Margaret Mitchell only wrote one book. It took her ten years and won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. To some extent it has been overshadowed by the 1939 film adaptation that won 9 Academy Awards. You can imagine the pressure she would have been under to write a follow-up especially considering the ending she wrote. It's just crying out for one. And yet Mitchell refused to write a sequel to her book, Gone with the Wind. Mitchell's estate finally authorised Alexandra Ripley to write the novel Scarlett in 1991. It never made it to the big screen but there was a television mini-series produced in 1994 with former 'James Bond', Timothy Dalton, as 'Rhett Butler' and ex Coronation Street and Emmerdale actress Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as 'Scarlett O'Hara'. One might wonder what Mitchell would have thought about it all.
Do you see where I'm coming from? I'm thinking Law of Diminishing Returns here.
One of my favourite books of all time is Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar. I read it first at school at the same time as Catcher in the Rye and the two books are inextricably linked in my head for some reason. Only this year Salinger took author J.D. California to court over his attempt to publish a sequel, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. The book has now been banned in the USA. Waterhouse though has made the most of his creation. The book as been adapted as a play, a TV series (actually two if you count the American version), a musical and (most famously) as a film.
So why in God's name did he have to go and spoil it all by writing a sequel?
Well, he did. In Billy Liar on the Moon, a sequel to Billy Liar that both takes place and was written about fifteen years after the original, Waterhouse shifts Billy from his Yorkshire locale of the late 1950s to a carefully designed community of shopping malls, motels, and perplexing one-way streets that lead only to motorways; a new housing estate he describes as a "suburb of the moon" with "a Legoland of crescents and culs-de-sac with green Lego roofs and red Lego chimney stacks." Now, in addition to still pining after London as he did in the first book, Billy has now come to romanticise his past and is faced with finally having to grow up once and for all.
I didn't like it. He should have left well alone. It wasn't a bad book. It was written well enough, the plot worked and everything was tied up nicely at the end. You wouldn't expect anything less from Waterhouse. That wasn't the problem. The problem was I didn't want to see Billy all grown up and still struggling to come to terms with reality. It was funny when he was a young man but rather sad once he'd grown up a bit; a third book would have been tragic. I had the same problem with Adrian Mole. For Christ's sake Bart Simpson has been ten for the last twenty-two years so why did Adrian have to grow up?
Films are probably the first thing we think of when it comes to sequels and just take a second or two to think about all the sequels that should never have been made. Okay, maybe you'll need a bit longer than that. How about ten minutes? Half an hour? There are just soooooo many that it makes my head hurt to think about them all. A quick flick through Google threw up (Freudian slip there surely) this selection that we can look forward to in the months and years to come:
300 2 (would that be 302?)
I Am Legend 2
I, Robot 2
St Trinian’s 2
And last but at least imaginatively named:
The list is considerably longer but I just wanted to make a point.
Okay, occasionally – and by that I mean once in a powder-blue moon occasionally – we do get a sequel that is as good as (or, arguably, better than) the original, e.g. Aliens, The Godfather Part II or Adams Family Values, but these are as rare as hen's teeth. (Seriously, check the link.)
So, I ask the question again: Who in their right mind writes a sequel?
But then I've not been in my right mind for years.
Why do people write sequels? I suppose the simplest answer would be to make a quick buck but the real answer, the one that enables people to cash in on their successes, is demand. And what drives demand? Curiosity. We can't help ourselves. You see every story misses out so much, even an epic like Gone with the Wind – in fact, especially an epic like Gone with the Wind – which is why there is so much scope for sequels and prequels and midquels and sidequels because it doesn't matter what we're shown we want more. And now, of course, we have the horror or all horrors, the reboot (or reimagining) where we start the whole damn thing all over again . . . for a new generation.
But then, of course, there is genuine demand and then there is being sold the idea that this is what you're pining for. Critics some in for a lot of shtick – and rightly so – but the sins of the critics are as nothing compared to the sins of the marketers who package up the worst kind of repetitious and lazy writing and convince us that we cannot live without it. I got Aliens vs Predator: Requiem for Christmas (the two disk "Ultimate Combat" edition). I'd asked for it. And I knew before I asked for it that it had been universally panned but I had to see it with my own eyes. And now I have. And I will get Alien 5 when it comes out (yes, there's apparently a prequel in the works) because I've seen every other one and I own every other well and I'm damn well going to keep my collection intact!
I remember a series of plays called The Norman Conquests, which is a trilogy of plays written in 1973 by Alan Ayckbourn. Each of the plays depicts the same six characters over the same weekend in a different part of a house. So we get to see everything. Nothing is left to the imagination. But are these three plays (each stands alone) or one play in three parts?
The same might be said about Lord of the Rings. Although generally thought of as a trilogy, Tolkien initially intended it as one volume of a two volume set along with The Silmarillion; however, it was his publisher who decided to ditch the second volume and instead released The Lord of the Rings as three books rather than one, for purely financial reasons. Besides, if you think about it, The Lord of the Rings is itself a sequel.
In both these cases the product existed right from the start. It wasn't a matter of trying out something new on the unsuspecting British public to see if there was a demand and then scuttling off to bang out what it looked like the public might fork out wads of hard cash for. Not that I think most writers or film makers start off thinking like that. They write what they set out to write and are usually taken aback by any success. Or at least that's how things used to be. Now films (and books) are written with the set-up already built in. They don't have to write another but, if they want to then they can and the public already has had its taste whetted.
But really what's happening here is what's been happening naturally for years anyway. It's imagination that drives fan fiction. The need to know. And I'm all for that. I think it's great that Alice Randall wrote The Wind Done Gone, a book that retells Gone with the Wind from the point of view of the slaves. I think all the Big Finish audio dramas set in the Doctor Who universe are great. I think all the Star Trek novelisations are great. I wouldn't say any of it is either Chekov or Beckett (that would be the playwright and the novelist not the ensign and the captain – no, wait a second that was Archer, he was Beckett in that other thing he did) but it's there because there is a need to know.
Some would say though that the public gets what the public deserves. Maybe. Maybe they do.
All of which brings me to my problem.
And it's all your fault.
And I'll tell you about it in Son of Who in their right mind writes a sequel? Coming to a blog near you, soon.