Sequels are seldom as good as the original

Hold it right there — no sequel will be as good as this.

Especially not the sequels of one certain genre — messianic fiction. You know, the type of story where you’re all in suspense as to whether the protagonist is The One, and eventually everyone learns that yes, he is. All of which happens in the first book, or movie, or whatever.

After that, you have sequels in which the author or director tries really, really hard to reproduce the magic of the original, usually by being super repetitive in terms of plot.

Some of you will disagree strongly with this Top Five list — I’ve found that in the past when I’ve pointed this out. But I think a lot of that is that the author or director just did an exceptional job of recreating the magic of the first, and you loved the first so much you loved the others, too. But for me, after the reveal has occurred, I’m ready for a different story — or at least, a story about a completely different messiah.

Here’s my list of examples. Oh, and for those who haven’t read or seen these, HUGE SPOILER ALERT!

  1. Dune — I loved the first novel. But it turned into the worst generator of sequels I’ve ever encountered. Nevertheless, they kept coming out, even after the author was dead. Think about it: By the end of Dune, we learn that Paul is definitely the Kwisatz Haderach, all his main enemies are dead, and he even becomes emperor of the known universe. How do you top that? You don’t. Herbert certainly didn’t. The following stories try way too hard, and take liberties with characters that I found highly objectionable.
  2. Harry Potter — This one will engender some of the strongest objections. But I was totally satisfied by the first book: Harry is rescued from a cartoonishly horrible life by Hagrid, who informs him not only that he is a wizard, but “a thumpin’ good’un I’d say, once yeh’ve been trained up a bit.” So he wanders in awe about Diagon Alley, and goes to Hogwarts, and spends the full school year there. You learn all about the magical world, and how it differs from that of muggles. And then, when it’s all over, Harry comes back to Hogwarts, and spends another whole year doing many of the same things. And because my kids and so many others loved the stories so much, I read the first three books or so in a vain effort to keep up, but then I stopped. But, you will cry, the stories after that get so serious and dark! Well, that’s not an attraction to me. Life is serious and dark enough, and this was a children’s story.
  3. The Matrix — Let me confess, up front, that if I even tried to watch the sequels, I’ve since forgotten them. Frankly, I had no interest. “The Matrix” (the film, not the graphic novel) had bowled me over completely. I thought it was great. But then I was done. Neo was The One, and he could kick agent butt without breaking a sweat. What else did I need to see?
  4. Star Wars — I’m flying in the face of some people’s religion here, but no, “The Empire Strikes Back” was not better than the original movie. Nothing was better than the original movie. “Empire” was good — especially the parts on Hoth — and other works in that fictional universe have sometimes been very engaging, especially “The Mandelorian.” But the first film contained everything that I would most enjoy from the characters and their respective arcs. And the overall premises of the fictional universe were fine for one film, but got a bit thin beyond that. A story such as this is fun, but needs to remember not to take itself too seriously.
  5. The Godfather — Again, the second movie was most assuredly NOT better than the first. Yes, that’s that wonderful section that tells the story of how Vito became Don Corleone. But hey, that was in the novel that the first movie was based on — it just got left out. The first movie tells us how Michael, seemingly the least likely son, becomes the don’s successor, and seals the deal by overcoming all the family’s enemies. But he also becomes something terrifying, as the look on Kay’s face in the final shot drives home. I don’t need to see him manifesting his monstrosity in the second tale, as the family itself becomes consumed.

Not all sequels fall flat. Here are some that really worked:

  • Post Captain, and the other 18 books that follow Master and Commander. I refer here to the book, not the movie — which unfortunately based its plot vary roughly on the 10th book in the series, and pilfered good bits from various others. Each book tells a complete story, and the 20 taken altogether tell a saga of immense scale. Each deserves more than a film of its own. Each book should be a full season of a masterful television series — one that would last 20 years. Anyway, the “sequels” work because while the characters and the historical universe are the same, each story is fresh and different. And compelling.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Yep, it’s a sequel — to Tom Sawyer.  And it starts out in the tone of a sequel to that light celebration of youth in the 19th century, and a particularly amusing one at that. But Twain set it aside for several years, and then came back and turned it into the Great American Novel. If you’re the pedantic type, you might say that such an uneven book can’t be a great anything. But America is filled with different voices telling different stories, and its actual history is buffeted by mood swings and changes of tone. So it’s no surprise its greatest fictional work should be so “uneven.”

Note that none of those are of the “revelation of a hero’s destiny” type — what I referred to earlier as the “messiah” story.

I could mention more that worked and didn’t work, but I guess that’ll do for now…

A completely suitable ending to the story.

21 thoughts on “Sequels are seldom as good as the original

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Then there’s the story I didn’t quite know how to categorize. I loved The Once and Future King in its entirety, but the version I read was really the combination of four (and later five) novels.

    And the truth is, the first part — The Sword in the Stone, initially published in 1938 — is far better than the rest of the story, which really consists of sequels.

