Imagine taking some of the great novels and splitting them up into parts. Imagine taking Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and chopping it up into 31 installments, or making The Count of Monte Cristo last for 139 episodes. Imagine The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s towering novel, spread out over two years. Imagine The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the foundation stones of American literature, being chopped up into pieces and parceled out to the public as a serial.
You don’t have to imagine hard, because that is how all of these novels were first published. And they’re not alone - Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Anna Karenina were all published as serials before being collected into their current novel form. Charles Dickens’ serials were so popular people in New York would go to the wharf to meet the ships carrying the latest installment.
We like serialized stories. Just look at the podcast Serial, the most downloaded podcast in history, which is doling out the story of a 1999 murder case one week at a time. We like coming back every episode refreshed with our own conversations and speculations. We like it when it’s on TV, as people gather around the virtual fireplace of the internet and talk about the latest episodes of whatever show is currently popular. We like having stories permeate our lives for weeks, months or even years at a time.
So it makes sense that we like it in our movies. Yet there are many who decry the serialization of motion pictures, who point to the world of sequels and continuing stories and the growth of connected universes as something terrible, as a symptom of a sickness afflicting the cinema. If it’s a sickness it’s one Charles Dickens had bad.
Serialized storytelling isn’t new in the movies; there are many who look fondly upon the serials of the 30s and 40s, films whose aesthetics influenced Star Wars, which in turn influenced everything else that came after. It’s no wonder that serialization is back in vogue in the cinemas, it’s just a surprise that it took this long.
It’s important to note that serialization is different from sequels. I mean, it’s the same thing technically, but the traditional Hollywood approach to sequels isn’t serialization (the current Hollywood word for serialization, by the way, is franchising. I hate this word, as it sounds more like a new McDonald’s location than the next chapter in a story). Traditional Hollywood sequels are usually retreads, a redo of the original story in a new environment or with the addition of a new threat. It’s hard to look at the Lethal Weapon series and say there’s a story being told across the four films - it’s just another adventure of Murtaugh and Riggs that’s riffing on all the same elements. Traditional sequels are situations where a movie does well and everybody decides to get back together again and to see if they can replicate that success, often by replicating as much of the original as possible.
We’re moving out of that era. There are many who roll their eyes when they hear a producer has plans for three movies to follow the upcoming release of a new ‘franchise starter,’ but how can we not prefer this system? This is a story being told - why not walk into it with the plan for the rest of the story? Surely we don’t want our continuing series to just be exquisite corpse tales, with filmmakers trying to pick up the thread of what went before. Besides the fact that The Transformers films aren’t particularly good as individual films, they represent an old-style sequel series where there’s nothing being built from film to film. It’s part of why they’re so bad as a whole. They have no storytelling goal posts, even though Paramount knows they're going to keep making these films as long as they can. Meanwhile the new Planet of the Apes series has a general story goal post - a world of mute humans and dominant apes - that allows that serialized, sequelized storytelling to have some general shape.
It’s really important to make peace with an economic reality here: there will be sequels and franchises. The current theatrical model demands it, and short of a major shift in funding, distribution and audience tastes this is what we’re dealing with. And those things will, eventually, shift - sequels were once declasse, and audiences weren’t particularly into them (although they existed, as the 23 film Boston Blackie series or the 22 film Dead End Kids series attest). But for now, and for the next decade or so at least, we’ll be living in a world where the franchise picture rules all.
This doesn’t mean they’re all good. It just means this is a way of telling stories. When done right - and I believe the Marvel films and The Hunger Games films are doing it right - serialized storytelling can be an exciting, culturally engaging form. Serialized storytelling probably works best in adaptations, where there’s an entire story that is proven to work plotted out, but I’m interested in seeing what James Cameron does with his three back-to-back Avatar sequels. Having conceived them at once hopefully means they'll be an organic longform story as opposed to a herky jerky set of repeats of the first film.
The idea that a film needs to tell a complete, total, finite story within its running time is quickly becoming antiquated, and that’s exciting. There are more options now; the traditional three hour limit is falling away. The danger, of course, is that the individual chapters will not be satisfying enough - I call this the Deathly Hallowsing - but smart filmmakers can take on these challenges and make them work. There will always be movies that are just their own self-contained stories, but now there can be movies that are not, that are something more. And having that option - a bigger canvass, a more epic scope - can be exhilarating… in the right hands.
Serialization can also go terribly wrong. Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy is an example of a story serialized out of all reason, reshaped into something unrecognizable from the source material and rendered unworkable in the process. The announcement that The Stand will be made into four films has many people wondering if the story can structurally support that. But walking in knowing the shape - not just of the story but of the storytelling method - means that Josh Boone can hopefully created installments that are, on their own, satisfying enough but that become a great whole when it's all said and done. Nobody today reads Oliver Twist as a serial, just as most people watch the Lord of the Rings films as a whole (speaking of serialization - The Lord of the Rings was originally one novel, but Tolkien's publisher split it into three. Serialization is everywhere), whether in one sitting or not.
The entire world of cinema is changing, from distribution to the tools of filmmaking themselves. Why should cinematic storytelling be trapped in the same boundary its been within for decades? This is an exciting time to love the movies, because they’re changing all around us. I'm looking forward to the next chapter in the serial that is the story of film.