Monday, April 6, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I will try to recreate imaginatively how the film industry and the publishing industry, way back in earlier decades, used to attempt to perpetuate their profits by the making of sequels.
Let’s say Universal Pictures had just had a big hit with Bela Lugosi as Dracula or with Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. Of course the studio executives would ask immediately “How can we further milk the market that liked this stuff?” And they would set about making a series of sequels until such time as profits went down and the series ceased. Thus the existence of various Returns of, Brides of, Sons of, Ghosts of Dracula and/or Frankenstein, each one usually a little cheaper than the last, each one churned out simply to make a buck and often deploying the same sets and costumes as the successful original in order to minimise costs. (Though some would say Bride of Frankenstein was a better movie than Frankenstein.) Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1950s was awash with sequels, and as late as the 1970s the original Planet of the Apes spawned a series of sequels, each one a little limper than the one that went before.
But, with few exceptions, the tendency for the movie industry to make sequels was running down by the time television came along and audiences got used to seeing recurring characters and repeated formulaic plots on the small screen rather than the big screen, in the form of TV series. (Oh very well – in Britain there was the endless witless “Carry On…” series of films from the 1950s to the 1980s, but they were specifically made for people who wanted to experience the equivalent of television on the big screen.)
At the same time, the publishing industry, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, has never been averse to series of popular novels featuring the same characters and tapping into the same market. From Sherlock Holmes to Bulldog Drummond to Lord Peter Wimsey to Inspector Alleyn to Maigret to Mike Hammer to Nero Wolfe to James Bond, this has been the case particularly with detective stories and thrillers. “Pulp” novels lived by recycling the same characters and story ideas, and some of the “pulps” even achieved a certain literary merit. Outside detective stories and thrillers (and the likes of the Tarzan novels), series of sequels tended to appeal most to juvenile readers, with all the Biggles and Bobbsey Twins and Famous Five books.
Okay – so I’ve established that the exploitation of the same characters in sequels is no new thing in either films or books. But there was something about the way sequels used to operate in popular culture that was different from the way they operate now. It was always assumed that each story in any given series was a complete entity in itself with a beginning, middle and end. Sure, there were sometimes tricks to link an earlier story with a later one. To revert to the example of Universal’s old Frankenstein movies, you find that the monster perishes horribly at the end of each instalment so that an excuse has to be made to “revive” him at the beginning of the next one. It was also true that for each commercial series, the original story that set the series off was conceived of as an individual book (or film). Sequels came only when that book or film had proved commercially successful.
But now we are faced with a different phenomenon. Now we are faced with the FRANCHISE.
Publishers of books for teenagers are loath to publish a new book unless it promises to become a series (enter Harry Potter, Percy Jackson etc.). The idea is not to publish an individual book with a complete beginning, middle and end, but to initiate an addiction. Blockbuster fantasy films are always try-outs for a series, and reviewers talk openly about whether each individual episode enhances or damages the franchise. Even more aggressively than in the days when Walt Disney pioneered the practice, every new film series or pop novel series for teenagers is linked to the marketing of toys, dolls, posters, computer games and various extras. The point is that the film or novel itself is reduced to being merely part of a marketing strategy; an incitement to “brand recognition”. As for the beginnings, middles and ends of good storytelling, they evaporate in the need to keep the franchise going as a unit.
I remember as a film-reviewer in the 1990s watching the teen-centred Back to the Future series. This was near the beginning of the new era of aggressively-marketed franchises. When the first film ended with a note telling audiences to watch out for future developments of the story in a sequel, one fellow reviewer was heard to wail “What is this? Television?” She was thinking in terms of films as individual pieces of storytelling, not as franchises.
I am aware of the economics. It is fiendishly expensive to make films with convincing special effects in an age when fantasy is the preferred poison of young audiences. Therefore the film industry is always trying to find sure profit-making things and the concept of the franchise – the ongoing story with a guaranteed audience – becomes the norm. But it takes a huge toll. The special effects dominate. The arc of good storytelling suffers. And (mercifully, I think) even young audiences become aware that they are being played with, that stories are being dragged out to unnecessary length simply to make an excuse for yet another episode in a series.
Note how, in the current juvenile Hunger Games franchise, one of the source novels was unnecessarily split into two films.
Worst offender in this department is Peter Jackson. Overlong, poorly-scripted and unimaginative in presentation though they were (especially the snail’s paced last episode), the three Lord of the Rings movies at least had the excuse that they were based on a sequence of three long novels. But what excuse was there for turning the simple little kiddies’ book The Hobbit into three or four “epic” films? Padded with unnecessary action, business and set-pieces which in no way advance the story, the Hobbit films are merely an exercise in dragging out a franchise as long as possible.
I am aware that the word “franchise” is now over-used, and sometimes in irrelevant contexts. (I heard one inept young English lecturer trying to be hip by referring to the “Shakespeare franchise”). As I have defined the term here, however, the film franchises reduce film making to the marketing of cheese. Their effects on good cinematic storytelling are wholly negative.

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