    And of course, it’s a messianic sort of story. In this case, The One would be the guy who pulled the sword from the stone, thus proving he is “likewise King of all England.” The Matter of Britain… But once he has his Table Round and his legend is secure, things start falling apart…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Bottom line, it’s that first story in T.H. White’s masterpiece that you want to go back and read again and again. Or at least I do…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Of course, you might say I’m a sap for the happy ending. I’d put it differently — I like a story about a world in which there are possibilities, and hope…

    As in, you know, “A New Hope“…

  3. Ken


    Harry Potter, pts 2 – 7, all of which, save for books one and seven, I read to my children were NOT sequels. They were chapters (sometimes very fat chapters) in an extended saga. Rowling said that she had written the conclusion to the series very early on, long before she wrote book seven, and worked toward that conclusion. So the books that followed the original were continuations of a much longer tale, not add-ons, like the “Percy Jackson” series of books, which could be read as stand-alones.

    The Potter series was never really aimed at children. They were considered YA (Young Adult) from the start. So the complaint that they got “too dark” is off base. Rowling did not seek to write a series in which children remain children. She was not writing fairy tales. She wanted the characters to gradually grow up and face increasingly more difficult challenges.

      1. Ken

        Why edit out my reference to your error? You ARE in error about the Potter books. They are not sequels. Why do you see facts as insults??

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I’m going to treat this as an honest question, based in a lack of understanding what I did.

          Nothing having anything to do with your opinions, which you regard here as facts, was removed. I only cut the sneering intro, which offered nothing whatsoever of substance.

          One of the problems I have on this blog is that some folks don’t have a good feel for tone. They may know things and express them well and even thoughtfully, and I’d put you in that category.

          But some don’t get that there are statements or phrases that poison the comment, by adding a tonal element that converting it from substantial observation to an ad hominem aside. I converted your comment from something that would make people familiar with your contributions say to themselves, “Well, there he goes again,” to something thoughtful that offered an interesting aspect for discussion — which is the point of my allowing comments on this blog.

          And just to give you complete satisfaction, here is what I cut out:

          Just to correct one of your errors:

          Starting the comment that way made the whole comment a bit snotty. Not a great deal, but a bit. The comment deserved better than that, which is why I preserved every bit of it that SAID anything of substance. The comment comes across very clearly, and far more persuasively, in its edited form — unless, of course, your intended message is, “Just to show what an idiot you are.”

          Aside from the kind of small, unnecessary asides such as that that I have now decided to bar from the blog — because I’m sick of the little background hum of animosity that still ruins the atmosphere here — there is a compositional argument to leave out the pointless intro. I’ve done the same with my own copy many times. I used to write columns at about twice the length I had available, and then have to spend half an hour or more cutting them down — which generally made them better. The very first thing I usually did was remove the first few grafs, and start the edited copy at the point where I started actually making my point.

          On a smaller scale, I did that here — although my greater motivation was indeed to improve the tone.

          Your only possible objection to that would be, “But that’s the tone I wanted it to have.” If that’s the case, if it was your intention to flavor your comment that way, then let me be clear that this is not a place for such comments.

          Now, as to the substance, all of which remained… You can call these sequels “chapters” in a larger work if you like to think of them that way. That’s a legitimate way of viewing it. Thoughtful people do the same with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, asserting that the full 20 novels go together in a way that make the series a single work that could be regarded as the most monumental novel in the genre of historical fiction.

          And I agree that that’s a great way of viewing it. But as you see, I also regarded the 19 books that follow Master and Commander as sequels for the purposes of this discussion. Because that is a perfectly legitimate way of regarding the series, and certainly not, as I might say if I were you, erroneous.

          You can get to a point where the “sequel” label is more problematic. That’s why I was a bit uncertain about The Once and Future King. Even though The Sword in the Stone was released in 1938, 20 years before the final part of the larger book, and even though it was obviously a satisfyingly complete novel, there was a problem: This was a rethinking of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, and everyone knew the overall story, so a complete version of it would obviously end with le morte (or whatever you think happened to Arthur), and not with the boy first becoming king. In anyone reading it between 1938 and 1958, I would expect a definite consciousness that there was more to come.

          So you have a particularly strong argument in the case of White’s book that the earlier books were parts of a whole, meaning that the latter parts were something other than sequels. After all, in 1958, they were published that way, and have been regarded that way ever since. And I, for one, didn’t read it until the 70s.

          Of course, after I did read it, things got even more confusing upon the publication of The Book of Merlyn in 1977. I don’t think it’s proper to say it is a coherent part of the whole — although if someone disagrees, that person isn’t necessarily in “error,” but has a different opinion. I hold my opinion — which I think is generally shared — because White had written it in 1941, but did not include it in the “full” publication of the tale in 1958. It was published only after his death…

          1. Ken

            Well, despite all that, Justice Warthen, my dissent remains unaffected: the Potter books/movies are no more a series of sequels than seasons two etc. of Breaking Bad are sequels to season one. They’re both serialized tellings of a single story. Jaws II or Halloween part X, those are sequels.

            As for a “sneering” or “snotty” tone, you continue to confuse tone and substance. Moreover, it seems you would like to force everyone to write using your prescribed model, at least if we do not want to be taken to task (or have our posts disallowed) for a supposed “uncivil” tone. That, it seems to me, is rather too prescriptive, not to say rhetorically authoritarian.

