By Thomas Anderson
The trilogy, as a model for media, is so omnipresent in the modern world that we scarcely stop to notice it anymore. In my previous article “Lord of the Reams” I discussed that one of the major reasons for this, the fact that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was viewed as an iconic and much-imitated trilogy, is in fact a complete accident of history. Tolkien saw his work as one continuous story (albeit divided into six ‘books’ in the sense of subdivision) and its arbitrary splitting into three was the result of a postwar paper shortage and worry from his publisher that it might not sell.
Tolkien is, of course, not the only reason why the trilogy is considered such an obvious model, which intruded into the world of film as well as books long before The Lord of the Rings became a motion picture trilogy. It is striking to observe that, over at least the past quarter-century, it has become natural that “a film is successful = producer is given the money to make two more films with the same characters and call it a trilogy”. I am just about old enough to remember when the norm was more often “a film is successful = producer is given the money to make one more film with the same characters which is Film 2: Somewhat Underwhelming Sequel in cinemas, and then they might make a few more direct-to-video phoned-in, in-name-only sequels with mostly different actors”. Sometimes, it might instead be Film 2: Basically Acceptable Sequel, or even occasionally (as with the Terminator franchise) Film 2: Actually Better Sequel, which might (or might not) spawn more sequels in cinema. What is striking is to find that, years later, cases where this happened to produce a third film (and no more) now get packaged as ‘The (Film Title) Trilogy’ even when they are clearly sequential sequels, with little thought that the third might be made when the second was, and there just happen to be three of them. This gets to the root of what I want to discuss in this article, but are not what I think of first when I say ‘Fake Trilogy’.
I should start by defining what I think a ‘real’ trilogy is. As we’ll see, this is a pretty useless definition because there are relatively few actual examples in real life. To my mind, a ‘real’ trilogy is a work that is conceived from the start as a three-part story, in which each part can somewhat stand alone with its own internal arc, but which combine together like an expensive 80s kids’ toy in order to make an even better whole. In other words, the creators can already envisage the third part when they are making or writing the first part, it is not something thought up later on.
So what’s a ‘Fake Trilogy’? Well, strictly speaking one could say that three sequential films arbitrarily grouped together in a DVD box set under the name trilogy could be called a fake trilogy (say The Naked Gun or Austin Powers for two comedic examples) but that’s not really what I’m thinking of. Maybe I should more specifically call it a Fake 1+2 Trilogy. I’m talking about a scenario where one film (it is usually a film, though it could be a book or other media) is made, it is successful at the box office, and then the producer (as mentioned above) gets a deal to make two more. Always two there are, no more, no less. Nobody ever gets given the money to make three new films and call it a quadrilogy (or, more accurately, a new trilogy based on a single standalone precursor). I don’t think we stop to think enough just how arbitrary this is. There might, rarely, be another film made after this trilogy, but at this point it is considered OK to change some actors or do a time skip or something (see Pirates of the Caribbean). A Fake 1+2 Trilogy consists of three films that are badged as a trilogy, but are in fact a standalone story (maybe with a vague sequel hook but nothing more) coupled awkwardly to a duology. To qualify as a Fake 1+2 Trilogy in my classification scheme, the two latter films always have to be closely tied together as one two-part story, which makes the relative lack of connection to the first one all the more noticeable.
At this point you may already be thinking along the same lines as me, before I even mention that Star Wars is probably the original sin culprit here. Back in the day, Jaws and Rocky were commonly mocked in pop culture for their success leading to multiple sequels, but neither were satisfied with three films, and the plot structures were much more in the line of independent self-contained sequels. Star Wars, on the other hand, fits the definition to a T. George Lucas made one smash-hit blockbuster under the title Star Wars and got to make two more as a result, with some dead ends such as the infamous Holiday Special along the way. Before some later Orwellian editing would add numbered Episode titles to the films (admittedly 456 rather than the more expected 123), they were known simply as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, which are the titles I remember them being advertised on VHS collections in the early 90s before the Special Editions. This ‘trilogy’ sums up the Fake 1+2 Trilogy model perhaps better than any other, being its prototype.
