Now that we’ve gotten my attention-catching headline out of the way, let’s acknowledge that some sequels rock. Some are even better than the original. The films The Godfather II and Toy Story 3 and the novel Rainbow High all stand out to me as stronger than the original from which they were drawn, as the story world became richer and the creators knew the material more deeply.
But it’s not that hard to come up with a list of sequels that were terrible and leave us wondering why they were made in the first place. You probably have five in mind already. Instead of breaking down the economics of the film industry and guesswork of audience interest or the craft of writing, I’d like to reposition the conversation about terrible sequels away from craft, art, technique, whatever you want to call it and toward what they’re really created for: emotion.
By the time a sequel rolls around, whether it’s a book or a film, we have spent time with the characters and fallen in love with them. Their world is interesting to us, and we know it better. Sequels give us a chance to reenter that space again, to imagine briefly that we are part of the characters’ lives. They give us a chance to fall in love again.
Case Study: Netflix’s A Christmas Prince
A Christmas Prince is part of Netflix’s new strategy to create original rom-coms in competition with Hallmark. Like Hallmark, many of Netflix’s movies are focused on Christmas. They are short in duration, quick-paced, light in conflict, and heavy on tropes. Unlike Hallmark, Netflix movies feature LGBTQ characters, people of color, and sometimes dirty jokes.
A Christmas Prince was released in 2017. Its narrative is the same as most royal romances, with a few pieces slightly tweaked for the sake of originality. An American journalist named Amber is assigned to interview the prince of a made-up country, and when she can’t interview him, she infiltrates the palace, is mistaken for the kid sister’s tutor, and begins working for the family. She and the prince, Richard, fall in love, and she has to come clean about who she is. Because this is a romance, he doesn’t care, and they live happily for now.
Last winter, Netflix released a sequel. You can already guess the plot. Now that our happy couple have been established, they need to wed. A Christmas Prince 2: The Royal Wedding depicted their struggles leading up to matrimony. Amber isn’t sure what her place in the made-up country is, and she has to leave her dad and New York behind to move to the made-up country. This is much less developed than sight gags about the ugly wedding dresses the horrible wedding planner makes Amber try on. You can guess the ending. It all works out: she gets a pretty dress, they marry, and she becomes queen. Now the story is really wrapped up. They live happily ever after.
Except not. Because these films garnered so many streams and so much buzz on social media, today Netflix released the third installment. With Amber and Richard happily wed, there’s only one real option for this second sequel: they have to have a baby. Where A Christmas Prince was charming in its adaptation of popular romance tropes, A Royal Wedding offered us the chance to see Amber and Richard’s more mature relationship. What does A Royal Baby offer? Pretty much nothing. The movie is cheesier than a Midwestern casserole, with really bad dialogue that’s supposed to feel heart-warming. There is some conflict and plot. An important historical document is lost in the middle of a blizzard, and it has to be found by Christmas Eve. But the search for the document is laughably slow and unsuccessful – to the point that you’d fire all the palace staff if you were the monarch – in order to prolong the movie and give us more scenes of Amber twisting her belly bump counter-clockwise like Meghan Markle.
In other words, it’s bad.
Except not. Because the ideal viewer isn’t watching for the plot. We’re watching because we love Amber and Richard together. We love the supportive cast of secondary characters. The foolish nature of the drawn-out plot gives us more screen time to watch these characters interact with each other. We get to glimpse their private world and see how they’ve formed a community after we saw them meet as strangers. And that is the real beauty of a sequel.
For authors, the question of whether a sequel can be commercially successful is a little trickier. Fifty Shades of Grey managed to do it, banking on fans’ continued desire to see Ana and Christian marry and have a child. But commercial success aside, you only need to do a cursory scan of Amazon reviews to see that fans respond positively to sequels because they tap into our emotional connection with the story and characters, plot be damned.
I’ve got 11 minutes left in A Christmas Prince 3: A Royal Baby. I’ve put aside my wish that the writers hadn’t given Amber and Richard a baby so soon into their marriage, my distaste for Amber’s old lady hair, and my skepticism at her choice to wear pantyhose under her silk pajamas. I’m not thinking consciously about how we’re repeatedly told the roads and airports are closed, yet the characters saunter into town, where the ground is completely bare. Forget the terrible search for the missing document, which doesn’t have any real stakes because it’s not why I’m really watching. I’m really watching because I’ve been with these characters for a long time, and getting another chance to look inside their relationship – even when it’s saccharine – is a pleasurable distraction from reality.