            A number of years ago, The State switched from allowing practically all comments on articles on its website to allowing only those where the poster used their Facebook page as identifier. The result was: about 90% fewer comments. And while it eliminated gratuitous meanness, it also eliminated some very substantive and thoughtful comments, leaving room for only the blandest of viewpoints. Frankly, I’d recommend opening up this blog to ALL posts, at least for a time – to show just what alleged “horrors” you are protecting the world from. There’s value in seeing the world as it is, both the good and the bad, rather than setting up the sort of safe space that’s just a simulacrum of reality.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Oh, I think I achieved much more than a 90 percent reduction in comments when I started moderating. I went from about 300 comments a day (more than the number of letters The State got in a week) to something very modest. Now, 20 in a day is an active day.

              Of course, not all of that is the moderation. A lot of it is that I used to post, quite often, 10 times a day. Now I seldom do that in a week.

              Anyway, you’ll be happy to know that I just found an actual “error” on the post. I wrote, “America is filled with different voices telling different stories, and its actual history is buffered by mood swings and changes of tone.” Obviously, I had meant “buffeted.”

              I’m sure there are others I’ve missed. The biggest lack of this blog is the lack of an editor. I appreciate editors, you see, and don’t feel tyrannized by them.

              Anyway, that was a error. My having a different opinion or interpretation from you is not an error. You having a different opinion or interpretation from me is not an error. Therefore, in response to your “my dissent remains unaffected,” I say, that is as it should be…

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    Speaking of messiah stories, why was “Cool Hand Luke” so great (even without a happy ending)?

    Well, for one thing, it had no sequels…

  5. Bill

    The Last Picture Show (1966)
    Texasville (1987)
    Duane’s Depressed (1999)
    When the Light Goes (2007)
    Rhino Ranch (2009)

  6. Bryan Caskey

    Back to the Future III is my favorite of that trilogy. Also, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is better than the original Terminator.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Two points:

      — All three films in the series were fun, and the third one was much more fun than the second one. Because cowboys. But the first was far better, and a complete and satisfying story without the sequels.

      — T2 is a higher-quality film, in terms of fascinating and impressive production values, than T1. I chalk this up to the fact that the first film cost $6.4 million, and $94–102 million was lavished on the second. And you can see every dollar of it. But the story was fully and satisfyingly told in the first. Did I think the second film was awesome? Yes. But I was satisfied with the first without the second…

      Which is to a great extent what I’m thinking about with my general, observation that sequels are “seldom” as good as the originals. And while “Terminator” did a great job with the second film, I still hold to that opinion. I have an unmentioned further motivation for asserting this, but I didn’t get into it in this post — I save it for a later one I’ve been meaning to write. That motivation is, I would really like to encourage Hollywood to give us more original stories, and fewer sequels, and — even worse — “reboots.” I think I’ve seen enough “reimaginings” of the origins of Batman and Spider-Man. Tell me a new story, please…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        The difference between T1 and T2 sort of reminds me of the difference between “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas.” Of course, the latter of those is in no way a “sequel” to the first, even though they’re both mob movies.

        But they illustrate what money, and pull in Hollywood, can do for a director. You take that director who made the masterpiece “Mean Streets” ($3 million) give him a couple of decades of building a staggering reputation, and a LOT more money ($47 million), and the same guy can make “Goodfellas.”

        We saw it again a few years later with “The Departed” ($291.5 million).

        Of course, the principle broke down completely with “The Irishman.” All that money spent on it, and I couldn’t even make myself finish watching it…

      2. Bryan Caskey

        “I would really like to encourage Hollywood to give us more original stories, and fewer sequels, and — even worse — “reboots.” I think I’ve seen enough “reimaginings” of the origins of Batman and Spider-Man. Tell me a new story, please…”

        Totally agree. Lots of great stories out there. Every time I see one of the dozen or so Fast and Furious movies, I think: They made how many of these sequels, but we can only get ONE Aubrey/Maturin movie?

        I finished the Sharpe’s Rifles series recently. It’s set in the same time same time period as Aubrey/Maturin (the Napoleonic Wars) and it’s similar in lots of ways. It was made into a series in the early nineties with Sean Bean as Sharpe.

        What are the best movies about the Napoleonic War era? None come to mind, and there are some great stories to tell.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          “Love and Death” would be my favorite, if we’re talking about the Napoleonic LAND wars. And I say so with some hesitation, because Woody Allen. But hey, funny is funny. And no comic has ever satirized 19th-century Russian literature so effectively.

          I hate to say this, but I started to watch the Sean Bean series with high hopes, and was disappointed by the first episode, and stopped.

          I suppose it started with two disadvantages, compared to O’Brian: To start with, no sea and no ships. Second, no Jack and Stephen. Those characters (plus Killick, of course) and their relationship are what lift these books far above mere adventure stories.

          But perhaps the Sharpe books are far better than the TV show. That’s usually the way it goes…

          1. Bryan Caskey

            Yeah, I watched a little of the TV Sharpe series after having made it through about six books and was pretty disappointed. Not very good production values, and just not really good at telling the story. The books are much better.

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