The Break Down on Breaking Dawn Part 2: Best of Series

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say up front that this is not a movie review. I am not a film critic (a fact that I am sure is patently obvious to my friends who are film critics and scoff at my preference for Indiana Jones over Citizen Kane and The Princess Pride over Pulp Fiction). I am a literary critic, so what follows is actually a literary critic’s reaction to a film based on a book. In fact, before the film started, a well-meaning former student sitting in front of me asked me the trite “team affiliation ” question, to which I responded stiffly, ” I am Team Literary Unity,” prompting some head scratching from many of the people sitting around me.

In any case, this analysis breaks a number of rules one might see in a film review. Primarily, I will make no attempt whatsoever to keep secrets, so this is a post best suited for the readers who have no intention of seeing the film or for those who have also seen it and would like to join our thoughtful conversation about what works, what doesn’t, and why, on nearly every level, this is the best film of the five, despite some very troubling elements. So drag that rock over here, Emmett, because I am rolling up my sleeve and getting ready to rumble.

One of the things that has impressed me about the film adaptations of the Twilight films is how, as they have gone along, the movie folks have generally been sensitive to what the fans want (and I don’t mean more half-naked wolf boys). Rather, those of us who have enjoyed and analyzed the books are most pleased when the films stick to the books, though we are generally unruffled when changes are made that do not violate the spirit of the book or which, in some cases, streamline the plot and move it along better (Riley’s Eclipse backstory, for example, was fantastic and saved a heap of talky exposition that would not have worked on film).

At the same time, readers want to see, visually that which they have shaped in their own minds. From the beginning, the makers of Breaking Dawn part 2 seem sensitive to these dual desires, bringing us well-executed versions of anticipated scenes. Some of the best among these are the interactions with Renesmee and the newlyweds’ first night in their cottage, which is sweet, romantic, and tasteful. Also wonderful are Bella taking swipes at Jacob upon learning of his imprinting on Nessie, her arm-wrestling scene with Emmett, and Jacob’s transformation in front of a stunned Charlie.

It is a comedy, if a Shakespearean one

These scenes were all ones that brought smiles, or even full-out laughter, from the audience. As always, Billy Burke’s brilliant comic timing proves a bright spot (my favorite moment in the first film is his wonderful shotgun-loading-meet-the-boyfriend-warm-up) as he goes from worried to puzzled to weirded-out in short order, his horrified reaction to Jacob’s strip-down in hilarious contrast to the reaction of Taylor Lautner fans squealing in the audience. Burke’s humor and warmth have always been nice additions to the films, but he also does beautifully with more serious scenes, such as his reunion with Bella, when his reaction to the way she feels in his hug is subtle and impressive. Lautner also gets to be funny, something he has also demonstrated nicely before, with his understated sarcasm. I particularly love his description of some of the Cullen allies “standing around like frickin’ statues.” Refreshingly, Robert Pattison infuses Edward with a nice measure of humor, at last, well-suited to the installment when the pessimistic hero at last gets to look on the bright side. When Bella nearly crushes him in their first embrace after her re-birth or when she is letting Jacob have it for imprinting on Renesmee, his responses are hilarious and well-timed.

Extra Touches

In addition to the nice delivery of expected scenes, often word for word from the books (really, Stewart has been warming up for the phrase “moronic wolfy claim” and Lautner has wanted to say “Dracula 1 and 2” since the book was published), the movie folks also serve up some appropriate additions. When Bella gets the scent of the hiker on her first hunt, he is actually a climber on a rock face who scrapes himself, and she takes off after him, tearing up the rock face in her little blue dress and sparkly wedding ring before stopping herself. We also get more of the Charlie/Sue relationship, a great Jacob training new wolves segment, and a horrifying but mesmerizing scene showing the fate of the Denali clan’s “mother” and her immortal child. Most chilling: Jane roguishly finger-wagging and tsking the blood-smeared toddler who stands among a pile of dead villagers (Just before she cuddles the child and then flings him onto his creator’s pyre, shudder).

Since the film format frees us from the limits of the first-person narrator, it also allows us to follow characters other than Bella to see events we know about but don’t see in the book, such as the reconciliation of Jacob and Sam, Irina’s reporting to the Volturi, and that super scene when Charlie gets to see “a kid I’ve known all his life turn into a giant dog.” The best of these are the Cullen family recruiting tour, with Carlisle and Esme in Egypt to see Amun (and Benjamin showing off with his Aquaman impression) and Rosalie and Emmett gathering Garret from New Orleans. Garret is one of the best surprises of the film. Actor Lee Pace is perfect, and there are some great little jokes about Garret’s military history (he brags of just missing Custer by inches at the Battle of the Little Big Horn), but the most fun for me was the fact that Garret is in New Orleans, griping over a musician’s choice of British music, shortly before having the guy for dinner. From the first time I ran across the character in the book, I saw Garret as Meyer’s clever homage to Gambit of the X-Men: red-eyes, ponytail, girlfriend who has crazy tactile powers. Of course, as our headmaster explains in detail in Spotlight: A Close-Up Look at the Artistry and Meaning of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, the Cullen alliance are mirrors of Professor Xavier’s X-Men (and the Volturi are Magneto’s Brotherhood); several of them even have similar powers. Of course, Meyer’s vampires have always been more like angst-ridden superheroes of the Wolverine mold than like the vampires of popular culture. Gambit, though, is Cajun, with a glorious accent, so putting Garret in NOLA just tipped the hat nicely!

