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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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…