The origins and evolution of the movie sequel

We delve deep into the mists of time to discover the origins of the sequel, and come up with an unusual prime suspect…

If you want to blame somebody in particular for the rise and lingering popularity of movie sequels, you may want to point an accusatory finger at Johannes Gutenberg. Several hundred years before the first moving image was projected onto a wall somewhere in the late Victorian era, it was with the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg and his contemporaries that the concept of the sequel almost certainly began.

The first book to go into mass publication was the Bible, which was hardly the kind of book you’d dare to attempt to follow up with a sequel (though Jerry Bruckheimer may have tried, had he been a 15th century publisher). It was the modern novel, an invention that properly came into being in the 1700s, that ushered in the very first sequels.

Thanks to the power of the printing press, literature could be made and sold for a healthy profit, and novels like Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726) were among the first bestsellers, with the public hungrily devouring their first print runs within weeks of publication. In what is now recognised as a fairly standard practice, the financial success of these novels immediately prompted publishers to put out numerous follow-up stories to cash in on the interest of the first.

Gulliver’s Travels, in particular, inspired all sorts of spin-off tales and sequels, none of them written by the original’s author, Jonathan Swift. These included Memoirs Of the Court Of Lilliput, written by an anonymous author and published in 1727, and The New Gulliver, written by Pierre Desfontaines in 1730, which, like a modern-day reboot, saw Lemuel Gulliver’s son, John, take up his father’s mantle and head off on a series of fantastical adventures overseas.

Ad – content continues below

The sequel, then, became a natural by-product of a book’s financial success, and soon became a common publishing phenomenon, even if the results were seldom highly regarded by critics or as memorable as the books that inspired them.

Cinematic sequels, meanwhile, are as old as the practice of filmmaking itself. Pioneering French filmmaker, Georges Méliès, followed up the success of A Trip To The Moon with the thematically similar The Impossible Voyage, both of which were loosely based on novels by Jules Verne.

Director and performer Paul Wegener’s 1915 film, The Golem was followed up by The Golem: How He Came Into The World and The Golem And The Dancing Girl, which told the story of a mythical creature and its exploits in the ghettoes of Prague.

By the late-1920s, the Hollywood filmmaking machine had whirred fully into life, and the creation of sequels began in earnest. The first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer (1927), prompted Warner to hurriedly create a sequel, The Singing Fool, which made even more money than the first film did.

The wildly successful horror movies of Universal, Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Invisible Man, for example, all spawned follow-ups of rather mixed quality. While James Whale’s Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) is justly regarded as a classic, films like Dracula’s Daughter, Son Of Dracula, and Son Of Frankenstein are little more than amusing romps, and roundly lack the powerful imagery and atmosphere of their predecessors.

Ad – content continues below

The reception of RKO’s King Kong prompted the studio to rush a sequel into production to cash in on the public’s appetite for big apes. Called The Son Of Kong, it was shot and released nine months after the first film, was hugely inferior, and did only modest business. (King Kong was, of course, one of the major influences on 1954’s Godzilla, which went on to become one of the longest running film series in history.)

The pattern of sequels riding in the wake of success has endured ever since. Moving into the 60s, the popularity of Dr No, the first adaptation of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel, was lucrative enough to prompt production company EON to adapt all the author’s other novels at the rate of roughly one per year. When the wellspring of Fleming novels ran dry, they simply began creating new stories of their own.

It wasn’t until the 70s, however, that the modern, numbered sequel came into being. Before the 70s, sequels had all been given individual names that may or may not have referred back to the original film (see The Return Of The Pink Panther, The Revenge Of The Pink Panther, and so on).

The new era of big studio pictures, which saw directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg leap to prominence, brought with it The Godfather Part II and French Connection II, both of which, ironically, are rare examples of sequels that compare positively with their predecessors.

Ad – content continues below

The birth of the high-concept movie (and for more about that particular branch of filmmaking, see Paul Martinovic’s article, linked below), which inarguably began with Spielberg’s unexpected summer hit, Jaws, marked the start of what I often uncharitably refer to as the landfill sequel.

