithfully hewing to the world that Stephenie Meyer created, and the whole notion begins to feel less like a bad idea and more like a suicide mission.
Which doesn’t rule out the possibility of it actually happening, of course; a world in which we’re seeing trailers for a fifth Die Hard movie is one that ably demonstrates the triumph of potential box office earnings over creative sensibilities. But to see Summit stretch The Twilight Saga past its intended endpoint is to watch the studio risk its crown jewel for the promise of slightly more profit. If they decide to go ahead with the rumored plans, those vampires will sparkle just a little less brightly.