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Follow Me: The Lost Art of the Sequel Hook…

I had the pleasure of seeing David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on Friday, and it was a very good film. It smoothed out some of the issues I had with the original adaptation, was beautifully acted and directed, and was just a very nice piece of film. However, I was a bit disappointed with the ending of the film, which served as a twenty-minute trailer for the sequel. This is a sequel that hasn’t been greenlit yet, and hasn’t even been written. I appreciate the enthusiasm, but I do think there is a point where setting up a later instalment undermines the original film.

Leaving the series with snow where to go?

You could make the case that the sequels are practically assured. The film is a well-made adaptation of a popular multi-media franchise with an internationally recognised leading actor and a considerable supporting cast. It’s being released at Christmas as counter-programming to the festive cheer that normally flood cinema, and the combination of movie-goers intrigued by the source material, by Fincher and by Craig should be enough to make the sequels a financially viable decision. I accept this, and I sincerely hope that we do see Fincher deliver his first trilogy based around the books.

That said, I think it’s worth pointing out that nothing is assured in Hollywood. After all the talk of planning a trilogy, this summer’s Green Lantern seems increasingly unlikely to see a sequel, despite occasional reassurances from studio executives. Even if it does, one senses that it will come with a very sharp (and very necessary) change of direction. Hollywood is awash with frnachises that never really happened – movies intended to launch characters and scenarios that could be spun-off in their own direction, but which never got off the ground.

Colour me unexcited...

The Golden Compass is perhaps the best example in recent memory, but there are many more. The Three Musketeers comes to mind, with the eponymous elite guard failing to confront Cardinal Rochefort in the film, because that would ruin the proposed sequel. As much as we may hope that David Fincher will be releasing The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, I won’t see it as a sure thing until the box office figures are in.

However, my problem with the sequel hook that eats up the last twenty minutes of the film is more fundamental than that. After all, if a film is a good enough, the ending won’t be undermined by a link to a sequel that never existed. If it’s a solid little film, I can pretend that the cliff-hanger storythreads are something similar to the ending of The Italian Job. They suggest that the characters have lives that exist beyond the two hours I happened to have spent with them.

A Cardinal Sin...

I should also be clear that I like a tease. As much as the next viewer, I love the faintest suggestion of where the sequel might go. I loved the moment at the end of Batman Begins where Gordon warns Batman about escalation, and then hands him an iconic playing card. It’s a scene that doesn’t need The Dark Knight to make sense – it’s just an illustration that the entire movie was just, well… a beginning, for lack of a better word. It underscores the idea that the film has just set up a world that is evolving and developing, and things are going to get more complicated as a result of that.

On a similar note, I don’t really have a problem with clever structuring between sequels. For example, the final sequence of The Bourne Supremacy is actually taken from the middle of the third film, The Bourne Ultimatum, but it works well in context. It doesn’t diminish the rest of the film, while setting up an interesting premise for the next instalment. I think that sort of set-up works quite well.

Taking a shot at a franchise...

However, the problem with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and quite a few other recent films, is that it seems to spend far too long setting up the next film. It almost seems like somebody cut out the first half of the first act of a sequel and tied it to the end of the final reel. It seems to flow from the third act of the present film, where the murder-mystery on the Vanger estate is resolved, through to the first section of the next film. I have no objection to trying to hook the audience with a cliffhanger, but there’s more to it than that. We see Lisbeth’s actions in great detail, knowing that there’s not going to be pay-off for any of this set-up for several years, if at all.

It’s the same sort of problem I had with Green Lantern, which tried to shoe-horn in a character arc for the sequel, when the main plotline was already muddled enough. Part of me wonders if these movies wouldn’t be better served to focus more on the story they are telling us right nowas opposed to setting up an even greater film down the road. If we don’t like the current film, it’s going to be tough to sell us on the sequel, no matter how well you happen to make it.

Very few movies have a long series ahead of them...

When I think about these sequel hooks, I can’t help but think of a quote from Gattaca. Explaining how the weak Vincent is able to swim further than his genetically modified brother, he explains, “I never saved anything for the swim back.” It seems increasingly in franchise films that the writers and producers are more concerned with building a series that works rather than crafting an individual movie that works. This obviously isn’t the case with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as the first movie works, but it has been the case with any number of recent big studio efforts.

If you have an idea that works, don’t “save” it for a film that might never happen. Don’t hold back on the movie currently in production because you’re reserving that one great idea for a film two or three years down the road. Just focus on giving us the most bang for our buck. That, more than anything you might hint at or set up, will convince us to come back for the follow-up.

3 Responses

  1. At least with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” they know what the next story is going to be and it’s a fair chance that the sequel will happen. Of course, there’s always the chance that either the movie turns out to be no good or the audience just ignores it. The Harry Potter producers took a huge chance in planning the sequels from the beginning, but if the first film bombed they would have had to re-think their strategy very quickly.

    When tackling book series like “The Golden Compass” or Percy Jackson that are going to cost the studios a lot of money (and deal with problems like child actors growing up), you either take the gamble or play it safe. “Compass” split the difference by not building in an automatic sequel, but ending the movie as if there was going to be one. The movie didn’t do as well as expected, so no sequel was made. This piece was specifically the first part of a longer story, so it didn’t stand on its own. It’s like watching Ralph Bakshi’s animated “Lord of the Rings,” which told only half of the overall story and then just ended with no conclusion.

    Robert Zemeckis faced the opposite problem with “Back to the Future” in that the film ended with a cliffhanger of sorts that was supposed to be like how you described the Joker card in “Batman Begins.” It wasn’t literally meant to lead into a sequel, but was just giving the impression that Marty and Doc’s adventures in time were just beginning. However, that stuck the filmmakers with a weak premise for the second film that they had to first fix before moving on to a more interesting plot. In that case, the “hook” nearly did them in. Of course, they could have done what Sam Raimi did with his “Evil Dead” series and take the ending of one movie and alter it to suit his needs for the sequel.

    • That’s a fair point. And I do really hope we see a Fincher-helmed sequel (or two, as you suggest). Of course, there are probably better things he could be doing, but I would love to see Fincher’s continuity of vision over three films – because it’s rare that you get that level of long-term involvement from a director of that sort of background and skilset.

  2. My favorite sequel hook ever was at the end of the closing credits for “Aliens”: as the end music fades away and the credits themselves roll off the screen, everything is black and silent — except for the faint sound of what can only be an Alien facehugger scuttling across the ship’s metal deck.

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