“Give me the same thing… only different!” On the Horrors of Sequelitis

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I love a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.

It’s not because I relish other people’s defeats, it’s just such a remarkable achievement to not be able to find a single critic willing to give a film a favourable review. Someone always likes to play the Devil’s Advocate no matter how bad a film they’re confronted with. I suspected Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 might be a candidate for the elusive 0, so I got a chuckle when the reviews came in this weekend and there wasn’t a positive one in sight. But for others the film’s garnering of a goose egg from the critical community is a sign of something more serious than just another critical catastrophe.

The last lecture of my introductory film course during my undergraduate program in Cinema Studies was an appropriately fatalist, while still optimistic examination of the contention that cinema is in its death throes. Arguments for the death of cinema are nothing new; film critics have a tendency toward alarmism. Every technological development in the history of cinema has been accompanied by a lament that the medium will be irrevocably harmed by the advance in question. Sound, it was argued, will turn cinema into nothing but canned theatre, with dialogue dominating what should be a purely visual medium. Colour will make the medium too realistic, taking away from the inherently fantastic nature of the black and white image.

More recently the technological argument tends to centre around advances in digital technology with the shift away from celluloid to digital cinematography threatening the continued existence of film as a physical medium. The increasing realism of CGI has led some to argue that the need to film anything on any medium at all will soon be eliminated, so that all of cinema will essentially collapse into animation.

The prevalence of CGI is also often used as ammunition for the argument that the death of film will arise from its denigration into a meaningless style that eliminates the need for meaningful narratives in the face of the bombast of spectacle. For some critics many of today’s blockbusters have been reduced to little more than conglomerations of car chases, explosions, and action sequences edited to within an inch of their comprehensibility; What little story still exists is dumbed down to appeal to an equally dumbed down audience.

Perhaps the most common alarum these days links that dumbing down to the current glut of sequels, remakes, and adaptations of “pre-sold” franchises. As one blogger succinctly put it, “our entertainment is getting boring. Lazy and less intelligent. And I fear if we continue to devolve, we’ll eventually be drooling in the dark watching the same 6 seconds of exploding robots loop off into eternity.” Risk aversion has devolved into creative bankruptcy in Hollywood, with fewer original ideas getting past studio heads more concerned with making money than with creating something new, since something new also means something risky, and less of a chance of a return on their investment.

And it’s all our fault.

Cinema is a supply and demand business, and our willingness to pay to see these films every time a new one is released suggests demand is high. Eventually, however, it is predicted Hollywood will eat its own tail with the repetition of the same stories boring audiences to the point that they will abandon their local multiplexes.

I’m not exactly a laid back person by nature, but I’ve never caught the alarmist bug, or added my voice to the death of cinema arguments. There is no denying that the number of sequels, remakes, and adaptations is rising, so that, as Mark Harris argued in a 2011 article examining the obstacles Christopher Nolan faced in trying to get Inception made, it has “never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide.”

As someone whose interest in film stems from its ability to affect us, I do worry about the diminishing returns of narrative formulas and stylistic patterns, and am more disappointed than most when I see a movie that is too derivative to inspire anything other than comparisons to other films. And so I can’t deny that the seeming lack of original concepts is troubling, or that tipping the balance away from sequels, remakes and adaptations is something to be desired.

The argument against these types of films, however, tends to rely on reductive claims that, while likely exaggerated for polemic effect, make the patient seem closer to death than it probably is.

lego-movie-1024
Toys as sources for film narratives are often cited as the worst cases of a Hollywood given over to its economic imperatives.

At the heart of the worry that Hollywood is slowly digging its own grave is the assumption that originality, while not a sufficient condition for quality, is at least a necessary one, so that more movies made from existing concepts mean fewer good ones. In some cases there is a plea to the “good old days” when Hollywood film was inventive and fresh. Now, as Jason Dietz laments, studio heads “seemingly devote every resource they have to avoid developing an original idea,” so that when they’re not “pillaging from their own back catalogues” for remakes, they “turn to other media as a source for ideas,” pulling from books, television, comics, and toys.

The use of existing material as a source for film narratives is not a new phenomenon. Story is the most valuable commodity for an industry founded on the production of narratives for public consumption, so that almost as soon as Hollywood began making feature length films on a regular basis, adaptations became common practice. Existing works of fiction and stage productions not only provided an extensive source of readily available story material, but also, as David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson argue, the type of draw for audiences and exhibitioners that is often cited as a prime culprit for the current proliferation of adaptations and remakes, with “advertising stressing the value of prior literary or dramatic successes.” By the mid-teens the interchange between Hollywood and the publishing industry had become so regular that publishing houses began adding rights departments to their staffs to handle selling new material to the studios. If a new dramatic work showed promise, some producers financed stage productions as part of deals for film rights, to the point that critics feared that “only plays thought suitable for subsequent filming” would make it on to Broadway stages.

