Will Evans evaluates well-known sequels and the extent to which they are made for profit for genuine storyline development.
In the age of Netflix Originals and young adult fiction where all new media seems to be the second, third or fourth part of an ongoing series, one might begin to feel like they have not consumed anything that stands alone for quite a while. The most famous best sellers of our moment reside in the realm of merchandise, series and film adaptations, and author hype which all seem aimed at making as much money as possible. Our growing reliance on ambiguity in storytelling also leaves novels unclosed, to be potentially reopened by a glorified sequel in a few years’ time. Are sequels all bad, or can they be valuable in continuing important stories?
The 2019 sequel to André Aciman’s bestselling Call Me by Your Name is one of the more obvious examples of a sequel for sequel’s sake. Find Me loosely continues the story of the characters from Aciman’s original bestseller but their revival feels forced and lifeless. The characters are muddled, and the story boringly plods along as it checks off moments of fan service to satisfy dedicated followers. The book follows Samuel and Elio Pearlman, and Oliver on separate romantic exploits but the stories feel sanitised and the characters feel like shells compared to their initial forms in Aciman’s first novel. Coming just a few years after the film adaptation of CMBYN won best adapted screenplay at the Academy Awards in 2017, the novel feels like a poor attempt to relive the accomplishment of the original without creating or continuing anything of value.
“… the stories feel sanitised and the characters feel like shells compared to their initial forms…”
The release of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments last year was one of the most surprising sequels that we’ve seen in recent times. Released 34 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the first novel set in Atwood’s dystopian future, it hardly feels like the invention of the production line of ongoing series and sequels. Can the release of a sequel like this truly be a case of an author becoming inspired to finish what they started years before or is it a more cynical bid to renew one’s cultural relevance? In Atwood’s case, The Testaments does stand as a successful novel alongside The Handmaid’s Tale; it is superbly written and masterfully constructs the regime of Gilead more than its predecessor was able to. It was also released, however, alongside the third series of the award-winning television adaptation. A more cynical critic might perceive that the release of Atwood’s sequel was driven by a desire to join in on the cultural significance and success of showrunner Bruce Miller.
One of the most prolific adult book series of recent times is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, beginning with A Game of Thrones in 1966. The series has sold over 90 million copies and was adapted into one of the most commercially and critically successful television dramas of all time. When faced with this, it is immediately apparent how lucrative book series can be for their authors. At the same time, however, Martin’s books have not been churned out one after the other to the satisfaction of fans. Martin’s writing process has been notoriously slow, in fact, with a six-year gap between the release of the fourth and fifth instalments and no new books since 2011’s A Dance with Dragons. It becomes harder to argue that this highly profitable book series is being written entirely for commercial success when Martin’s painfully slow release schedule indicates that it is, first and foremost, a passionate world-building exercise.
“What we see in series like Ali Smith’s is a challenge to the traditional sequel and an experiment with different ways of telling stories in multiple parts.”
Readers of Ali Smith’s ongoing Seasonal Quartet will have been met with questions of what really even counts as a sequel. The novels, each named after one of the four seasons (Summer is anticipated this July), are all interconnected but can technically be read out of the order in which they were released or as standalone novels entirely. The stories explore contemporary moments, the passing of time, cycles, and histories in subtle and nuanced ways. The books do not build up an immense plot or end on nail-biting cliff-hangers but have gathered a dedicated readership as well as critical acclaim.
The tradition of sequels developed along with novel-writing practices in the 17th century and continued to grow into their current state through the 20th century. What we see in series like Ali Smith’s is a challenge to the traditional sequel and an experiment with different ways of telling stories in multiple parts.
Bad sequels that are little more than attempts to extend the success of a book will, of course, continue to be written. Even the reputations of good sequels still bear the mark of Harry Potter; J.K Rowling continues to reign with Primark stocking Hogwarts themed merchandise 13 years after the final book was published. Sequels, however, should be written off entirely as innovative authors find newer, better ways to tell stories across multiple instalments.