Yes, I saw “Pirates of the Carribean” this weekend. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were indeed a few times that our beloved Johnny seemed to cross the line between character and camp, but I ignored those and loved the movie. The plot was comprehensible, the effects were marvelous, and the secondary love story was “awwwww” inspiring.
And then I came home and went online and –lo and behold– I learned that I probably shouldn’t have enjoyed it so much because it suffers from “sequelitis.” The term was explained as: “That’s when the decision to make a movie is driven by economic imperative — there’s still money to be squeezed from this thing — rather than by artistic impulses.” Further, it was explained that the story arc was finished, nothing more could be revealed about the characters, and so why make the movie?
Oooh, oooh! Let me answer that one. Entertainment? Fun? A new story to tell? Because isn’t that what story telling is about? What’s wrong with putting a fabulous character like Jack Sparrow into another adventure? Yes, he struts and swaggers and yes, there isn’t much of a “character arc” for him in this story, but I already know him for a flawed hero, and I don’t care. I liked all of the sound and fury, though personally, I would have added more of a twist to the ending. I would have made it harder for him to do what he does. . . no spoiler here, mates.
So do I think they made “Pirates” just to make money? Oh, yeah. But for a movie to be this entertaining and interesting and, yes, creative. . . somebody, somewhere had to really care about the story and doing a good job of showing it. It delivered for me and probably for millions of other fans if the box office receipts are to be believed. “Artistic integrity” in movies (and books!) and enjoyability don’t necessarily go together. . . remember “The English Patient?” Remember “Pan’s Labyrinth?” Painful to watch. And as for books, ever read James Joyce? I rest my case.
But there’s another form of “sequelitis” that I want to talk about. That’s the kind where an author starts a series of books, it becomes wildly commercially successful and about the fourth or fifth book, the author and series go totally off track and for a book or two, NOTHING HAPPENS. And then books fail to come out as promised and deadlines get pushed back and back and back. . . and back.
Yes, George R.R. Martin, I’m talkin’ about you. I know there are other book series where this has happened as well, but the one I’m involved in just now is The Game of Thrones. When the HBO series started, I watched the first two episodes with growing discomfort. None of the characters seemed especially “good” to me, not even Ned Stark, the main character of the first part of the book. He’s stubborn and “too honorable.” By that I mean that his definition of honor is so narrow and unyielding that it is self-limiting. . . it cramps his action and ultimately gets him killed. Though he was the best of the characters, you could see that flaw and it was strangely hard to take his part.
The world Martin created is brutal to the max, ruled by sword and vengeance and greed. There are several sets of gods and no generally accepted ethos, no common sense of “law” or right and wrong. The commons folk have NO rights, and women are raped and brutalized without compunction. Sex is degrading, hurtful, and tellingly “doggie style”. . . even the incestuous relationship between the queen and her slimy-but-handsome brother. Watching it made me feel uncomfortable on several levels, but I couldn’t seem to turn away. A friend mentioned she was reading the books and that they gave a lightly different slant on things. So I downloaded them and started to slog through. Now I know more of the characters’ backgrounds and motivations, but I still don’t like them.
I dislike the world even more. Not a book goes by without slaughters, rapes, and mutilations galore and nasty men doing horrible things to children. . . I can’t mention them here or I’d risk alienating blog readers. Yep, THAT bad. Not a world I’d EVER want to be in. (My ancestors were undoubtedly peasants who kept their heads down when battle axes were swinging.)
But apparently I’m as susceptible to developing a purient interest as the next guy. (And yes, I think this series was meant to appeal to a purient MALE sensibility.) Because I read and skimmed and winced my way to the fourth book– where sequelitis squeezed the life out of the story.
In the fourth book of the series, only one or two of the main characters even appear. Most of them just seem to have dropped off the face of the earth. The nearly 800 pages are filled with minor characters who have no great part in moving the grand arc ahead, or at least nothing visible at this point. And there are pages and pages and half-chapters of detail on family ties and lineages that don’t matter to anyone but the author. Then it hit me: the author is lost, totally lost in the world he created. He has lost his grip on the story and is just wondering around grabbing characters and inventing backstories for them and indulging himself. I didn’t think too much more could shock me.
Then came an epliogue written in the author’s own voice, chiding the reader for being impatient and explaining that he’d written so much about so many characters that he simply had to break the book in two and that there would be another book soon to bring back the REAL characters and continue the story.
So. . . what? I just slogged through 800 pages of info-dump and filler?
You know what the corker is? That book was published almost SIX years ago, and the sequel, the fifth book, still isn’t out!!!! Fans all over the internet have complained and vowed to abandon the series after many release dates were promised and those promises were broken. The author shrugs if off and continues to make public appearances and to court readers. . . still talks of his characters as if they’re real people. . . still lives as much in the world he has created as he does in the world of publishing and readers. . . perhaps moreso.
As a reader, I understand: all the author is obligated to do is give me a compelling story. . . which he has done, except in the last book. As a writer, I understand the pressures of success and the solitary act of creation that make it difficult to stay on track with an extended and complex work. But after several successful books, you’d think someone at the publishing house would have stepped in to help pull the author back to reality.
Or not. Some authors acquire such an aura at their publishing house that no one will speak a word of concern to them.
Yes, I’ve seen this happen to writers in the romance field, too. Somewhere around book four the grand story arc starts to wobble and characters start to behave erratically, and there is a stall of meaningful action. That’s often where the writer starts talking about the characters as if they’re real people and spends inordinate amounts of time “meeting readers” and talking about the story as if it is fact, coming up with rationales and backstories– lost in the world with the characters, no longer directing the action at all. Readers sometimes react badly to a that strange fourth or fifth book and the author wakes up and gets back on track. That, or the series ends.
The much vaunted exercise of “world building” is delirioiusly fun and creative and stimulating. But when a writer goes beyond what it takes to make a story seem credible and real– to give the plot body and the characters substance– he or she may be just building for him or herself. And when you spend too much time in imaginary worlds, you can begin to lose track of things in the real world. . . things like deadlines and story arcs and character development and actually publishing books.
That is what I mean by sequelitis. The world becomes more important than the story and the action gets bogged down in minutae. I salute writers like Charlaine Harris and JRWard who have battled through their mid-series difficulties to produce more fabulous books and stay on track.
What about you? As readers have you found yourself invested in a series only to be disappointed or feel abandoned by the author halfway through? Do you agree about my theory about writers getting “lost” in the world they’ve created or am I just blowing hot air? Fellow writers and Riders, have you ever found yourself too invested in a world to make headway with a story? I’ll have a few confession of my own. . .