Nowadays, theaters tend to be filled up with movies that are based on some kind of pre-existing success: adaptions, sequels, remakes, prequels, reimaginings, etc. While it’s a lot of fun to see our favorite characters back again, all these derivative stories can get quite exhausting. And admit it: the follow-ups, whatever form they take, are rarely as good as the original and can sometimes even spoil them a little bit. But there have been great sequels, sequels that have matched or even surpassed the original and enchanted us all over again.
I wanted to go in search of what made sequels great, in hopes of bringing the secret to the public. After weeks of begging, Geek & Sundry finally provided me with a crack team of analysts and a multi-million dollar laboratory. Unfortunately, we wasted all our funds blowing things up and seeing what color the fireball was. As a result, I have instead pulled this research together in a couple of hours sitting by myself in a damp basement.
#1: Don’t Remake A Good Movie, Remake a Crappy One
This one has always struck me as obvious: if a movie was wildly successful and still holds fond memories for millions of people, why would you dare to say “I can do this better?” Chief offenders in this category include the remakes of Psycho, 101 Dalmatians, Planet of the Apes, and Oldboy. More often, you end up telling the same story in a way that movie producers think is “more modern or commercial”. Other times, in a effort to look different, the filmmakers will screw with the details in weird ways without really making the story better or more interesting.
A lot of the best-loved remakes are actually of movies that weren’t very good, or at least, had aged very poorly. Howard Hawks’s version of The Thing has its moments, but it pales to the razor sharp tension of John Carpenter’s take on it. The original version of The Fly had become giggle-worthy by 1986, but David Cronenberg made it a disturbing and harrowing tragedy. When people have fewer expectations for your remake, you have more freedom to dissect the story and figure out what was good and what was flawed about the original. You can then take the best parts and build them into something great! A good remake should actually feel shockingly different standing next to the original.
#2: Don’t Let The Characters Get Comfortable, Let Them Grow
Nothing is more boring than a sequel where the characters are still hung up on the same problems. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Batman Returns are a couple of sequels that suffer badly from this. It’s dull and repetitive and it insults the audience’s intelligence for characters to be stuck in the same place. The Empire Strikes Back expertly avoids this trap. The first thing Han Solo does in the movie is to put himself in danger to save Luke, a far cry from his selfish actions throughout much of A New Hope. As the movie goes on, he becomes even more trusting and open with his emotions, even when it begins to hurt him with the betrayal at Cloud City.
Another fine example of this is in Aliens. Ellen Ripley begins the movie greatly changed by her experiences in the original, suffering PTSD, depression, and anxiety that eats away at her self-assured nature. Only by challenging her fears and returning to the alien planet does she become whole again. A good sequel will let characters evolve and show new sides that change how we see them.
#3: When Adapting A Book, Draw Inspiration Rather Than Copying It
Adaptions that try their hardest to be faithful can certainly be successful. Fan quibbles aside, the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies are extremely similar to their source material. I think that the success comes not from the faithfulness, though, but how well the movies latched on to the books’ essences. After all, there are plenty of dull and wrongheaded adaptions that are perfectly faithful. Getting too hung up on details can bury a great story under minutiae, and what works well in a book may not be a good idea in a movie.
Take Blade Runner, for instance. Its source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, may have the same basic plot, but Blade Runner takes that plot and makes it more about the nature of human empathy and perspective than the book’s focus on the destruction of our natural world. Neither is really better; the book and movie just explore different issues in fascinating ways! You can also look at the classic detective story of The Long Goodbye. No matter what version you watch or read, it’s a story about betrayal. While most detective stories have the detective always one step ahead of the bad guy’s machinations, the 1973 movie has the naive and outdated Philip Marlowe always one step behind. A story about betrayal is much more shocking and devastating when your hero doesn’t know betrayal is coming, after all.
#4: Don’t Try To Match Yourself, Try To Challenge Yourself
When we go to see a sequel, we do want more of the same, on some level. A lot of sequels go too far with this, though, and they give us the same exact movie with a new coat of paint. Ghostbusters II, Jurassic Park III, and The Hangover Part II may have been light fun, but these copycats left us all hollow compared to how much their originators inspired us. Great sequels aren’t afraid to dive into a new sandbox and play with our expectations.
To go back to Aliens, it doesn’t attempt to be a horror movie as shocking and frightening as Alien. It instead plays out as a pulse-pounding action thriller, while keeping the grim tone and look we all loved from the original. By doing so we can’t expect what’s coming from Aliens, and it has a whole new batch of exciting surprises in store for us. All three Toy Story movies have a totally different tone from each other and take the toys to new territory not only more physically dangerous but also emotionally complicated. What some call the greatest sequel of all time, The Godfather Part II, not only expands the story in new ways but gives us a new lens to view the events of the original. Sequels can’t just be dependent on leftover goodwill to carry them. They have to stand on their own if they want to stand the test of time.
Featured image credit: Lucasfilm Ltd.