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  • Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand

Sequels, Prequels, and Flashbacks ... Oh My

Finally got around to watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug via Netflix a few days ago. Why didn’t I go see it in the theater? After all, like many of my generation, I was a big fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a kid (I, of course, also read The Hobbit) and loved Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy so much that I also watched the extended cuts and some of the commentary and making-of tracks (the one on armor was especially cool). But, I hadn’t really looked forward to the first Hobbit movie, put off by the fact that I hadn’t liked the book as much as The Lord of the Rings and fairly disgusted with the notion it was being expanded to three (overly-long, it ends up) movies. Sure enough, the first Hobbit movie disappointed. Too long, too jokey, too many characters not distinguished well, and just not that visually exciting. Not long after we cued up the second movie, The Desolation of Smaug, my impressions of the first movie came rushing back and the eye-rolling in the Bingle household began in earnest, interrupted only by occasional faux snoring and sharp cries of “More exposition?” The Desolation of Smaug has plenty to criticize. The visual effects of the LoTR trilogy have given way to graphics more reminiscent of a less-than-top-of-the-line video game, the scenic wonders of New Zealand appear only in brief spurts and farts betwixt the non-credible CGI shots and often don’t match the close-ups or preceding or following shots, changing from forests to wide plains to rocky hills in a single chase sequence. There’s almost no effort to distinguish the dwarves, much less develop their characters, the politics and motivations in Laketown are confusing and contradictory, the search for the keyhole comically abbreviated, and the added-on characters and scenes a waste of time. But worst of all, The Desolation of Smaug has taken a YA fantasy adventure and turned it into a slapstick action comedy as the dwarves bumble and mumble around. Not being sufficiently engaged by the movie, my mind wandered to the general topic of prequels and sequels and how they can go off-track, so I thought I’d put a few of those thoughts down. Now, if you’ve watched the Scream movies, you know some of the rules of sequels: The body count rises. Everything must be bigger and better. Etc. But here are a few additional things to keep in mind about sequels (many of which can also be applied to tie-in works): 1. Respect the original work. Sure, there can be new twists, even new interpretations of ambiguous events in the first work—as long as they don’t contradict known facts from the first work. If the work is truly sequel-worthy, it has fans that know it backwards and forwards. If they’ve had to wait for the sequel, they’ve probably spent plenty of time analyzing the first for clues as to what may be coming. Why was the third movie in the Matrix trilogy such a disappointment (aside from a murky, overblown ending)? Because there were so many references and dangling lines in the first and the second movies that were simply left hanging or totally forgotten. Why was the first Star Trek movie (not the reboot—don’t get me started on JJ Abrams) such a colossal dud (aside from the tedious hours of nothing happening)? Because for most of the movie, while everyone on The Enterprise wondered what they should do to solve the problem, everyone in the movie theater wanted to stand up and scream “Do what you did last time, you idiots, because this plot is a ripoff of the V’ger episode from the original series.” These failures to respect the original work can be big or small, but I guarantee they will be noticed by true fans. Here’s an example. Die Hard, one of the greatest action thrillers of all time, ends with the limo driver saying something like “If this is your idea of Christmas, I can’t wait to see New Year’s,” yet when Die Hard 2, Die Harder comes out with a plot dependent on the impact of a winter storm, they don’t set it on New Year’s Eve, they set it on Christmas again. Simply the beginning of a series of mistakes on that sequel. (By the way, why was "Luke, I am your father." such a shocker? Because Obi Wan said Darth Vader killed Luke's father ... and that was a lie by a Jedi.) 2. Give them something familiar, but not the same thing. Sure, if a work was popular enough to warrant a sequel, you want to create something that will appeal to that fan base, but (see above) bigger and better, with a higher body count or, at least, higher stakes. It’s great to ratchet up the tension and see the hero act in familiar, character-consistent ways, but basically doing the same movie over and over (I’m thinking of you, Jurassic Park, Friday the 13th, Final Destination, etc.) over and over quickly becomes a snooze-fest as tension/suspense is completely lost. And if you are going to make basically the same movie again, at least admit it (like Escape from L.A. did in the sequel to Escape from New York). I think, by the way, that Hunger Games did an especially good job of giving us something familiar, but different, and building the characters and raising the stakes. 