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Three is the Magic Number: Why Do We Like Trilogies?

Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing all three films in the Matrix trilogy. I sat down yesterday, watched all three back-to-back and wrote reviews of them. As I did, I found myself thinking about how nice the concept of a “trilogy” is. It’s even a nice word – it sounds much better to say “the [insert film name here] trilogy” than it does to say “the [insert film name here] tetralogy” (or, to quote the Alien films, “quadrilogy”) or even the more generic “[insert film name here] series.” So what is it about sets of three movies that we like so much?

Looking for a stellar trilogy...

I have never really thought about my attachment to the idea of a trilogy, but I guess it’s also been there. I suppose I’ve always perhaps regarded a film franchise producing a trilogy as something akin to a badge of merit. Take, for example, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. I was heart-broken when it seemed that the director might depart the franchise having directed only two films. They are, perhaps, the two best Batman movies ever made – but I longed for more, as I suppose we all long for more. However, it was a third film in particular that I really wanted.

Don’t get me wrong. Even though it looks like the third film will be Nolan’s last, I will be very happy if there’s a fourth. I doubt there will be, but – if there is – I’ll be queuing up around the block for it. Still, it doesn’t seem as important as a third film. You might argue that the reason we really want that third film is because The Dark Knight ends on a cliffhanger – I wouldn’t agree. You could leave Batman’s story at that point (Batman feared by Gotham; the Joker alive and locked up; Gordon his only ally; Gotham’s last true hope dead) and it would feel like a fitting ending for what began in Batman Begins. The chapter has closed, this is the way things have ended up.

Will I be Bored of the Rings by the time I finish?

So why is the concept of a third film so important, perhaps ahead of a second or a fourth film? Is it something particular to movies? Does a “trilogy” make for one day’s good viewing, for example? Could I sit down with three movies in a boxset (as I did yesterday) and watch them back-to-back? Two movies would arguably too short for such a viewing, while four films would be too long. Three films, it seems, is “just right.” Hell, I do plan to one day, if I have time, watch all three Lord of the Rings movies in one go. Although, again, you could argue that I would get through about five regular-sized movies in the same amount of time.

Maybe the number three works because it grants us a hint of complexity that we don’t find with two, but without the difficulties that larger numbers bring. It’s complex and sophisticated, but not to the point that it’s open ended. After all, with two points all you can draw is a line. With three, you can make a triangle – for that one extra point you get two more lines, while still having any easy-to-recognise closed shape.

Perhaps it’s a structural element that makes three such an ideal number for movies. Hollywood, as a rule, favours the three-act structure for big films: beginning, middle and end. Perhaps the structure of a trilogy takes this core idea – one that audiences obviously respond to in droves – and expands it. In fairness, the idea fits. If you think of the movies that “work” as trilogies – the original Star Wars trilogy, the aforementioned Lord of the Rings,the Bourne movies, Indiana Jones – they roughly follow that pattern. The first movie introduces our heroes, the second film develops the world and adds some depth (sometimes through a story that feels tangential to the main plot), and the final film resolves the issues.

Maybe they make for a comfortable viewing experience?

Of course, there are trilogies which work despite the fact they don’t follow that pattern. The most notable is Sergio Leone’s famous “Dollars” trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad & The Ugly). The final film in that set is actually a prequel, and it’s hard to argue that the narrative develops between the three films. On the other hand, if we look at film trilogies that don’t necessarily “work” (The Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man and X-Men, for example), we’ll find that the fault is generally a third film which doesn’t offer closure or resolve anything developed in the previous two.

It’s possible, however, that the significance of the number three extends beyond that. Maybe we see the number three reflected on to film from some outside source. After all, it was Cesaro who proposed the “tricolon”, the idea in rhetoric that the speaker use the pattern of three to make their point (“veni, vidi, vici” being a rather obvious example). This approach has been the hallmark of orators throughout history, including – by way of example – Abraham Lincoln who was quite found of the tricolon as a tool in public speaking. “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate…we can not consecrate…we can not hallow this ground,” remains one of his more famous sondbytes. Hell, think of all the “Rabbi, Priest and an Imam” or “Paddy Englishman, Paddy Irishman, Paddy Scotsman” jokes you’ve ever heard.

Even more basic than that, historians note the incredibly significance of the number three to any number of ancient and modern religions. Christianity gives us the three-in-one (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit), Muslims make pilgrimage to three holy sites (Jerusalem, Mecca, Medina) and Hinduism gives us the Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). The symbolic importance of the number three dates back to time immemorial, so perhaps that explains why we like the concept of trilogies – it’s just a reflection of a deeper-set human fixation on the number three.

Forget your Two Towers... I've got a Dark Tower trilogy coming...

I’ll leave it to philosophers and men of science to explore the deeper significance of that fixation. After all, I think that key spiritual and religious beliefs dating back thousands of years are just a little bit outside the scope of an idle movie blog. Still, it’s fun to ponder.

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