Why do sequels seem to almost always suck? I’ll grant you that that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does seem that way sometimes.
There are sequels that work like the original Star Wars trilogy. Or for that matter, how about the Godfather 2? That was at least as good as the original. Wish the same could be said about Godfather 3, Matrix 2/3, the second Star Wars trilogy and well… almost all sequels.
Problems with sequels are so consistent that I’d wonder why people even bother–except that I already know the answer. Cash. There’s already a market for a sequel to a successful work of art. Plus, artists need to make a living. Even successful ones aren’t making that much (with the exception of the odd multi-millionaire…).
Also, I suspect that the artists as well as the readers want to find out what happens next. When you write a novel, you come to like the characters. I suspect most artists want the chance to fiddle with things a little bit more or didn’t include some really cool stuff the first time around. At least I hope so.
So, having thought about why they’re made… Why do sequels suck?
First, I think that the first time through, both the artist and the reader are discovering the characters and setting for the first time. The excitement is both contagious and almost impossible to keep up. In a sequel the reader will be coming back both for the excitement of discovery and also with nostalgia for the original.
It’s hard to do both. Too little new stuff and you end up with endless rehashing (Gor, anyone?) and too much new stuff and you end up asking, “Where’s the stuff I liked?” I don’t have a great example of the second, but “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” has elements of that problem. Too little of the contrast between Dr. Jones the professor and Indiana Jones the adventurer. Dr. Jones barely appears at all.
Second, in all honesty, no artist can be at the top of their game all the time. If everything comes together, allowing someone to produce something incredible, well, chances are they just aren’t going to be at that level again. People just aren’t that consistent. Circumstances aren’t always right.
Third, stories take place in the most important periods of the characters’ lives. Sequels must either take place in a less important period (probably boring…) or a period even more important than the one before. In science fiction, characters so often:
1. save the world
2. destroy the empire
3. become all powerful
in the first novel/movie, what can they do in the second? Do it again? Change the back story so that it turns out that the hero didn’t really do it and now has to do it for real?
In Dune Messiah, Herbert has the hero lose it all. That worked. Children of Dune continued the story. It worked too, but only (I suspect) because all three of those books were planned to be one story from the beginning. It just grew too large to fit in one book. In short, it worked because it wasn’t really a sequel. Just a continuation.
The next four books after that (the fourth exists only in notes) were still good, but didn’t appeal to me as much as the originals. I suspect that there was too much new stuff and too little of what was cool about the original Dune to make me entirely happy.
That being said, I still enjoyed them overall.
In any case, when sequels work well it seems that they often do exactly what Herbert did in the first three Dune novels, what Lucas did with the first Star Wars trilogy, and what Tolkein did in Lord of the Rings–tell a story too big for one novel or movie.
Some sequels/series I hope to hit in thinking about this topic are Zelazny’s Amber series, the Matrix, Star Wars, and most likely, the Lord of the Rings movies. Look forward to it. Or not.