We’ve passed the point where adapting young adult novels has become a simple trend in cinema, so pointing out the increase in proliferation of YA movie adaptations since 2008 is something of a pointless exercise. Of course YA has won its own cinematic categorization and earned the boon of increased cultural prominence; the success of Twilight alone justifies its ascendance, which started as a slow burn before recently erupting with a massive slate of releases for 2013 (notably: Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments, The Host, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Percy Jackson & the Sea of Monsters) and beyond (Vampire Academy, The Night Circus, Matched, and of course further installments in The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson series).
And while YA films existed before Edward met Bella, the uptick in YA’s stock can be traced right back to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga. After eight years’ worth of novels and films, the Twilight series may be best described as the firestarter of a cultural phenomenon rather than a mere literary or cinematic franchise. For better or for worse, Meyer’s efforts have shone a spotlight on YA fare both on the page and on the big screen; it’s impossible to deny that her tale of shameful teenage urges and vampirism has garnered massive attention for an entire sub-section of narrative fiction and exerted an even greater influence upon the architecture of its future. Whether they’re about vampires or werewolves, dystopian societies or godly pantheons, every YA tale that we digest for years to come will inevitably be compared, on some level, to Twilight.
None moreso, perhaps, than Warm Bodies, and for obvious, surface-level reasons; it’s the tried and true story of “monster meets girl, monster falls in love with girl”. But that’s also part of what makes Warm Bodies a smart, effective film– it cloaks itself in the trappings of Twilight to subvert them. It’s not the first YA movie to boast characteristics found in Meyer’s book, of course, as even a series of The Hunger Games‘ caliber contains Twilight-esque tropes (e.g., the love triangle that unfolds between Katniss and two male love interests made of substantially different emotional stuff), but Warm Bodies doesn’t just appropriate those beats and execute them with the wit and forethought Meyer lacks as an author. Warm Bodies, in its fashion, actually plays like broad satire of its progenitor, an act of criticism as much as it is a genuine romantic zombie comedy.
Let’s begin at the ground level. Of all the YA yarns inspired by (or spawned from) Twilight‘s monstrous success, Warm Bodies may resemble it more closely than any of its siblings. Consider the most superficial details first: they’re both about impossible romances formed between living, human girls and supernatural beings, they both place the former squarely in the realm of the latter, they both draw very heavily on other stories for inspiration*, and they both portray their central humanoid monsters as terribly misunderstood. In other words, R is to Edward as Julie is to Bella.
All of this could have just added up to cute nods and references to Meyer’s efforts in Twilight, but the trick to Warm Bodies is that it’s essentially the inverse of that story. Bella has no immediate fear of Edward, but Julie has the good sense to be terrified of R (at least at first) and recognizes the peril that she faces by staying in R’s makeshift home. And whereas Bella initiates hers and Edward’s courtship, it’s R who falls in love with Julie with a single glance. (Though admittedly his infatuation stems entirely from his consumption of her boyfriend’s brains.) Maybe most significantly, Bella actively changes for Edward over the course of the Twilight novels, whereas it’s R, not Julie, who undergoes character-altering transformations in Warm Bodies.
So what does all of this mean? Perhaps there’s no message inherent in the way Warm Bodies flips around and rearranges the particulars of Twilight, per se, but by doing precisely that Jonathan Levine and Isaac Marion, author of the source material, end up highlighting the shortcomings of Meyer’s novel. Here, the protagonist’s journey is a respectable one which we can understand and empathize with; R’s not interested in becoming more than human, like Bella. He just wants to be human, full-stop. There’s more than an impression of danger, real danger, to Julie’s bond with R, as opposed to the immaterial, indirect danger Bella puts herself in by pursuing Edward**, not to mention a healthy sense of self-awareness and humor which undercuts the soap opera qualities of the text. Put more directly, Warm Bodies is the anti-Twilight.
I don’t, by the way, believe that Levine shouldered this project for the express purpose of undermining the screen rendition of Meyer’s teen-goth vision, but there’s no way around the fact that Warm Bodies keeps its tongue very, very firmly in its cheek regarding their similarities. By having the Edward and Bella figures swap places here, Warm Bodies very plainly makes the case that the “monster” archetype isn’t anything that we should aspire to be; it’s better to be human, or at least to be alive, than it is to be a vampire or a zombie. Of course, these are two very different sorts of creatures, and nobody will have any difficulty sussing out why R wants to be with Julie and regain his humanity whereas Bella wants to give hers up and become a vampire to be with Edward. That, however, is exactly the point: Warm Bodies gives its hero an understandable objective, while Twilight bends to the whims of wish fulfillment.
It’s not that Bella’s quest doesn’t make sense. In Meyer’s world, being a vampire is a pretty sweet deal–they’re basically immortal and supremely attractive superheroes, and in Bella’s circumstance she doesn’t have to sacrifice anything to see her dream become reality. But it’s a superficial dream, and while she and R share a similar goal– they both want to be better than what they are– R, at least, needs to change. He’s a flesh-eating ghoul, after all; he could stand a bit of self-improvement. Bella’s biggest flaw is her lack of confidence, and there’s something unpalatable about developing that trait by taking a shortcut and becoming a creature of the night. It’s a fraudulent path to personal catharsis, and a wholly unnecessary one given that she possesses plenty of positive traits on her own without having to do the fanged tango***.
Meanwhile, R’s journey is literally all about him becoming a man. He has his own crutch to aid him in his mission– a pocket full of David Franco’s brains– but it’s a different device than a vampire’s bite. R himself takes a piece of Franco’s mind (and another, and another) over the course of Warm Bodies‘ running time. He’s not pleading with anyone to make the change for him; he has agency over that change, much like a person with a physical ailment or mental disorder who maintains a drug regiment to keep their illness in check. He’s diligently taking his meds as part of his own miracle metamorphosis, but he has to do a lot of the legwork himself– and he does, because he wants to live again, and he wants to be with Julie, and he’s willing to do whatever he must in order to achieve those aims. Ultimately, R’s is a more admirable task.
It’s also less singularly selfish. To argue that R isn’t at least partially driven by self-interest would be foolish– his pursuit of Julie is quite motivated by and for his own wants and needs. But the changes R experiences end up having a ripple effect on his undead brethren; as he becomes more alive, so too do they, and eventually R’s cause gains a universal bent. Twilight‘s principal characters, and their over-arching goals, remain defined by self-interest throughout the series’ run. Bella’s and Edward’s union ends up creating situations that threaten others– Bella’s father, for example– but regardless of the potential calamities they invite on their loved ones, they still pursue their relationship. That’s the point, of course, but even a story about love conquering all can have a narcissistic core.
In the end it doesn’t matter whether Levine meant for Warm Bodies to serve as a commentary on the Twilight series; if we give the two films even a cursory glance, these elements simply announce themselves. Whether the unintentional act of criticism running through Warm Bodies will itself have any impact on YA storytelling going forward is another matter entirely, but even if we’ve left this romantic comedy zombie behind in our memories a year from now, it’s still a clever bit of genre commentary wrapped in a cute, breezy package.
*Ranging from Anne Rice novels to White Wolf games to Return of the Living Dead to Romeo & Juliet and more.
**To say nothing of the fact that an unreasonable portion of the trouble she finds herself in stems directly from her own clumsiness.
***I’ll state here that while I do think Bella’s an ill-conceived character, she has plenty going for her that she doesn’t bother to take into account. Being “average”, according to her, is about as bad as it gets. So in a way I feel sorry for her, but that’s maybe another essay for another time.