Wednesday, 4 June 2014

What Katie Didn't Do Next: prequel/sequel/reboot fatigue

As I listened to a rapturous radio review of Death Comes to Pemberley recently, I realised that I am a near-obsessive anti-sequel kind of person. There's been a rash of them recently. Aside from the usual movie franchises there's been every conceivable reinvention of old and new stories...prequels, re-boots, re-imaginings, revisitings, rehashings....we suddenly need to know how Batman begins, what happened after Darcy and Elizabeth got married, how Sherlock and Watson met and pretty much unravel every remaining literary and film mystery for the common enlightenment.
How did this happen? (Maybe I should write a prequel - How Prequels Came To Hollywood...) There's no denying most people seem to lap up the "what happened next/before/inbetween" idea almost with as much relish as reliving the original stories they are inevitably based on. It's not just that sequels are the most obvious form of standing one's own work conveniently on the shoulders of another man's genius (to (inaccurately) quote the beleaguered Laurie in Little Women - and no, I didn't read Jo's Boys. Not sorry.) Sometimes it works - I actually break my own rules for Batman Begins and Wide Sargasso Sea, the latter arguably the highest form of the prequel art in that it morphs into its own, independently brilliant and vivid story. So it's not just that I look down on the laziness of it.
I think it goes back to being a kid, and reading books, and falling in love with the idea of the story - a distinct, unique imagining of a person, place or event in its own fictional space and time. When I got older and learned about character development and back story and plot devices, I still couldn't get past the idea of the perfectly formed 'Once upon a time...'
I distinctly remember crying actual tears at the discovery that Anne of Green Gables was not allowed to remain the carrot-haired precocious little girl of my imagination, but - shock! horror! - actually grew up and like, got married and stuff. I just didn't want to know. It's not that I thought L Montgomery made a bad decision writing about the rest of Anne's life, or that the character wasn't worthy of a life beyond the bullied, ginger little orphan she was. It's just that in my mind, it was done. It was a Thing. A perfectly imagined tale of a perfectly imperfect character who didn't need any more, or less, explaining to make me fall hopelessly in love with her. And that goes for nearly every early literary experience I had - Little Women, The Secret Garden, Oliver Twist (although thinking about it Dickens' main characters based on an exhaustively detailed life story premise, thereby pre-empting his inclusion in the prequel disaster. Clever guy), Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia and even, weirdly, books that were designed to be part of a series, rather than a standalone event - I had one copy each of Nancy Drew and the Chalet Girls which I read over and over again, never wanting to read any more. I'd like to think that this was some sort of juvenile defying the retailers' ploy to get you buying more and more books, but in fact I just didn't want to know anything else about those characters. It was done. Move on.
So apart from Batman Begins I'd say my anti-prequel/sequel/reboot sentiments stand for pretty much every cinematic experience, bar the excellent Before Sunset/Sunrise/Midnight trilogy which arguably stands alone as an experiment in a different kind of narrative continuation, revisiting, rather than rebooting the characters because you know what? They're so brilliantly constructed and the story is so REAL it's just a case of dropping in on them to see what's going on rather than attempting a rewrite of their history or a lame follow-on to their original story. And I'm not talking about SERIES of films either, so you know, that lets the likes of Lord of the Rings, Mission Impossible (no really! I love it!) and Bond (actually hate it but still) off the hook. I'm talking about the useless appendage to an original idea that was, for example,  Batman and Robin, Speed 2, Grease 2 and others marvellously listed (so I don't have to) by here. I'm not saying I'm onto something original here (although I wish I was then maybe someone would pay me a ridiculous amount to write a sequel) - disappointing movie sequels are well-documented and a pet peeve of many a movie critic, geek or even casual observer.
No, what really gets me is the drift from producers of massive multi-million dollar megahits thinking they can eek a bit more out of the franchise to people, quite sane, normally educated and insightful people (like, say, the interviewers of Radio 4) start raving about television adaptations of these prequel/reboot/rehash fiascos as if they are as brilliant as the originals themselves. WHAT ARE THESE PEOPLE THINKING?! So Darcy dies - WE COULD HAVE IMAGINED THAT IF WE WANTED TO RUIN ELIZABETH'S LIFE! Wickham's a criminal - well, DUR! This is not imaginative thinking. This is the kind of terrible sadistic trick your mind plays when you finish reading a chapter of Pride and Prejudice just before bed and it gets mixed up with your own dismal, boring and frankly unhelpful life experiences. 
Worst of all it intimates a sort of terrible disrespect for your reader, as though the poor souls couldn't possibly fully understand this particular story without someone more informed, like a script writer without an original bone in his body or an author running out of their own ideas, to extrapolate it for them. To these patronising keepers of the televisual landscape I say: We KNOW Sherlock and Watson had to meet! We KNOW Lewis probably did his own detective work without Morse one day. We KNOW Little Women didn't STAY little. We KNOW all these things. We probably thought about them ourselves at some point. Because, you know, reading helps your IMAGINATION. The definition of imagination, by the way, is "the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses." So, by definition, taking us through the history and future of every cherished literary life we've ever known does not edify but encourages a LACK of imagination, the very essence of literary and visual arts and the thing the human race is in desperate need of in all walks of life.
Imagine if we applied the prequelsequel philosophy to great works of art. What if an artist reimagined Van Gogh's painting of the chair from a different angle, or showed us what was missing from Monet's Water Lilies scene, or reconstructed the rest of Tracey Emin's house without the bed (heaven forbid), perhaps revealing that she's not quite the scuzzy bohemian we all thought she was but actually had like, a desk with water bills on it and little post-its reminding herself to buy milk. Would the critics love it? Would they hail it as a great new work of imagination? I guess not.