All of the Cullens’ witnesses are well portrayed, though Alistair looks too much like Garret, probably making it hard to distinguish them for those who had not read the books. I liked the couple playing Charlotte and Peter, who even have some nice interactions with Jasper toward the end.

And now for something completely different

And about that end. So the movie folks have been teasing us about a surprise ending, but the surprise is effective primarily because it plays upon the low expectations many audience members have of film adaptations. This is, after all, the same bunch of jokers who have pulled stunts like changing the ending of The Scarlet Letter. So, here’s the breakdown on the cleverest movie fake-out I’ve ever seen in any film not directed by M. Night Shyalmalan.

The previews had already gotten us worried, of course, showing an epic fight scene that is clearly not part of the novel. The beauty of the book’s confrontation between the Cullens and the Volturi is that it is a mind-game, reminiscent of the Merchant of Venice, which Alice uses to convey clues to Bella. There is no violence; rather, as in Merchant, the “head power” of the female protagonist–Portia/Bella– saves the day, and no real harm is done (well, Irina dies, but that fits, too). The filmmakers, though, know we expected them to do some bone-headed revision that would allow them to have a violent climax, and they play us like a Stradivarius. When Aro touches the just-returned Alice’s hand to find out about her information, she shows him exactly what will happen if the conflict erupts into violence. It will be brutal, with crushing losses for both sides.

The trick: the sequence is edited so that the audience has no hint this is only in Alice’s vision and Aro’s head. Thus, the full-on massacre that ensues is edited seamlessly into the film, bringing with it death and destruction, wiping out half the Cullens and most of the Volturi. I’m sure a budding filmmaker could have created some great footage just from the facial reactions of myself and the other “text Nazis” in the audience. My delightful viewing companions were treated to my calling the filmmakers a variety of unflattering names and cursing Hollywood to the depths of Hades. Only after the sequence started to get really ridiculous and began to smack of a studio killing its golden-egg laying geese did I realize what was happening.

One terrifying little monster

The entire theater breathed a huge sigh relief when, just after Bella and Edward tag-team rip his head off in Alice’s vision, Aro takes a step back and makes a tactical retreat with his entirely intact guard and brethren and the whole thing is revealed to have been merely the projection of what would have happened if it came to a fight. I loved the cleverness of using the vision to show Aro ( the maniacally fabulous Michael Sheen chomps scenery with glorious aplomb) the results of his plan and keeping the element of the conflict being primarily mental, but I was deeply bothered by the vision itself, even when I knew it wasn’t “real.” (Well, really the whole thing is fiction, right?) To a degree, this was because it was more graphic than my comfort level, and I don’t care if it is just a “might have been,” I’ve been stuck with the image of Carlisle getting decapitated, ugh (and I’ve never even been wildly enthusiastic about Peter Facinelli’s casting; though he is a classy gent who respects fans and really does a fine job, he just never has looked like the Carlisle in my head). It’s just icky. Though I’ll watch it again when the DVD comes out, I’ll probably fast forward through the “battle”; I was less bothered by the birth scene in part one, so that says a lot.

The other reason that I found the Illusion so distressing was because it turns on the film makers’ “have our cake and eat it too” approach. Of course, they were teasing us a little because we expected them to mess things up here at the end, but they also pull this stunt so that they can at once stay true to the text of the novel and get their big-blockbuster, butt-kicking, violence-laden finale that seems to be the staple of any film with any level of action. What really bothered me was that so many in the audience didn’t find the sequence disturbing. While my friends and I were fussing, others (including many non-readers, apparently) were cheering when Alice dispatches Jane or during other big set-pieces. I am always disturbed by the kind of film making that makes the audience vicariously enjoy violence, so that bugged me quite a bit.

