Friday, December 9, 2011

And mark how well the sequel hangs together:

One of the most shameless money making ploys in the movie business is the sequel.  In most cases a sequel is not meant to continue the story or revisit the characters, but to offer the studio a chance to make more money, rehashing the same thing that appeared in the first movie.  There are of course exceptions, like 'The Godfather Part II' or The Lord of the Rings movies, but most sequels fall into the "Weekend at Bernie's II" category.

This isn't unique to movies however, as books have long used the sequel for the same reason; people who loved the first one will probably buy the second book, regardless of its quality or relevancy.  In fact it works so well in the literary world, we see certain genres rely almost exclusively on the sequel, knowing their audience will buy every book from a series, regardless of who wrote it or how well they wrote it.  Look at many fantasy books, which offer an endless list of titles, each so generic, it hardly merits mention.  Even hardcore fans are often unable to distinguish book three from book twenty-six in a series.  Yet they still buy each one.

It got me thinking about what books from The List have sequels.  Although the majority of these reads could be considered 'higher-brow', they're still in the business of making money, and both writers and publishers see the potential of doing just that, by revisiting their most famous earlier books.  A quick glance of The List tells me that books are much like the movies, where some sequels are legitimate novels seeking to continue the story or expand the character; but for every one of those, there are a couple just rehashing everything for a quick buck.

Perhaps the most famous sequels associated with The List would be the Chronicles of Narnia books.  The first, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe spawned not only five sequels, but also a prequel.  But none of them match the quality of the first book, and in fact seem to get worse and worse.  By the time we reach the fourth book, The Silver Chair, the story has distanced itself so far from the first book, they only have the land of Narnia in common, nothing more.  They're the perfect example of the fantasy genre continuing the story, as I mentioned above.  While I may consider The Lord of the Rings movies to be sequels, the books are, in fact, not.  Although released as three separate novels, they were actually written as one gigantic book.  This is the reason Lev Grossman has told me I am expected to read all three, not just the first one in order to complete my mission, and the reason they can't really be counted as sequels.

Perhaps the most horrifying sequel associated with The List, is Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, 'sequel' to Gone with the Wind.  Having not read it (nor do I have plans to do so), I can't really comment on the quality, but the mere fact it exists is disturbing.  To begin, it wasn't written by Margaret Mitchell, in fact it was written 40 years after her death.  This alone makes it seem more like a new 'Star Wars' book, instead of a companion to one of the great books of all time.  Secondly, Mitchell said she wrote the end scene to Gone with the Wind first, and worked backward from there, creating a story to fit that scene.  She knew how she wanted the story to end, and had no plans of every continuing it.  Scarlett is a book that has cash grab written all over it.

Similar to Scarlett is Closing Time by Joseph Heller, meant as a sequel to another all-time great, Catch-22.  While this was at least written by the original author, it was released 35 years after the first novel, a book which doesn't really set up for a sequel.  It's a far cry from the first novel and probably could have been left on the shelf.

But not all literary sequels are created equally, and there a few that really stand out.  John Updike followed up his first big hit Rabbit, Run with three more 'Rabbit' novels, each released about ten years apart, each following Harry Angstrom through the decades.  These books allow the reader to follow one of the great literary characters of the 20th century through the years, from naive young man to his death.  The books stand out, as they do not simply re-hash the events of the first novel, nor do they merely put the same character in a different situation a few years later.  These are books that delve deeper and deeper into the character, giving the reader an intimate portrait of Harry Angstrom.  They are also not books Updike spit out one afternoon, while he had a free moment.  The third and fourth novels, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest were both awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  This is the same feat Richard Ford was able to accomplish, with his sequel to The Sportswriter, Independence Day, which won the Pulitzer in 1996, revisiting Frank Bascombe.  Perhaps its the snob in me, but I feel a book that wins the Pulitzer Prize can hardly be considered a mere sequel; these are literary heavyweights.

The above award-winning novels have me wondering if the fathers of The List purposely included the first novels from the respective series, instead of the award-winning sequels as a way of introducing readers to the stories from the beginning.  Or do they not believe a sequel can be so highly regarded as to warrant inclusion on a 'best of list?'  This would be my thought and I think if I were compiling a similar list I would be hesitant to include any sequel.  However, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is there; prequel to Jane Eyre.  I find this to be an odd book for The List, and am curious to see how it reads.  It surprises me that a prequel written 120 years after the original, obviously by a different author, could receive such lofty praise.  But I must reserve judgement for after I have read it, which will probably be sometime in 2013...

Now if you'll please excuse me, I need to put the finishing touches on my latest manuscript, following an alcoholic Holden Caufield in his mid-50's, tentatively titled Caught in the Rye.

1 comment:

  1. How did the wordfest thing with the 2 authors go?