If Star Wars, for whatever reason, had remained a single film from 1977 and never got a sequel, then nobody would have felt they were missing out on a sense of completeness. The film follows a coherent arc with a satisfying ending, and the only sequel hook is along the lines of ‘Luke’s adventure is only beginning’. There isn’t even really much of a sense of ‘we have won one victory but the Empire is still out there, there are more tales to be told of this war’. This now often leads people watching the films for the first time as a ‘trilogy’ to feel dizzy when the opening crawl for The Empire Strikes Back begins with it being a dark time for the Rebellion and that the Empire on the hunt for them; they are coming off a feeling of triumph. Of course, someone watching one DVD straight after another, when in reality there were years of wait at the cinema between the films and they were designed to reflect that, can easily miss out on this experience. Star Wars is far from the worst offender here: the Back to the Future ‘trilogy’ features a second film revisiting much of the latter half of the first. This is an experience that would have been cool and interesting to people watching the sequel in cinemas years after the film they’re being reminded of, but can feel nauseatingly repetitive to someone watching them back to back.
Back to Star Wars. Whereas the first film ends on a hopeful note with a concluded story, The Empire Strikes Back ends on a bleak one with an obvious sense of incompleteness to be satisfied. The Rebellion has had a setback at Hoth, Luke Skywalker has lost his hand and lightsaber and discovered Darth Vader is his father, and Han Solo has been frozen in carbonite and must be retrieved by his friends. It is clear we need another film to resolve these plotlines. Star Wars could exist without The Empire Strikes Back, but The Empire Strikes Back could not exist without Return of the Jedi. The two are conceived, in reality, as a duology that happens to use the same characters and setting (and a few concepts set into motion) as a single self-contained earlier film. It is this sense of incompleteness from The Empire Strikes Back, as well as some other factors, which mean I tend to rank Return of the Jedi higher than it due to the satisfaction of the conclusion – while many other critics disagree.
This model – happy ending for the first film that was never intended to be a series, then a duology of two more films with a sad challenging ending for the second that demands a positive conclusion in the third – is the hallmark of the Fake 1+2 Trilogy. A point I’m trying to make with this article is that this structure has become so cemented in our imaginations that it even shows up in trilogies that aren’t ‘fake’ by this definition. We can find examples of this without leaving the Star Wars franchise. The prequel film trilogy was conceived by Lucas as a trilogy from the start, unlike the original films, yet follows a similar structure of the first film, The Phantom Menace, being largely self-contained and just setting plot threads and characters into motion, while the second and third come after a timeskip and are mostly one continuous story with an offscreen war in the middle. A few years earlier, Timothy Zahn had written his excellent ‘Thrawn Trilogy’ in the Expanded Universe. This was clearly conceived as a single, interlinked trilogy from the start (and is all the more compelling for it), yet still has some nods to the Fake 1+2 model; the first book ends with a plan by the antagonist Thrawn being foiled which doesn’t have much to do with the overarching plot and feels more self-contained, while the second sees a Thrawn victory that leads more directly into the conclusion of the third. Kevin J. Anderson’s ‘Jedi Academy’ trilogy was also conceived all at once, yet has plot decisions like not setting up said academy and introducing a major villain till the start of book 2. We have been conditioned to expect that there should be a bigger change between part 1 and part 2 of any trilogy than between 2 and 3.
If this structure is copied by even non-fake trilogies, then it should be no surprise to us that it is so universally common among other Fake 1+2 trilogies. I suppose one could say that to some extent it’s inevitable that the baddies have to win in the middle so our heroes have something to turn around in the last part, but it does become wearyingly predictable at times. If one’s seen a film at the cinema one enjoyed, and then one hears they’re releasing two more, one knows absolutely definitely with complete certainty that the second must have a sad ending of some kind to set up the third. It lessens the impact of such plot points if you can see them coming a mile off, and can even feel like it undermines your enjoyment of the original film (especially if it undoes a happy ending or undermines its achievements; Star Wars succeeds in part because its sequel duology never feels like it does this) .
Let’s talk about some more examples. One that springs to mind immediately to me is The Matrix, a film I have mixed feelings about due to continuous jokes when I was in Year 9 about sharing the ‘real world’ name of its protagonist. The Matrix ‘trilogy’ is notorious for some of the errors I mentioned above that Star Wars avoided. After the first film ends with a satisfying ending (but, like Star Wars, one which does allow for plenty of ‘this war is not over’ sequel hook-age), the follow-up duology features the return of Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith character, whom Neo had destroyed with catharsis at the end of the first film. This is akin to if The Empire Strikes Back had brought back Grand Moff Tarkin, or if a later Star Wars film brought back the Empero—OK, bad example. The second film, The Matrix Reloaded, ends with a sad/challenging ending that Smith has taken over someone in the ‘real world’, while Neo has fallen into a coma after somehow using his powers in the ‘real world’ which should be impossible. This ending did achieve its goal of getting people speculating – was the ‘real world’ just another layer of the Matrix?! – but turned out to be a damp squib that was barely explained. It is quite an achievement to get your viewers to think ‘Are they invalidating the awesome first film we liked by saying it was still just inside the Matrix all along, because that would be terrible – oh they’re not that was ‘just random lol’ – somehow that’s even more disappointing’.
The third film, The Matrix Revolutions, pulls off a cardinal sin of being a direct continuation of the second, which was largely devoted to Neo trying to save Trinity’s life from a seemingly inevitable death – only to kill her off anyway. Yes it’s in the process of doing something significant, but it’s still ridiculously unsatisfying plotting when you know you’re writing a continuing story by this point. In case we had managed to forget that the second and third films are an interlinked duology that sits apart from the first, the third features recurring characters from the second that didn’t need to recur (like the Merovingian and Persephone) who hadn’t been in the first, just to remind you. There are plenty of reasons why people found the Matrix sequels disappointing, most of which are not to do with these relatively minor stylistic points, but it does ensure that anyone trying to watch a boxset as a ‘trilogy’ years later will be unable to miss the jarring transition.
I already mentioned the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise above; though it did eventually get another film after the trilogy, it still qualifies as I explained above. Despite having a Colon: Tagline title structure from the first (as I recall Stephen Fry observing at a 2003 awards ceremony), so presumably hopeful of sequels, it certainly fits the Fake 1+2 model just as well. The first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, ends with the antagonist Captain Barbossa’s death, Jack Sparrow being restored and forms a natural ending. Then the second, Dead Man’s Chest, stirs it all up again with Davy Jones and leads to Sparrow going missing-presumed-dead-kind-of so we have to go and get him back in At World’s End. The Pirates franchise, like the Matrix ‘trilogy’ with Hugo Weaving, is a classic example of the fake trilogy crossing over with Cash-In Sequelitis. “Remember that character you liked in the film film who had a satisfying and dramatic death? Well we’ve brought him back to be the same again, to save you putting in the videotape so you could just watch the first film again!” Dead Man’s Chest ends with Captain Barbossa being brought back because shut up to help them rescue Jack Sparrow despite the two being blood enemies in the first film. They also decide to stir up Keira Knightley’s love triangle again to fill time. About the only part of the sequel duology that felt interesting to me was bringing back Captain Steve from Coupling and reflecting on the fact that him coming a cropper at the end of the first film actually has consequences, rather than being a faceless minor plot antagonist. At World’s End ends with Jack Sparrow back in a rowing boat on his own like in the first film; some may find that a nice circular ending, but to my mind it feels as pointlessly ‘Look, fans! Back where we started’ as if the last Star Wars film had ended with its protagonist going back to live on the moisture farm Luke Skywalker left in—sorry, lost my train of thought.
It's important to recognise that being a Fake 1+2 Trilogy does not make a work of media bad, of course; I greatly enjoy many of the works I have pointed out above. But it does make certain plot tropes wearyingly predictable. Let me put it this way, when I first saw The Fellowship of the Ring at the cinema in 2001, I predicted with absolute certainty that the bit with Gollum and the Ring in Mount Doom in The Return of the King would have a ‘Frodo hanging off the edge and has to be pulled up’ scene added (not present in the book) because I could tell from the Mines of Moria sequence that Jackson liked adding that kind of moment. This means that, in a generally excellent film adaptation (despite its flaws) the dramatic scene loses something because of how predictable ‘next frame in the storyboard’ this is. This is a random example that has nothing to do with Fake 1+2 Trilogies, but is comparable to the predictable plotting I mentioned above. One reason I really liked Star Wars: The Last Jedi is how relatively unpredictable its plot structure was, keeping me on the edge of my seat. But then, maybe not fitting into a nice predictable arc was one reason for the internet’s contemptible tantrums over that film (which does have its flaws, but they were never the things being brought up) and why Disney proceeded to instead make an incredibly dully predictable sequel. But more on that another day.
I’ve talked about film a lot, but what about literature? I’ve already addressed that trilogies are very common in fantasy due to copying of Tolkien, though also that many authors burst out of a planned trilogy to write more books than intended. One author I want to highlight as something of an exception is Raymond E. Feist. His ‘Riftwar Cycle’ is an example of a 1+2 Fake Trilogy, with a single long book, Magician, which has a largely self-contained plot, and then two following shorter books, Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon, which are much more closely related. However, in fairness, Feist also uses ideas which help cover up this structure; for example, the titular rift of the Riftwar doesn’t appear in book 2 but then reappears as a dramatic part of book 3. This kind of plotting should be commended; my gripe is with media that seem to rejoice in just how predictable a Fake 1+2 Trilogy is rather than trying to hide units 2 and 3 being closer than either is to 1.
One of my favourite works in Feist’s series is the ‘Empire’ trilogy, co-written with Janny Wurts, which is an exploration of the society on the other side of the Riftwar. This is, I think, the first example I read of a 2+1 trilogy instead, which is an interesting twist. The major plot arc consists of Mara of the Acoma, the last heiress of a noble family, fighting for the survival of her feudal subjects and politically intriguing against those who engineered the deaths of her male relatives, playing ‘the Game of the Council’. It’s great stuff, basically like A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones except with characters who aren’t all indistinguishable sociopaths so you actually care who wins. I could probably discuss more of this elsewhere (especially in how it is interlinked with the contemporaneous and previously-written Riftwar books) but the fact this arc is satisfactorily resolved at the end of book 2 – a 2+1 trilogy – is great. It keeps the reader guessing, because one’s primed to expect a certain timescale and then this leaps out at you. Then the third, longer book largely explores different and grander challenges, related to what came before but not feeling necessary to complete the main arc.
Feist’s series later gave us the ‘Conclave of Twilight’ trilogy, which involves a young man from an indigenous tribe being the last survivor of his people, plotting revenge against the evil ruler who destroyed his village with the help of powerful forces working against him. This is an even more clear-cut example of a 2+1 trilogy, and again this structure is a narratively pleasing surprise. It’s not quite as well-written as the ‘Empire’ trilogy because the shunt between books 2 and 3 is more obvious. However, the way that shunt is conceived is great. At the end of book 2, the young man (Talon of the Silver Hawk a.k.a. Talwin Hawkins) successfully defeats the evil ruler, the Duke of Olasko, and exiles him to a distant continent. And then book 3 features a perspective flip to the Duke as he plots how to return from that continent. We discover that much of his ill works really were due to having an evil advisor manipulating him, and the book flips our sympathy by making us root for the man who was the major villain of books 1 and 2. It’s not a natural trilogy structure, and that is no bad thing; whereas many of the examples I moaned about above are highly predictable, here we are kept guessing and interested until the end. It reminds me a bit of Terry Pratchett’s point that, in Discworld, he wanted to write the stories of ‘what happens with ordinary people the day after the Dark Lord is defeated’. It’s an example that real life and real stories don’t have a natural last page. There is a reason why I place the ‘Conclave of Twilight’ trilogy as Feist’s best work overall.
There are many other examples I could have discussed here. The take-home message here should not be that being a ‘Fake Trilogy’ is necessarily an inherently bad thing. But if you are ever in a situation where you’ve composed one successful work and have the resources to write two more, be wary about falling into the same predictable plot structure – two-part story where our heroes fail at the end of unit 2 only to triumph in unit 3 – which has been tried so many times before. Why not try something different?
More of these articles on the way!
Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.