I saw Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest over the last weekend and I was disappointed. Three hours of setup for the sequel, with nice special effects along the way. Ultimately disappointing.
But seeing it reminded me of a problem that I’ve detected in at least two different artistic endeavors: movie making and genre writing. It’s the problem of trilogies or series that just can’t bear the weight of three parts. They really should be pared down to one or maybe two parts because there’s just not enough story to sustain them any longer.
Examples that come to mind: the Matrix, Pirates, X-Men, Spider-Man, Robin Hobb, Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Thomas Harlan. All of these works were created by artists with a grand vision but the exigencies of the marketplace seem to have done them in.
The prevalence of trilogies in fantasy and science fiction is especially noxious. I recently went looking for used copies of work by Joanna Russ, who wrote most of her novels during the 1960s and 1970s. Every one of them stands as an independent work and is usually only 100-200 pages long. Compared to the doorstoppers that currently grace the shelves of SF/F it’s parsimony to an extreme degree.
My speculations for the general increase in the number of multi book series and multi part Hollywood movies is economic. I think publishers and movie makers have taken the idea of selling a guaranteed product and extended it as far as it will go. I’m neither an expert in publishing or movie making, but it seems like the marketing is beginning to overwhelm the art.
No doubt this complaint about the market submerging the art is an old one. It’s nothing new to observe that art is affected by the market. What’s different seems to be the form of this control. For some reason three has become the magical number for book and movie contracts.
X-Men 3 was criticized because it crammed too many plot threads (read the comments) into a single movie. But this is the logic of selling your projects in lots of three. The cast was only signed for three movies so every storyline must be dumped into the pot. Pirates of the Caribbean 2 was one long commercial for next summer’s blockbuster.
It may be just coincidence but I think a lot of these trends began in the 1970s and 1980s. The studio system in Hollywood never seemed to be as sequel happy as modern day cineastes. Nor did the publishing industry of earlier in the century. I suspect that this was caused by the decline of the old publishing and movie making systems and their replacement by the corporate conglomerates. The industries of culture have long since sold themselves out.
There are exceptions to all of these cases. Music seems to be an endeavor that avoids the linked series of albums or CDs. Although the same marketing pressures are applied to ensure that radio singles are prominently placed and the audience is not too surprised by unexpected artistic surprise. Stephen King seems to be an author who has a defined brand but is less likely to be forced into the straightjacket of serial work.
Genre does have a purpose. So does repetition and consistency. I just sometimes wish that the logic of moneymaking wasn’t quite so blatantly foregrounded.