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Monday, 10 August 2009

Who in their right mind writes a sequel?

Scarlett 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?

Billy Liar on the Moon cover 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 Adrian Mole 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
Hairspray 2
Maverick 2

And last but at least imaginatively named:

Little Fockers

The list is considerably longer but I just wanted to make a point.

addams_family_values_ver1 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?

Not me.

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.

The Wind Done Gone 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.


Rachel Fenton said...

You're on form Jim - a jolly good read! Can't you justify a sequel by paralleling it to a tv series then, they make a pilot, it works, is popular, they comission a series...then another? Although, I suppose then you'd have people asking authors to cancel the sequel due to a drop in potential reading figures. You know what will happen now though, authors will say (as standard) they always planned for the story to wasn't just because they wanted to pocket a load off the back of the other book's success!

Mariana Soffer said...

The beginning of your post made me thing that you where talking about the famous one hit wonders, but from the movie-book kind of content. But it turned out you where speaking about the law of diminishing returns, always money ends up driving how things turn to.

I would have rejected to write a sequel too, came on it was doom to failure for sure, it could never be as good as the first one was, neither as succesfull.

I would stay with the salinger book rather than with the other one, and man I can not belive the news here, a sequel after such a long time, guau. Anyway that is the book I like the least from him I like much more the other 3 ones, specially the 9 stories and franny and zooie, but also the one that was made from 2 book parts was not that bad either, it was good, just a little confusing to understand. So why would he do a sequel of that book, and not of the greatest 3 ones, that have this amazing characters of the wise kids from the radio program.
Excelent post by the way.
bye jim and thanks for the info

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Rachel, I think TV series are a different beast entirely. A pilot is aired with the sole intention of spawning further episodes. When I conceived this article I was thinking about those works which were originally one-offs, like Billy Liar, but, for whatever reasons (the success of the original usually) they decided to revisit the characters. I'll talk more about this in the sequel to this article. And, yes, I planned a sequel right from the off.

And, Mariana, I think you may have misread that. Salinger has not (as far as anyone knows) penned a sequel to Catcher in the Rye. It was some other bloke and Salinger took him to court over it. The book was banned in the USA but it's available elsewhere not that I'm interested in reading it I have to say.

Mariana Soffer said...

Really that is so ackward, I find it awfull, how did this guy dare do that? it is almost like a violation.

Thanks for claryging jim

Dave King said...

The whole business of writing sequels - why, how and when - has always intrigued me. As now does your encylcopaedic knowledge of the subject. A fascinating trawl through the best of them. Congrats are in order.
One further thing. Could you email me so that I can reply. I'm having trouble contacting you. Maybe have the address wrong. Thanks Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad I could entertain you, Dave and I've just dropped you an e-mail. If you click on my profile you'll get it anyway.

Rachel Fenton said...

Mariana, can I ask why you find another author writing a sequel to a book such an affront?

I think I can see it would be bad from the perspective that a potential nobody could get fame on the coattails of somebody like Salinger, but it is good from the perspective of creativity.

But I would like to know your views.

John Ettorre said...

Jim, I surely agree about sequels, and it does seem even worse when other authors execute them. I know a guy who recently wrote a sequel to, of all things, Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" (he emerged from thousands of applicants to get the gig) and since he's an otherwise serious writer, I imagine he's at least a tad bashful about this book. But he's also no doubt laughing all the way to the bank.

Jinksy said...

I think writing is the same as painting or drawing. The art lies in knowing when to stop. It's all too easy to turn a picture into a muddy mess, if the 'stop' point isn't recognised... Sequels come in the same category.

Jim Murdoch said...

What is amusing, John is that the first novel I ever attempted was a sequel to The Hobbit blissfully unaware as I was at the time that something called The Lord of the Rings was kicking about. Of course the whole point to this post was an excuse in my own self-deprecatory way to introduce you all to my very own sequel, Stranger than Fiction.

And, Jinksy, yes, that's a good way of putting it and I'd like to think that I had the good sense to stop at one sequel. I cannot pretend I don't have mixed feelings about it. I may never have intended to write the thing but now it's done I can't say I exactly hate it either. You can read all about it in the sequel to this post.

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