I am willing to forgive the movie folks though, both for tricking me and for being too over-the-top gross, just because the last five minutes of the movie are so wonderful. After the danger has passed and the allies are leaving, Alice has a sweet vision of a future Nessie and Jacob with Bella and Edward, negating Edward’s just-delivered snarky response to Jacob’s wondering if he can start calling him “Dad.” Though this seems to be the CGI Nessie created from images of young MacKenzie Foy and Kristen Stewart, the scene is a nice gift to fans, almost like an apology from folks who just gave us heart failure with their goofy stunt. Even more redemptive is the much-anticipated “shield-lift” in which Bella shows Edward her mind for the first time. The beautiful sequence, with gorgeous music and scenes from all the films, had us all cheering, especially when it was concluded with an image of the book’s pages flipping to that wonderful last page, the page Meyer says is her favorite of the whole Saga, with highlighting on the last word, “forever.”

The page-flipping motif that continues through the end credits is also fantastic. They are even better than the wonderful opening credits that use images of roses and snow to beautifully reflect the story symbols, while the actors’ red names “drain” to white. The end credits are so super not just because they use actual pages from the book that describe the characters, but because this is a complete credit list that goes all the way back to the first film, so everyone, even Bree and Riley, gets one more moment in this reminder that the series is a package, a complete alchemical drama in four acts (or six, if you count the books of Breaking Dawn individually). It’s a wonderful bow on a package that, for the most part, delivers a satisfying concluding adaptation.

Though I remain troubled by the vision sequence, overall, this is the best of the series. Or, more appropriately, this and part 1 together rank that title. The music in both has been wonderful, and I particularly love the reappearance of the motif that was used in the climatic scenes of Eclipse. The visuals are also better this time around, with the wolves being quite believable (and less weird than in part 1) and Bella’s vamp-vision effects are fascinating. The visual alchemical glory of the Volturi and Cullens in the snow works beautifully on the big screen, too. It has been fascinating watching the series come to the screen, even when I have not always agreed with filmmakers’ choices, and I look forward to parsing through further when the DVD emerges. I also look forward to hearing your comments and thoughts on the film and how it connects to the text, because of course, it always is about the books.


  1. Thank you so much for this review, Elizabeth!

    I also thought the humour was stronger than in previous movies, and I loved it. Billy Burke is my favourite Twilight actor as well, and I have also described the gun-cleaning meet-the-new-boyfriend scene as my favourite from the first movie. His wedding reception speech from the first Breaking Dawn movie had me in stitches. The scene I was looking forward to most from this movie was the Jacob-reveals-to-Charlie scene. They did it brilliantly, and I was so glad they didn’t limit themselves to Bella’s first person perspective so we missed it.

    It seemed that in this movie the actors are all finally comfortable in their roles – or is it just that I am finally comfortable with the way they play the characters I have imagined from the page so many times? Bella’s understated “Emmett, no” when he asks her if she and Edward broke anything the morning after their first night in the cottage shows that Kirsten Stewart can use her voice rather than her face to convey emotions occasionally, and I appreciate it. And yes, it was nice to finally see Edward smiling and even laughing.

    One noticeable absence were the La Push residents. Other than Sam’s hand-shake with Jacob, none of the Quileutes were shown in anything other than wolf form, with the sole exception of Sue, who appeared in several scenes. While Seth and Leah were nominally in the Christmas-at-the-Swan-Residence scene, we only saw them from the back and I strongly suspect they were stand in actors, rather than BooBoo and the actor who portrays Leah. I missed Billy Black, and Quil and Embry. I think this emphasised how Charlie has finally met his match in Sue, but it means we miss the relevance of how this is a development from his “worship by the river” to his complete inclusion and acceptance, through Jacob’s revelation of his wolf nature, into Jacob’s pack of Cullen allies, as a sub-section of the Quileute community (with all that entails in the Mormon doctrine about Native Americans).

    I did appreciate that this movie finally allowed us to see being a vampire in first person perspective for the first time (as the director promised in a promotional video). But we also got to see inside Aro and Alice’s heads for the “fake-out” fight scene. Previously the closest the movies have got to second person has been Jacob’s perspectives, and those were in the book.

    I think part of the reason that the fake-out works so well for audiences is that it is really just amplifying and explaining two sentences from the book, where it was revealed in Edward’s explanatory flashback: “Aro knew… I’m sure our numbers would have been pretty severely decimated, but they were sure that theirs would be, too. There was even a good possibility that they would lose.” (BD745) However, the amplification is set in real time rather than as a later explanation. It is mostly true to the events of the text, events that Meyer had to have Edward explain in a later scene because Bella, without Edward’s mind-reading ability, can’t comprehend them at the time the events occurred (the limitation of first person perspective). It is a perfect example of what you described above: “changes are made that do not violate the spirit of the book or which, in some cases, streamline the plot and move it along better”.

    (Another example is the J. Jenks subplot, which is significantly streamlined. Again, I can understand why they chose to do this, but I think it weakens the build-up of tension, because with only one Jenks scene it seems that Bella was never really worried that she and Edward would not survive the Volturi visit, until she met Jenks. Some of the complexities of the original are lost in the streamlining, and much of the rising tension as well. Mind you, the friend I attended the movie with liked this because, as she said, “How much more of Kirsten looking pensive could we take?”)

    My first problem with the fake-out is the same objection that I have to Alice in Wonderland – I hate the “then I woke up and found it was all a dream” plot device. JRR Tolkien objected to its use as well, so I’m in good literary company. In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien wrote, “if a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.” Mind you, Meyer’s readers (myself among them) don’t seem perturbed by the revelation that Twilight was conceived from a dream… most of us seem able to allow ourselves to fall into the imagined wonder of the Twilight storiverse.

    My second objection is that if Aro saw all this from Alice’s vision through her thoughts, why did he not also see her actual thoughts, which would have revealed the existence of Nahuel? There is a discontinuity problem here. In the book, Aro never touches Alice’s hand, so never has a chance to see that Nahuel’s existence will shut down his last excuse for a fight. Incidentally, in the book it is Aro who says “These half-vampire children are much like us, it seems” (BD738) while in the movie it is Marcus who makes this observation, allowing Aro to respond to this idea rather than produce it as his excuse to avoid the fight.

    My major objection, however, is that this vision makes Alice the saviour of the scene, whereas in the book – from Edward’s later explanation – the reader understands that it is Bella who saves the day, finally! In the book, no longer is Bella the one who must be protected, but the one who does the protecting. But in the movie, it is Alice whose sight-fight forces Aro to choose to back down. Bella’s protection abilities in the vision-fight are significantly limited; she seems only able to protect one person at a time. Aro stops Alex from deploying his mind-numbing mist, and so the extent of Bella’s mind-shield is never made explicit, although it is implied when we see Jane try to inflict pain on several Cullens. The movie does not show the life-sparks of each person that Bella sees when she has them under her shield, (which I was looking forward to,) which would have been another way of demonstrating the extent of Bella’s power. In this, I think the script writer or director have missed, or at least circumscribed, a major resolution which has been looked for since the very first moment we read/heard Bella say, “Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved. Noble, even.” (T1) Bella has been denied her moment of nobility!

  2. I forgot to mention my favourite ironic moment: the night before the confrontation, Edward tells Carlisle, “I never thanked you for this extraordinary life you have given me.” … And then, because of the grammatical construction of this sentence and the ending of the scene, he never does! Bella had her moment to thank her creator, in Breaking Dawn Part 1, when she walks down the aisle and smiles at Stephenie Meyer in the guest seating. Edward, however, manages to intimate that he is now (thanks to his wife and daughter who are chatting in a nearby tent) content with his life as a vegetarian vampire; but somehow he also manages to avoid actually thanking Carlisle for choosing him. Maybe Edward hasn’t changed quite as much as we thought he had.

  3. I finally saw the film, and liked it, also. Lots and lots of mormon-y thematic stuff tied up in a bow in this one, John; you should see it. It’s certainly the best made film in the series.

    There has been so much talk about the twists at the end, and how surprising they were. Elizabeth, you seem to have assumed that *of course* they’d screw things up, and basically enjoyed it as it happened.

    I *did* think they screwed up the first film of Breaking Dawn, largely in terms of tone and just general weirdness. It’s my least favorite film; I basically found it un-watchable (from the drunken wedding speeches on) and saw it twice, I think. Ugh, really did not like it. I think the filmmakers fundamentally disagreed with the thematic structure and analogies of the books, and fought them entirely (as though they could just snip out the point of these moments/characters/etc) which left lots and lots (and lots) of awkwardness throughout.

    But I remember hearing of a fight scene at the end of BD2 while they were still filming it, was quite surprised, and then thought: “Hmm, well, they could do it as a vision from Alice and then go back to the story. But that would be a lame, fake-out the audience thing. Weak.” I had decided they’d have a minor skirmish, perhaps, and then return to the book, as in New Moon’s ending confrontation with the Volturi, which was handled pretty well.

    But, it was the fake-out thing after all. So that was a let-down for me. It went on longer than I thought it would, and there were a number of surprises thrown in, but still. There just aren’t many other ways to shoehorn a battle scene into that sequence, which was well done. I especially liked Marcus’ big moment.

    But, wow, a lot of people were really, truly, and enjoyably faked-out, apparently, and it sounds as though this ending, Rosebud, and Luke Skywalker’s father will share the same folder in many people’s mental filing cabinets.

    BTW, apparently, the swinging-kick that Bella does was something suggested in a (comic) training sequence that was eventually cut but will be included in the DVD, hence the meaningful glance beforehand. And there is the revolutionary speech from Garrett that will be included there as well.

    And that will be it for Twilight…

    Until the utterly, completely, and entirely inevitable sequels come out.

    So, so, so many unanswered questions left hanging in the series. And dollars on the table, of course.

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