Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Ever after?

What happened next?

This is a question that a parent might well hear during any pause in the course of a really good bedtime story. Or sometimes at the end of the story, after the supposedly final “And they all lived happily ever after.”

It is also a question that might run through our minds as the credits roll at the end of a movie that we have really enjoyed.

In our discussion last week about sequels and prequels, one thing that was clear was the fact that, as an audience, we have a natural yearning for stories we love not to end. Movie studios understand this, which is why they make so many sequels. Indeed, some movies are conceived as open-ended series built around recurring characters (e.g. Andy Hardy, Nick and Nora Charles, James Bond), who can keep coming back as long as audiences want to see them. And no one seems to mind, in fact they take comfort in, the fact that movies in series such as these tend to tell the same story over and over. In this way, movies mirror novels, which are also sometimes as conceived as series centered around the same character(s), or for that matter, television shows.

At the same time, most of us have probably had the experience of seeing a sequel to a movie we loved dearly and winding up feeling disappointed or cheated because it fell short of our expectations and, in the worst of cases (cf. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), diminished our warm memories of the original. This suggests a conundrum. The more we like a movie, the more we want to see the story continue and see more of its characters. But the better a movie is, the more likely that a sequel will fall short of the standard set by the original—unless the same creative team can be kept together (cf. The Godfather: Part II, Superman II, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight) and are motivated to maintain the level of quality. But we have gone over all of this before, as well as highlighting some of the worst sequels.

So, in a perfect world, how would it be decided whether or not a movie gets a sequel? As already mentioned, some movies are conceived from the get-go as a series. More movies to follow, the box office willing, are a given. It is safe to say that movies based on novels that are part of a series or on comic books or on television shows are prime candidates for sequels, again with the box office willing. There are other movies that may have original screenplays but which are conceived as having possible follow-ups. A recent example is Duncan Jones’s impressive Moon.

Beyond these obvious cases, which movies, if any, should get sequels? Clearly, the attitude of the studios is such that this question gets answered as follows: any sequel that could reliably make us a lot of money should be made. Some filmmakers, on the other hand, conceive of their film as a one-off, for artistic or literary reasons. But, unless that filmmaker has enough clout to own the rights to the story and characters, it will not be his or her decision whether there will be a follow-up. In other words, almost any movie is the cinematic equivalent of a television pilot. Even a no-budget movie with independent film cred like Kevin Smith’s breakthrough Clerks is not immune (admittedly, with Smith’s own collusion) to not only the possibility of a sequel but also of an animated TV series.

Some classic movies have proved (more or less) immune to the lure of sequels. There was little left to work with at the end of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. And no one needed to see George Bailey (played by James Stewart) have another visitation by an angel, as he did in It’s a Wonderful Life. Neither has anyone managed to continue the story of San Francisco detective Scottie Ferguson (also played by Stewart) of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, although some of Hitch’s other films (Psycho, The Birds) have gotten sequels of, to say the least, varying quality. Victor Fleming’s box office titan Gone with the Wind has avoided a big screen sequel, which is in line with the wishes of the novel’s author, Margaret Mitchell. But Mitchell would probably not have been too happy about a TV mini-series, based on a sequel to Mitchell’s novel (Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley), which was aired in 1994.

If ever there was a movie that begged to be continued, it was Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. After all, it ends with Rick and Capt. Renault walking off, not into the sunset, but into the mist, talking over the battles they will fight against Nazism and Fascism. Of course, we wanted to see those adventures, to see what happened next. Would they both survive the war? Would Rick and Ilsa somehow get together again? If ever a movie left us wanting more, that one did. But, on the other hand, it was such a great movie that we didn’t want to see it in any way diminished, and that would have been the risk with a sequel. The fact is that Casablanca was about Rick Blaine’s Big Moment, the crossroads where he decided to stop wallowing in his cynicism and to do the right thing and to join the good fight. No sequel could match that moment. Or worse, as sequels often do, that moment could have been played all over again. He could have met up with Ilsa again and have gone through the whole agonizing decision again to do the right thing. That would definitely diminish the original movie. No, as much as Casablanca left us wanting more, more would have been the wrong thing to give us.

Interestingly, there have been various attempts to continue or add to the Casablanca story. After the movie’s original success, there was talk at Warner Bros. about making a follow-up called Brazzaville, a place referenced by Capt. Renault in the movie’s final scene, but nothing came of it. In the end, the closest we have come to a big screen sequel was the delightful 1972 Woody Allen comedy (directed by Herbert Ross) Play It Again, Sam.

English film critic David Thomson wrote an unauthorized novel, Suspects, continuing the Casablanca story in the mid-1980s. An authorized novel continuing the story, by Michael Walsh, was published in 1998, but it was not particularly successful. The boob tube has adapted the movie twice briefly, but did not attempt to continue the story. Ten episodes were made in the mid-1950s for the revolving series Warner Bros. Presents. Character actor Charles McGraw played Rick, and Marcel Dalio (who played Emil the croupier in the movie) played Capt. Renault. In the 1980s, five episodes were aired of a short-lived series, which starred David Soul (four years after the end of Starsky and Hutch) as Rick, Hector Elizondo as Capt. Renault, Ray Liotta as Sacha and Scatman Crothers as Sam.

Sometimes we are definitely better off with a simple “And they all lived happily ever after.”

-S.L., 10 September 2009

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