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Why Sequels Are Sometimes Superior

01/17/2013 01:32 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2013
  • Dave Astor Author, 'Comic (and Column) Confessional'

Some sequels are better than the first novel, and some are worse. Why? The sequel to that question will consist of several answers in this post, along with examples of sequels that did or did not surpass the original book.

I thought about this topic after the recent release of The Hobbit movie. The J.R.R. Tolkien novel that inspired the current film of course ended up being the prequel to one of literature's most famous sequels: The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As wonderful as The Hobbit novel is, The Lord of the Rings is on a whole other level.

One reason is that Tolkien initially wrote The Hobbit for his own children, so it was designed as a book for young people -- even as it obviously transcended that. Although millions of young people would also love The Lord of the Rings, it was clearly aimed at grown-ups.

Other reasons why the trilogy became a deeper, more accomplished work: Its content was influenced by World War II, in which millions died during the years Tolkien was writing his masterpiece. And the author spent much more time on The Lord of the Rings than on his first book. Also, he was older, had more life experience and fiction-writing experience, and had more knowledge of the mythical Middle-earth and its inhabitants -- including some, like Gandalf and Gollum, who appeared in both The Hobbit and its trilogy sequel.

Some of the above reasons also explain why other authors' sequels might exceed the first novel in quality.

But then there are those sequels not as good as the originals. Why? Maybe the authors just had an "off" book. Or were past their writing primes. Or were tired of the characters from the first book, and did the sequel more to please fans and/or make lots of money than because of creative inspiration. Or perhaps they had done all they could with the characters when it came to plot ideas, dialogue, etc. Indeed, the elements of surprise and revelation may not be as plentiful in sequels -- for the authors as well as readers. There's something to be said for writing and reading a fictional work created from scratch.

Anyway, I'm now going to name some sequels I thought were great, very good or not so good; please feel free to agree or disagree. And I'll ask you to name other sequels that compare favorably or unfavorably with the novels that came before.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel of sorts to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which Huck Finn is a supporting character. Tom Sawyer is one of the most entertaining young-adult-type novels ever, but Huckleberry Finn has much more depth and resonance.

The sequel to John Steinbeck's Cannery Row is Sweet Thursday. Both are engaging, funny novels, but I think the first one is a bit better.

Margaret Atwood eventually followed Oryx and Crake with The Year of the Flood, a sequel that kind of parallels the first book's time frame. Both speculative-fiction novels are superbly written dystopian downers, and I give the former an "A-" and the latter a "B" in Atwood's admirable canon.

Alexandre Dumas' terrific The Three Musketeers later spawned Twenty Years After and several other novels featuring many of the same characters. Dumas was incapable of writing a bad book, but The Three Musketeers is clearly the best of the swashbuckling part of his "oeuvre."

Still another well-known sequel is Louisa May Alcott's Little Men, which followed the beloved classic Little Women.

Among my biggest sequel disappointments are two in the time-travel category. Twenty-five years after Time and Again, Jack Finney came out with From Time to Time. The first was an evocative masterpiece, complete with photos, about going back to late-19th-century New York City. The second -- published during the year of Finney's death -- was a dud that even included a hackneyed trip-on-the-Titanic plot line.

A somewhat similar situation involved Darryl Brock, who wrote the amazing time-travel/baseball novel If I Never Get Back and then followed it a dozen years later with the so-so sequel Two in the Field.

Also part of any sequel discussion are John Updike's four "Rabbit" Angstrom novels, published roughly a decade apart. I haven't read that quartet, but perhaps you have an opinion about the relative merits of Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest.

Literature's many book series -- such as J.K. Rowling's seven Harry Potter novels -- are kind of related to, yet different from, prequels/sequels. I limited this post to prequels/sequels, but, if you'd like, feel free to discuss winners and duds within series!

What are some of your favorite and not-so-favorite sequels?

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Dave Astor's memoir -- Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) -- includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others. Those three also appear in the partly humorous book, along with other famous columnists and cartoonists and people such as Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King and Martha Stewart. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net.

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