I watched an episode of the CW’s The Vampire Diaries last night. The show, which is a loose adaptation of a novel series of the same name, takes place in the town of Mystic Falls, Virginia. It centers upon the vampire brothers Damon and Stefan, and Stefan’s love interest Elena. This will undoubtedly become a love triangle at some point in the future not only because that’s the way things go in teen dramas, but because Elena happens to look exactly like Katherine, a vampire that Stefan and Damon both loved while they were still human. It was Katherine who turned them both into vampires and they’ve been at odds with each other ever since.
I’m sure that the folks who make The Vampire Diaries have to contend with people thinking that they are just following the Twilight craze. And I have no doubt that the project got going because of the success of Twilight. But vampires are not exactly a new trend. The Vampire Diaries series was first published in 1991. In fact, there are several vampire romance series, teenage and otherwise, that pre-date Twilight by decades. So while Twilight may be the first one to make the leap from book to big screen to phenomenon, I’m hesitant to claim that all other adaptations are following Twilight or that the “current” interest in vampires is even all that current. In fact, the vampire “fad” in literature pre-dates Twilight by centuries. But that’s a topic for another blog.
I think what could be considered as a “new” interest is the depiction of vampires as pretty teenage boys. I should start by saying that I have read all the Twilight books, seen all the movies, and I watch The Vampire Diaries and True Blood on TV. I think they’re all delicious poppy fun. So what I’m about to say is not meant to be a slight. But here’s the thing: the vampires in Twilight and The Vampire Diaries aren’t really vampires. It seems that the sort of lowest common dominator for these teenage vampires is immortality, beauty, and a decidedly Byronic personality. Drinking blood, or a compulsion to drink blood, doesn’t really seem to be an issue with these guys. The vampires in Twilight, of course, are “vegetarians.” And in The Vampire Diaries, they can eat human food just fine, provided they also have blood, but this blood can come from animals or blood bags, etc. No need to stalk people for that. Which is convenient when you want to take your girl out on a date. These guys aren’t particularly evil, they’re certainly not demonic, they aren’t particularly dangerous (unless the circumstances are right, which could be said of any one, inhuman or not), and they seem to blend into human society just fine. In fact, Stefan and Damon even have special rings that allow them to walk around in the daylight. Another handy thing if you want to pretend that you are still in High School. And we all know about the sparkling Cullen family.
Stefan pretty much always looks like this.
There are two things that sort of bug me about these teenage vampires. The first is that they brood all the time. Stefan’s brow is permanently furrowed, I think. Edward is the whiniest character I’ve ever seen. Why is that attractive? Or interesting? Or vampiric? They may be amazing “sensitive” guys with the souls of poets, but is that what a vampire is? I’m not so sure. In fact, the whining and the brooding is making me so weary, that I find myself more drawn to the other vampire characters in both stories. Which leads me to my second complaint: the stories want to have their cake and eat it too.
While Stefan and Edward are more sensitive boy than vampire, there are other vampire characters in each world that do seem to be the kind of vampire we know and love. For example, the vampires that continue to drink human blood or the fabulous Voltori in Twilight (someone please promise me that Dakota Fanning will have more screen time in the next movie!!). Or Damon in The Vampire Diaries I’ve gotta say, in the first few episodes, Damon’s character seemed entirely pretentious and just as stock as Stefan’s. But somehow, perhaps because I’m tired of Stefan, Damon has become a more and more interesting character. He presents himself as a “bad vampire,” one that does what he wants, goes where he wants, drinks what he wants. We see him commit several shocking murders over the course of the series—some for personal gain, some for revenge, but some for no reason at all. Stefan is always warning Elena that vampires are predators, and while that doesn’t ring true at all in his case, it does for Damon.
The fact that these worlds have both good vampires like Stefan and Edward, and bad vampires, like all other vampires that stroll through, bothers me. It feels inconsistent. In fact, I think that the main purpose the bad vampires serve is to stand in for the potential danger that the good vampire could become—it’s a cheap bid to make Stefan and Edward maintain some edge of danger or violence without sacrificing the fact that they are, essentially, the perfect high school boyfriend. We see Damon kill someone because he’s having a bad day and we’re meant to think, “See that? Whoa….. Stefan could turn into that at any second.” Well, actually, no. He could not. And truth be told, I think the fact that your Edwards and your Stefans are perfect boyfriends has more to do with the current success of the teenage vampire romance than anything to do with vampires themselves. But there’s more to being a vampire than having a pretty face. I look at Edward and Stefan and I think Dylan from the original Beverly Hills 90210.
Damon pretty much always looks like this. When he’s not killing someone, that is. No, he looks like that then too.
Here’s the thing, though—Damon is not just a “bad vampire.” He is fiercely loyal to his brother (although he hides it by saying “no one kills my brother but me”) and Elena. Damon shows moments of remorse and pain, he is vulnerable at moments when he is alone with his thoughts. And then in the next moment, he rips out the throats of a group of unsuspecting druggies camped out in a cemetery and he turns the hot waitress from the bar into a vampire on a whim. For me, that contrast in his character is way more interesting, provided, of course, it’s not done for mere effect. There is so much more to develop in Damon. What is there to develop in Stefan? That he once was bad? Eh, who cares? He’d probably just whine about it. That he’s actually the bad one now? Maybe, but I doubt the producers would allow something like that to happen. Once we learn Stefan’s mysterious secret, that he is a vampire, it feels like there is nothing left to know about him.
Damon, of course, still has his own limitations as far as vampires go. He’s certainly not James or the Voltori from Twilight, but he’ll do for a CW teen drama. In many ways, Damon is the more authentic Byronic hero because he has not been reduced to a watered down caricature of the brooding bad boy suffering alone on his mountain top. Damon has done and continues to do genuinely bad things and he covers that over with his arrogant exterior. He covers the suffering he feels from being isolated while his brother enjoys companionship with his arrogance too. The question remains, however, could a character like Damon lead a teen drama? I’m not entirely sure. Because of marketing and sponsors and the fickle hearts of High School girls, writers and producers of these dramas are limited in ways that make me think that a character like Stefan or Edward has to be the main love interest, essentially good but still dangerous on behalf of his beloved. Characters like Damon and James can be seductive and bad and dangerous, but they are either secondary to the love interest or get killed in book one.