Whether or not any particular period in film history produced more adaptations or more concepts written specifically for the screen, however, the fact that a film was not adapted from an existing story doesn’t guarantee its originality. I have seen extraordinarily imaginative original works of filmic fiction, but I have also seen prodigiously unimaginative ones, just as I have seen both extraordinarily imaginative adaptations and ones that are so unimaginative that they take away from the established appeal of their sources.

Those sources put certain limits on the story a film adaptation can tell, but just because a filmmaker is not tied to an existing work doesn’t mean that their originality is given free reign. Each new film doesn’t emerge onto a neutral field, but one full of established narrative conventions and story forms that are taken up and repeated or reworked in a wider system of cultural production. The underlying assumption that pits adaptation against originality in an either/or proposition is an oversimplification of the process of adaptation, and it ignores the role repetition plays in that system.

Genre is the most obvious example of the limits placed on storytellers by established conventions, since in order to be recognized as a member of a genre a film has to display certain characteristics associated with that genre. Those characteristics can be reformulated and presented in new and interesting ways, but our ability to recognize and describe genres depends on that variation being balanced with repetition. That balance is also evident in the way we tend to evaluate the quality of genre films, which aren’t automatically dismissed as unoriginal for following their established formulas as long as those formulas are reworked or revised enough to produce something that extends the appeal of the form rather than just derivatively repeating past successes.

Participation in a specific genre therefore also puts limits on what type of stories can be told, but our tendency to divide films into types can establish conventions in ways that stretch across genres. While it’s become something to be made fun of, describing a film as “it’s Title X meets Title Y” suggests that we tend to think of movies in relation to larger sets of films, and that filmmakers draw from those sets to describe and help shape their films. The establishment and dissemination of certain ways of telling stories provides filmmakers with a repertory of conventions they can reuse, modify, or simply reject, but the success of a film that tells a story in a particular way will often lead to the demand for more films that use that storytelling technique. Success is a limiting factor on originality too.

The Road
The 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ largely eliminated the book’s unconventional narrative strategies in favour of Classical norms, including expanding the role of the Man’s wife in order to give the lead character a central goal.

At a more fundamental level, popular American cinema developed a series of narrative and stylistic conventions that tend to hold for original and non-original stories alike. While film scholars aren’t in agreement as to whether or not the model still holds, Classical narrativity closes off some storytelling options while upholding others, so that (while always open to variations that could push filmmaking in new directions that would appeal to audiences) certain norms tend to be proscribed no matter the sources of the narrative. In some cases, pre-existing stories come with narrational strategies that don’t fit that model, so that if those strategies were retained in a film adaptation it might actually seem more original for not holding to Classical norms despite the lack of originality in the narrative itself.

That lack of originality is often laid at the feet of the rise of the “pre-sold” film, adaptations of those books, comics, or television series that are presumed to have a built in audience that will be the first in line to see any film adaptation, or remakes of classics that also are assumed to come loaded with a certain amount of appeal. For Gavin Polone, however, a “marketplace stocked with an ever-growing collection of rereleases, sequels, and remakes” creates an overarching sense of derivative familiarity in which “everything seems like something [we’ve] already seen.”

Lady Thor
Marvel is itself a prolific adapter and remaker of its own stories and characters exemplified by the newly revealed female Thor.

The idea that pre-sold films carry automatic familiarity, however, depends on a generalization of audience knowledge of the material being adapted. The proliferation of Marvel movies is often cited as the exemplar of Hollywood’s dependence on established properties with presold stories and characters, but while Marvel comics as a brand of narrative fiction is relatively well-known, and populated by a number of recognizable names, that doesn’t necessarily entail a high degree of familiarity with the Marvel Universe, which is itself a complex amalgam of tellings and retellings that form a canon of repeated storylines with reappearing or reinvented characters. So complex and multifaceted that it can only be encompassed by a monolithic acronym – MCU.

Lou Ferrigno Hulk
Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk

A lack of originality at the time of production does not mean the material will be derided as well-worn at the time of reception. Other than a vague idea that such characters existed, I had very little knowledge of Captain America, Thor, or Ironman before I saw the first Marvel films featuring those characters. My knowledge of the Hulk was limited to a half-remembered image of a green-painted Lou Ferrigno and a running joke about the character’s impossibly flexible pants. These characters were not new to me, but neither were they entirely familiar. The sheer visibility of Marvel films has likely increased the recognisability of the studio’s characters, but that is a familiarity born from the popularity of the films themselves, and not the original material. Marvel films may be pre-sold, but it’s one thing to produce a film based on (presumably) widely known characters and another to produce an adaptation which makes the characters involved more widely known.

