What makes a sequel a sequel? Well, the smart-ass response is that it’s a story that comes after another one; you know, in sequence. But, that obviously isn’t a sufficient definition. Every story involves a sequence of events, so some of the events come after other ones. Chapters come after chapters, “books” (as in the Lord of the Rings) come after “books”, but they aren’t sequels in the sense that “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” or Karate Kid 2 are sequels.
Here’s a cynical definition of a sequel: “the attempt to continue telling a story that has already been told” or “a story attempting to live off the quality of another story”. Here’s an attempt at a less cynical definition: “A story which follows characters and events past the conclusion of a previous story, when this was not originally intended.”
I gave my cynical definition of sequels first because I am cynical about sequels. It isn’t impossible to make a good sequel, but it isn’t frequently done. I suspect the reason for this has to do with the motivation behind making such a thing, most of the time.
If someone goes to the trouble of writing a story because he sees something valuable in telling it, then (even though he might be wrong) he is at least looking up. He is aspiring to depict or convey something he sees as worth depicting or conveying. So if he’s right, and he has some skill at execution, we get something worth seeing.
But, harkening back to the first article on this blog, a commercial mentality drives the production of most of these works of art. So, while the “first” of a series is more likely to be driven by ideas, the subsequent installments are likely attempts to continue making a monetary profit from the original. As if the movie studio was a mining company; when they strike gold, they keep drilling away in the same place until the vein dries up (actually they stop one attempt after it dries up, at the earliest, because they don’t know it’s dry before they try and fail for the first time).
Scrooge McDuck has a problem here, though. He isn’t boring into a mountain with drills to get money; he’s boring us with derivative drivel to get money. So, he has to use the art of story-telling to at least some extent in order to do it, and because the studio is capitalizing on a previous work to draw wallets (or their viewer-appendages) into the theatre, the new story has to remind people of the old one.
But, stories begin with some kind of problem or obstacle, and end when it is overcome. So, at the end of the first movie, we have a problem that is resolved and a character who’s better for it, and, since that struggle constitutes the story, it is what people liked about the first one (and hence what will draw them to the second). How can they make this work? By negating at least some of the progress made in the previous story, effectively returning the character to square one in that regard (as in Karate Kid 2) or inventing some new, but similar, problem for the character to combat in pretty much the same way as before, making it appear that the cosmic forces of the universe have singled them out for a never ending sequence of absurd difficulties (as in Die Hard 2, etc.) And these two methods are interrelated, because rest is a reward for a hero’s triumph which is negated by the sequel mill.
But none of this is inevitable. It is possible that a character or situation can really bear more treatment, and so a new story that follows that through can be very worthy, even if it’s very different from the original (such as Alien and Aliens, but not any Alien movie since). The question that writers and directors and studios executives need to ask is: am I making this because there’s something to make, and is that something more than money?
© 2013 John Hiner III