Friday, June 3, 2011

A Classic Case of Sequelitis

oedipus 2“Sequelitis - A medical condition propagated by a combination of commercial success and creative ineptitude. Symptoms include bad movies and music, arrogance, denial, and desperation. In that order.” – Urban Dictionary

Ahh…sequels. We love them (sort of). We hate them (sort of). We love to hate them (when we don’t have anything better to do).

Some sequels mean well. They’re rightly born of the original intellectual property, crafted by the original creator, and closely linked to their source. Fans accept them into canon. They create wikis to explain the connections between installments. Good times are had by all.

Some sequels are evil. They’re cash grabs, products of creative bankruptcy and fiscal trepidation. They cause fans to hate they things they once adored or, at the very least, enter into blissful ignorance of a given franchise. Good times are had by no one.

I’m sure you can think of examples of both. Star Wars has entries in each category – Final Fantasy, too. If I knew more about the Harry Potter series, I’d mention those as well.

With The Hangover II boring many critics and sequels starring pirates and giant robots dominating the summer lineup, it’s easy to think that all sequels are disingenuous hackjobs. But some do deliver on the promise of their forbearers – for every three movies starring Big Momma, there’s one The Dark Knight.

Sequelitis the disease is not confined to movies and videogames. And it’s worse when the original authors aren’t even involved. Plenty of books, television shows, and other properties fall prey to it – even plays! Especially the classics.


A college friend of mine came back from a used bookstore one day, toting a musty volume from Czechoslovakia. “Godot ist gekommen!” she proclaimed in German. My ears pricked up. Samuel Beckett’s seminal Waiting for Godot was my senior thesis for the drama department. For about six months, you could’ve said, “Baiting my wood, Oh!” (though why would you? weirdo) and I would’ve rushed you, ready to unload/consume existential wisdom.

She had stumbled upon a German translation of Godo je došao (“Godot has come), Miodrag Bulatović’s largely unheard of and completely unauthorized Serbian sequel to Beckett’s masterpiece. The titular Godot, completely absent in the first play, appears as a baker in Bulatović’s follow-up. Here’s the Wikipedia summary (I don’t read Serbian):  The four other characters condemn Godot to death, they discover he is indestructible, so the fool Lucky proclaims him non-existent.

Why not, I suppose. Beckett appears to have dismissed it readily, despite both its proximity to the original (Waiting for Godot premiered in 1952, Godo je došao in 1966) and Beckett’s notorious disdain for adaptations of his material. He even took a Dutch theater company to court in 1988 for trying to stage Godot with an all-female cast. Perhaps Beckett felt Bulatović was no threat to his legacy. Godo je došao is rarely (if ever) performed. Godot is rarely not being performed at all times somewhere.


Speaking of plays that are constantly being performed the world over, Romeo and Juliet sounds like a story that doesn’t need a sequel. Two young kids fall madly in love before *SPOILER ALERT* killing each other after their big plan to runaway together blows up in their soon-to-be-dead faces. It’s a timeless tragedy about love, secrecy, and society’s desperate need for empathy. It also ends with the major players quite quite dead (unless you’re counting Georg Brenda’s 1776 opera, which has a happy ending), so coming back for Round Two feels implausible.

Unless there’s time travel. And ghosts. And Zen Masters.

Enter Romeo and Juliet: A Modern Day Sequel, a romance novel by James Edwards. Brought to my attention in a recent edition of Dinosaur Comics, Edwards’s Romeo and Juliet is a Fish Out of Water Romance. Romeo’s time-traveling spirit awakens atop a Hawaiian volcano, where he meets a Zen Master who acclimates him to the modern era (sort of like that scene in Austin Powers where Austin watches TV he doesn’t understand and overpumps his Reeboks). He then meets the reincarnated love of his life in an Internet chat room, and in between cybersex sessions they reminisce about their times in Egypt and Atlantis.

There is also a character named Johnny Perfection.

romeo and juliet 2Read that sentence again because I refuse to type it a second time.

I made none of this up; it was all on the book’s Amazon page. This book befuddles me. Perhaps I’m simply not in its target demographic: people who dig New Age-y romance novels based loosely (Red Light District loosely) on a work by William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s work is adapted all the time. To stage Shakespeare in today’s economic and cultural climates means double-casting, trimming scripts for clarity, and employing a conceit entertaining enough to distract your ADD-stricken audience from your three-hour run time. If you treat it like a dusty old play, your audience will, too.

Many of his most famous plays have received their own stage sequels and offshoots. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead traps two of Hamlet’s smaller characters in a backstage Beckettian landscape, obliquely involving them in Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Lee Blessing’s Fortinbras starts immediately where Hamlet leaves off, focusing on the invading Norwegian prince Fortinbras the chaos of leadership. Dunsinane, the Macbeth “sequel” by David Greig, parallels the British invasion of Scotland with Western occupying forces in the Middle East.

Then there’s Hamlet 2, the 2008 film starring Steve Coogan, which lampoons the very notion of writing a Shakespearean sequel. Once again, time travel cleans up the storytelling quagmire caused by death. Jesus shows up. He and Hamlet time travel some more to resolve their daddy issues. Hamlet 2 knows it’s tricky to riff on the bard. It just lets some charming characters get away with it.

A time-travelling romance novel doesn’t get away with it. Turning one of the most vexingly absent characters in Western literature into a baker isn’t getting away with it. Venture into parody, or offer new insight. Otherwise, come up with your own idea.