Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The problem with sequels... (this is heavy, Doc!)


Okay, so we all know that the odds of getting a sequel as enjoyable (or, heaven help us, better) than the original movie are pretty lousy indeed. But why should this be the case? The original movie was a hit, so obviously just providing the same type of thrills and/or emotions, possibly on a larger scale, should be sufficient, right?

On the screenwriting level, it often comes down to one thing. Character. And more specifically, the character arc.

Just about every protagonist nowadays has to have his/her arc, or we tend to consider the events of the script as non-essential (in the sense that they do not provide the framework for a major shift in your character's psychological make-up). But because a character arc almost always consists of a character overcoming their major psychological flaw, the result is that at the end of the screenplay, this flaw is cured. And the character is 'healed', and therefore no longer the same as when we, the audience, came to know and love them.

So as the writer of the sequel, you are faced with a major problem: what arc can you give the character in the sequel, when their main problem has been solved? You can either give them the same problem again, as was the case in Another 48 Hours, but the result is that the audience has literally seen it all before - and the character arc has lost its freshness which made it work so well the first time.

Or you can try and look for a new problem to foist on your protagonist. That's why James Bond had to overcome his fear of commitment in Casino Royale, his overwhelming desire for revenge in Quantum of Solace, and his mummy issues with regards to M in Skyfall. On the one hand, this constantly opens new avenues of internal conflict to examine along with the gunfights and explosions; on the other hand, it reduces the world's Greatest Secret Agent to a neurotic wreck.

An interesting avenue was explored in the Back To The Future-trilogy. In the second film, Marty McFly has a playful yet potentially devastating flaw: he can't resist a challenge, because he's afraid people would consider him a coward ('Nobody calls me chicken!'). And this flaw is used brilliantly to complicate matters during the very long and intricate climactic sequence of the movie. In fact, Marty doesn't overcome his flaw in this film. That is saved up for BTTF 3. So here we see that it is possible to keep a flaw going for longer than one film, if it provides sufficient material for conflict and complications.

What's remarkable about the flaw Marty McFly was saddled with in BTTF 2, was that it fit the character so well, it seemed to have been part of his psychological profile from the outset. But it wasn't! In the original Back To The Future, Marty doesn't even have an arc. He's the same spunky, lovable, brave kid at the end as he was in the beginning. What does change, is the world around him - he changes his mother, his father and even Doc Brown during the 1950's, causing him to return to an idyllic present at the end of his adventure, where all his problems have been magically solved. He starts out as a catalyst hero, and only becomes a  'typical' flawed hero once the external problems which plagued his life were dealt with.

In any case, the lesson to be learned here is that when you're looking for 'new' flaws for your protagonist to overcome, to make sure they fit the character so well that it seems they were there all along. Don't change the essence of the character. For instance, Robert Zemeckis could have decided to turn Marty into an inveterate lecher in BTTF 3, or a teenage alcoholic hooked on Wild West hooch - but luckily he didn't. These flaws would have been inappropriate for the character, and to use this type of inappropriate flaw only highlights the artificial nature of the technique.

But what about those long-running series starring the same character? How do you manage to keep things fresh then?

Ah, now that is a topic for the sequel to this article...