Captain America post credits
The post-credit sequences in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ tease what’s to come in both the wider Marvel Universe and the Captain America franchise showing us new characters that will appear in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ and continuing a loose narrative thread from the film.

Rather than thinking of each sequel as yet another derivative of the same form that banks on the successes of its predecessors, the assembled Marvel film and TV canon is probably better described as a form of serial filmmaking than as a set of individual films. During the 1910s, before Hollywood transitioned to feature-length films, serials – often action oriented shorts that told a continuous story across successive episodes – were a major attraction, with cliffhangers at the end of each instalment drawing audiences back to the theatres to see what was going to happen next. Marvel films tend to offer far more self-contained stories with marked end-points, but the now familiar post-credit scene tends to reopen those closed-off narratives by offering a hint at what may happen next, luring spectators to the next film in much the same way that the serials’ cliffhangers did. The interrelationship between individual franchises – whether in brief mentions of the “Avengers initiative” on S.H.I.E.L.D. or in the Avengers films themselves – serves a similar function.

Whether or not the pre-existing material is actually widely “pre-sold,” to dismiss a film as unoriginal based solely on the fact that it is an adaptation doesn’t take into account the actual process of adapting. The relationship between a film and its originating text can vary widely, from a point by point retelling of the story, to the original offering little more than a basic set of character types and thematics that serve as the inspiration for something entirely new.

Faithfulness to sources aside, however, the most curious consequence of basing the originality of a movie on the sources of the story alone is that film becomes nothing but narrative, denying the possibility for recognizing originality on the level of the image. While we may consider popular cinema to be primarily a narrative medium, to focus entirely on the story as an arbiter of quality is strangely reductive considering the fact that those stories are delivered through images. A wholly unoriginal story can still produce original and compelling images. The shot of Cinderella’s feet in Kenneth Branagh’s recent adaptation of the Disney version of the fairy tale I cited in a previous post is a good example. The story offers very little in the way of original material, but the film gives us compositions we have never seen before.

Ringwraith
John Howe’s painting cited in Peter Jackson’s film.

Even when a film calls on a familiar image something new can also be produced due to the shift from one medium to another. The shot of the Ringwraith approaching the log under which the four central hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring are hiding, for example, is a direct allusion to – a kind of remaking of – a painting by John Howe depicting that event in Tolkien’s novel. The result for viewers familiar with both the painting and the novel is a complex palimpsest in which the film stands in comparison to the painting which stands in comparison to Tolkien’s prose. In Peter Jackson’s film, neither the image nor the event are original, but the effects of each are entirely different because of the media which deliver them, and taken together they produce a response that is unique to this amalgam of shot, painting, and story.

While The Lord of the Rings trilogy came to the screen with its sequels built in to what is essentially one continuous story, the death of cinema prophesiers cite the abundance of sequels that either simply rehash their originals or stretch ideas that could only sustain one film into two as another sign of doom. Again the economic imperative is blamed, as studios try to cash in on tested formulas, using the familiarity of past successes as another way of garnering instant recognition, of creating a pre-sold property.

What is true for adaptations of popular comic books or young adult novels, however, is also true of sequels: some are derivative, wholly unimaginative reworkings of their predecessors, while some build on and enrich what came before. Seriality does not necessarily mean a dearth of creativity or originality.

So, should you go out and see Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 with renewed enthusiasm? Maybe not. But neither should you see its apparently prodigious failure to draw even a single giggle out of its audience as another nail in Hollywood’s coffin.

It’s easy to point to Hollywood’s economic imperative as the hammer driving those nails, but repetition and formula are artistic conventions as much as they are marketing ones. And repetition and formula don’t mean lack of originality; they’re limiting factors certainly, but not to the point that sequels, remakes, and pre-sold franchises are creatively bankrupting the industry. The dependence on a “sure thing” doesn’t mean the elimination of creative thought, since formulas can still be twisted, familiar characters reshaped, old stories told in new ways.


 

References:

David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, (New York : Columbia University Press, 1985).

Jason Dietz, “Are Original Moves Really Better than Derivative Works?” metcritic.com, April 21, 2011, http://www.metacritic.com/feature/movie-sequels-remakes-and-adaptations

Mark Harris, “The Day the Movies Died,” GQ, February 2011, http://www.gq.com/entertainment/movies-and-tv/201102/the-day-the-movies-died-mark-harris

Gavin Palone, “Producer Gavin Palone onWhy Remakes are Killing the Movie Business,” Vulture, September 21, 2011, http://www.vulture.com/2011/09/gavin_polone_remakes_making_th.html

David Plnson, “Too many Sequels and Remakes!!!! And It’s All Your Fault,” CinemaStance, http://www.cinemastance.com/too-many-sequels-and-remakes-and-its-all-your-fault-2/

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