To qualify for this ignominious title, a movie series passes through several phases, from critical praise (Jaws) to critical indifference (Jaws 2, 1975) via critical mauling (Jaws 3, 1983) to complete self-parody and series meltdown (Jaws 4). Other examples of the landfill sequel include RoboCop, Superman and The Karate Kid.

While the series listed above were doing the business for big Hollywood studios, the horror filmmakers lurking at the peripheries of the industry were creating sequel-spawning pictures of their own. The success of John Carpenter’s Halloween not only gave rise to the slasher subgenre, but also brought about the rise of the modern horror sequel. Halloween was followed by follow-ups of varying degrees of awfulness, and the films that cashed in on the names of Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street followed suit.

While the creation of landfill sequels has continued unabated from the 70s to the present, something quite interesting has occurred in recent years. Until a decade or so ago, a mainstream film series would generally continue until public interest began to wane. Generally speaking, this would happen a couple of films after most of the makers’ best ideas ran dry.

After the excellent Superman II, its sequels saw a decline in both budget and box office receipts, until it was finally killed by the poverty-row Superman IV, which was shot in Milton Keynes. It was the kind of pattern that mimicked the Universal Frankenstein movies of the 30s. After two classic first entries, the series drifted off into a B-movie ghetto, as budgets were reduced and props, sets and costumes were reused.

Ad – content continues below

What we’ve begun to see over the past decade, however, is a rather different phenomenon. Hollywood has become much more protective over its intellectual properties, and the tendency for big name films to drift into the arena of the cheap and nasty has become far less commonplace.

Take a look at the Fast And Furious franchise, for example. Now ten years old, you’d perhaps expect the series to have run its course. The series certainly had a wobble in 2006 with Tokyo Drift, a film that lacked any of the star names of the first two films (though Vin Diesel was in there somewhere for a second or two), but bounced back with Fast & Furious, which made around three times as much money as its predecessor. This year’s Fast Five has been wildly successful, and even earned murmurs of begrudging applause from some critics. Further Fast sequels lurk just over the horizon.

What we’re seeing, in fact, is a gradual rise in the amount of money Hollywood producers spend on each of their sequels. The budgets of the X-Men trilogy of films crept up each time, rising from $75 million for the first to $210 million for The Last Stand. It was a similar story with the Bourne and Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels (though the moneymen have reined their spending in a bit for On Stranger Tides, which cost a third less than the indescribably bloated At World’s End).

Compare this trend to that of the Superman movies of the 70s and 80s, which started at around $55 million for the first, and then gradually dwindled to $15 million for the hideous fourth instalment. These days, Hollywood has begun to keep a closer eye on the budgets of its big franchises, throwing steadily more money at the successful ones like the Bourne series, or simply rebooting them if their audience begins to dwindle, hence films such as X-Men: First Class or Casino Royale.

While the way sequels are funded and made may have changed over the years, their essential purpose remains the same. If there’s a ready market for one film, it’s almost inevitable that a sequel won’t be far behind, even if there’s no logical story requirement for such films to be made. Shakespeare In Love 2, anyone?

Ad – content continues below

In this respect, nothing much has changed since the 18th century. Even then, authors and publishers were making money from writing sequels from their own or other people’s work, and the books that resulted were frequently derided by critics and, in most cases, swiftly forgotten.

So, when you see the poster for the eighth Pirates Of The Caribbean movie in a few years’ time and wonder whom you should blame for its existence, just remember, it’s the fault of all those people who keep buying cinema tickets for unimaginative sequels. While you’re at it, you could blame those money-grabbing novel writers who wrote the first literary sequels in the 18th century, and their publishers should shoulder some responsibility, too.

And finally, there’s public enemy number one, Johannes Gutenberg, whose printing press led to the economic climate that rewarded sequel makers with huge quantities of cash. There’s a clear line, therefore, between the Gutenberg of the 15th century and Steve Guttenberg, who starred in Police Academy and several of its tawdry sequels. You can’t tell me that’s just a coincidence.

See Also: