The Vampire in Literature and Cinema
What an explosion it has been!
In the past, film makers drew their ideas from literature. And of course they still do. However, it appears that, in the 21st Century, cinema and television have also been a trigger for the proliferation of novels in which teeth, blood and tender white necks have become a kind of inverse euphemism for what the kids are thinking – and probably doing – but whose uncensored expression in print is forbidden by either literary convention or by law.
But when exactly did the explosion begin, and why vampires and werewolves?
Human beings, adults and children alike, have always been fascinated by the supernatural and the occult. They have always been fond of giving human form to hopes, fears, desires and abstract ideas, as did the ancient Greeks when they spoke of the Furies, the Muses or the Fates. People love to invent legends, myths, gods and devils to explain the inexplicable. Moreover, terror has always been a weapon in the armoury of priests of all religions to dominate and subdue the less educated masses. And what can be more inexplicable and terrifying than teenage emotion?
But although children have always read stories about the supernatural and about growing up, reading such stories and enjoying them does not explain the Twilight phenomenon. The pen is mightier than the sword, wrote Lord Lytton in 1839. But Lytton might have added, had he lived in this century: the big screen is mightier still.
Ever since the high-kicking Buffy came into our living rooms in 1998, kids have known that there are good as well as bad vampires. And even if they have not read the Harry Potter novels of JK Rowling, they now know there are good as well as bad wizards and witches. My guess is that, despite film censorship, movie makers have a greater freedom in the matter of content than do writers, and the impact of their work on the public is both more immediate and more dramatic.
It often comes as a surprise to young TV and cinema fans that the first four of LJ Smith’s Vampire Diaries chronicles were in print nearly fifteen years before Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight was published. But it is surely no coincidence – why should it be? – that following the success of the Twilight film series and of the TV adaptation of Vampire Diaries that the publishers of Ms Smith’s first vampire books have reissued them, and that Ms Smith herself has returned to Fell’s Church to take up where she left off two decades ago. (It is rather a shame that she has now sub-contracted the writing task to others.) Such is the power of the screen!
And it is the screen that has been used to promote yet another series in the same theme, with the title True Blood. It is based on a series of stories by another American writer of teen fiction, Charlaine Harris. Ms Harris is a most prolific author, having turned out no fewer than 12 of her Sookie Stackhouse books since 2001. She has been writing ghost and detective stories for the past twenty-five years but there seems little doubt that television and the popularity of the spooky vampire genre has brought her the greatest success.
In similar vein are the stories of the mother and daughter team Phyllis and Kristin Cast, as yet not – as far as I know – adapted for television or cinema. But who knows; perhaps 2013 will bring House of Night too into our living rooms.
But, however relentless the power of image, there is still power in words too, one that is missing in the superficial representation of characters on film. And we find that power in books, fantasy or otherwise. It is tragic that schools or governments should ban Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone because it encourages witchcraft and magic, yet in the same year as Buffy the Vampire Slayer first hit our TV screens a few did just that!
There is surely more about growing up, and about good and evil in JK Rowling’s or Stephenie Meyer’s stories than in a dozen lectures on the subject. And when young people tire of vampires, wizards and the like, there will be another kind of imaginative literature to take up the baton.
Through fiction, we all learn in a kindly way about life and death, right and wrong, love and hate, good and evil without the moral preaching of priests. Teenagers know there are really no such things as vampires, werewolves, wizards or dark lords. These creations are merely the embodiment of dangers and temptations lurking in the real world. The various elements of the modern teen vampire romance can be seen as God and Devil substitutes. They are bound up in the age-old human search for a meaning of life that transcends our material existence for a hidden realm in which we do not age and where, ultimately, good will triumph over evil.
I believe most writers of stories for young people know that.