3. Don’t make a parody of the earlier work. If the first work was a fantasy or a thriller or a romance or an old TV show, fans are looking for a fantasy, thriller, or old TV show, as the case may be, not a comedy spoof of it. (Green Hornet, Dark Shadows, Starsky and Hutch, I’m thinking of you.) Parodies appeal more to people who hated the original than those who liked it. Those who hated the earlier work won’t read/watch the sequel anyway, so why are you antagonizing your core audience? 4. Resolve some things along the way. Just as characters should change and develop along the arc of a story, they should change and develop from story to story. Sure, some people won’t like those changes, but without them the storylines become boring and lacking in tension, the plotlines become predictable, and the audience becomes bored and frustrated. Some thoughts on prequels? 1. Prequels are not sequels, so the sequel rules don’t necessarily apply. Everything your characters learned in the original work, they don’t know yet. Information, skills, relationships, history. If you use those things in the prequel, you undercut the plot and character development of the original work, along with boring everyone. How about seeing how the character deals with a problem without a later-learned skill? How about showing how he or she developed the characteristics and skill subsets they had when the original work started? By making the tasks and abilities simpler and more rudimentary, you get a different storyline and, most importantly, make the various tales make sense if later read/watched in chronological order. For instance, in The Desolation of Smaug, almost every combat action taken by (a quite clearly older and heavier) Legolas is a trick shot, leaping like a frenetic video game character for each arrow. A skill set not quite as good would make this (quite unnecessary) added character more credible. (His appearance and attitudes here also, by the way, seem to be inconsistent with his attitudes towards dwarves at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings.) 2. Don’t waste a lot of time in the prequel setting up the premise of the original work. Sure, you want to have chronological flow and consistency and make the protagonist’s attitudes and activities in the original work make sense, but don’t get stuck in a lot of endless exposition and set up for the original work, because the reader/viewer already knows that stuff, so much of it will come across as boring filler made to pad the wordcount and/or stretch the movie from one to three. Desolation of Smaug wasted a lot of time setting up LoTR. Dude, everyone already knows that story. 3. Don’t contradict the original work. Look, the mere fact that the work is a prequel means that it is easy for readers/watchers to get bored, because the fact that they know what happens later undercuts tension (yes, the character will survive) and gives away information (yes, that (Palpatine) character can’t be trusted), so they’re probably going to have time to notice even little things. For instance, a brain wipe of the droids in Star Wars (though badly handled) can explain why they don’t know their own past, but it doesn’t explain why Obi Wan doesn’t know them (“I don’t recall owning any droids.”) 4. Keep nods to the original work subtle and respectful. LoTR had a great sequence where communications are sent long distances by a watchtower/fire system. It was visually stunning, portrayed a credible way of communicating basic information long distances in a pre-industrial context, and even generated a certain amount of awe and sympathy for the virtually unseen workers who had to man such towers in such a lonely task. Desolation of Smaug had a stupid, smug, bit of comedy where spies of Laketown communicate information across a tiny space through a convoluted series of signals that was cheesy, non-credible, and ultimately disrespectful of the later sequence. I hated it. Word to prequel writers: Don’t make me hate you for undercutting the original work. Not all of you out there will ever write a prequel, but the prequel observations also apply to flashbacks, which many of you will write. If you do, keep the prequel observations in mind, and keep in mind that being clear about the starting, stopping, and time frame of flashbacks is important. That means giving special attention to (and generally avoiding) nested flashbacks. That’s my writing rant for today. I’ve been giving some thought to a sequel to my spy thriller, Net Impact. What do people think? Yes? No? What, you wrote a spy thriller? You mean you write something besides these rambling blogs? Enquiring minds want to know. Aloha. Don

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