Girls on Film: Stephenie Meyer, of The Host and Twilight fame, is not anti-women
Meyer has repeatedly been attacked for the problematic messages of her novels — but the truth is far more complicated
Stephenie Meyer's unlikely, meteoric rise to the top of the young-adult literature world began nearly 10 years ago — on the morning of June 2, 2003, to be exact. The Mormon mother had just woken up from an elaborate dream in which an average girl and a sparkly, gorgeous vampire discussed how they were falling in love even as he struggled to control his bloodlust for her. After completing her morning errands, Meyer sat down to translate her dream into prose, and over the course of three months, she turned it into a novel. Twilight, of course, was the start of a saga that would become a global phenomenon and turn the homemaker into one of the world's most commercially successful authors.
Over the course of the last decade, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series has inspired a passion in its most devoted fans that is only rivaled by the passion of its detractors. But when the Twilight Saga came to an end in November 2012 with the release of the series' last film, Breaking Dawn: Part 2, Meyer's fans and haters each put down their arms.
Prepare for the battle to start again. Today's new film adaptation of The Host, Meyer's final remaining novel (and her only book set outside the Twilight universe), is likely to prove just as polarizing as her breakout.
The Host stars Saoirse Ronan as Melanie Stryder, a young woman who becomes captured and infected by a parasitic alien called "Wanderer." As the two beings struggle for control within a single human body (and come to love two different men), the story tackles many of the same themes that Meyer explored in Twilight: Love, morality, and what it means to be human. Many have criticized Meyer's writings as strict, thinly veiled pieces of Mormon propaganda, but the truth is far more complicated. Though her work is undeniably influenced by her faith, the stranger aspects of Meyer's storytelling come from her commitment to a set of rules she creates for her world at the outset — and the practical implications of those rules, which she refuses to violate as her stories develop.
Let's start with Meyer's most successful and popular series. The conventional critique of the Twilight Saga goes something like this: Bella Swan (played in the films by Kristen Stewart) struggles through life as a confused, accident-prone teenager before eventually becoming a vampire, with perfect control and power, alongside her love Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). As many have pointed out, their love story teaches all kinds of questionable lessons. Bella is passive; Edward is possessive. Bella is happy to give up her life for her love, and the arc of their love story is a kind of "abstinence porn" that leads to a deeply traditional happy ending: Marriage, a child, and a larger family.
Meyer insists that her novels were never intended to teach moral lessons. Instead, Meyer begins her writing process by making a series of detailed decisions about the world and characters (explained in an incredibly comprehensive correspondence with fansite Twilight Lexicon) that dictate how her stories will manifest, without any concerns with messages and empowerment. "I never meant for [Bella's] fictional choices to be a model for anyone else's real life choices," Meyer writes on her site. "She is a character in a story, nothing more or less." Meyer's self-imposed rules make the seemingly problematic aspects of her story an inevitability in her eyes. She employs no deus ex machina or creative license to write her way out of questionable corners; she embraces them — worrisome messages, anticlimaxes, and all. Bella is bruised after her first sexual experience with Edward because Meyer decided at the outset that vampires have would have hard, sparkling, diamond-like skin; Meyer refuses to back down on her rules, despite the uncomfortable parallels to a woman facing domestic violence. Likewise, when the sex leads to Bella's pregnancy, logistics trump modern concerns; though the baby threatens Bella's life, the sac, which consists of the same diamond-like material as its father's skin, makes termination impossible.
Meyer begins The Host with an even starker set of rules, as she tackles the very end of humanity. As the story begins, an iridescent, centipede-like alien species has taken over the planet, covertly inserting themselves into human bodies in an attempt to create a positive world free of lies, war, and other manifestations of wrongdoing. A few uninfected humans remain in hiding, desperately trying to avoid the Seekers that aim to "help" them by turning them into peaceful alien mutants. After years on the run, Melanie Stryder is caught, and the Wanderer implanted inside her hopes to find the remaining humans who have evaded capture. But Melanie doesn't disappear, and the alien gets a taste of real humanity — the pain that makes the highs of joy more powerful, and the unexpected perks of love and passion that evade the bland, even-keeled alien society.
Like Twilight, The Host finds Meyer trapped once again by the practical implications of the world she created. The human survivors are angry and violent against an invading species that is, ironically and sympathetically, peaceful to the point of extreme passivity and trust. By putting this war inside one young woman's head, and then leading the body to a colony of humans, Meyer sets up another masochistic dynamic: Wanderer the alien refuses to fight, and many of the humans are angry and want to kill her, believing that Melanie no longer exists. Wanderer/Melanie is imprisoned, beaten, and almost killed on numerous occasions — and all the while, Wanderer is becoming love-obsessed, physically beaten even as it comes to understand and care for human nature.
But the violence and danger resulting from Meyer’s rules actually masks feminist themes in The Host. This is science fiction that relies on the inner-workings of one woman — a strong, fierce female fighter kept at bay by a passive alien species in control of her body. The Host is focused on who controls the female body and what that means. The story explores how an outsider can't understand a female character's experience without living it. It's a theme, unfortunately, that clashes with the mainstream movie adaptation — not only because of the rareness of such a female-centric story, but also the practical challenges of filming dialogue that's happening within a character's mind.
In the film, the interactions between Melanie and Wanderer are boiled down to a few feverish voiceovers that feel unintentionally comedic. The heart of the book becomes an awkward element that reveals the divide between the pages and the screen. The film struggles to place the novel, a relatively passive think piece, into an explosive blockbuster framework, removing the subtle actions that hold the most interest in the novel. The beginning of the film gets a swift and flashy makeover designed to increase tension that never pays off. The movie ultimately (and perhaps reluctantly) stays true to Meyer's original anticlimactic ending, though it feels like a big-screen story that is, like Melanie/Wanderer, at odds with itself.
It's become a cultural habit to chastise Meyer's work, and the difficulties of translating The Host to the screen will surely fall on her shoulders — even though many of The Host's missteps are due to the disconnect between Meyer's inner examination of an alien threat and Hollywood's desire for high-stakes drama. The adaptation's gaffes, however, fail to negate the position Meyer has crafted for herself in cinema. Meyer recently received flack for calling herself a feminist. But Meyer is a woman who loves "working in a female world." She's been instrumental in proving the buying power of female fandom and making a female protagonist a viable, money-making option. She made Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke one of the most financially successful female directors in Hollywood; launched the big-screen career of Melissa Rosenberg, the Twilight Saga's screenwriter; and, recently, became producer for other female-centric productions, like the upcoming Austenland.
There is an interesting disconnect between the messages of Meyer's novels messages and her personal, female-centric passions. Meyer recently stated that "Writing for other people doesn't appeal… I really have to write the story I want to tell." At the time, she was referring to pressure about following the whims of fans, rather than her own creative impulses — but the sentiment applies just as well to her treatment of narratives. For Meyer, "the story I want to tell" trumps everything, including authorial responsibility — and for better or worse, these are the stories she's interested in telling.