There are plenty of reasons to criticise George Lucas's Star Wars prequels - wavering narrative focus, clunky dialogue, unclear target audience or an unhealthy fascination with interstellar taxation. But one area that it's difficult to find fault with is imagination. Every CGI-buffed frame of those films teems with weird-looking Jedi, cool spaceships and outlandish alien planetscapes. If you like eye candy, you're in for a really good time.
I like to think that all of that wild invention is atoning for the moment in Return of the Jedi (the third film in the original trilogy) when that movie's Big Bad hoves into view. After all the cool weapons that The Empire deployed in the previous film, the eleven-year-old me was primed for something totally mind-blowing. What did I actually get?
Another bloody Death Star.
Yes, it was a cooler Death Star because it was all skeletal, with those half-finished bits of gantry sticking out and everything, but it was still a fundamental failure of imagination. Were the filmmakers (and presumably The Emperor) really so exhausted that they couldn't think of anything better?
Just this week, I was reminded of this moment of intense disappointment, as I was reading another popular fantasy trilogy. I won't mention the name for fear of spoiling it for you, but I can tell you the exact moment that the series jumped the shark: 209 pages into book 2. I had been enjoying the novel immensely up until that point, as the book expanded on the characters and hinted of exciting new directions to come. Then suddenly, shockingly, it was Return of the Jedi all over again. A particular plot device was reintroduced, and I had a sinking feeling as I realised that the second half of book 2 was to become a virtual repeat of the first book's second half. I felt sick, betrayed even, that the author could let me down in this way. I was not reading these books to go over old ground – I wanted to see something new and I felt the plot had somehow lost its way.
Over a hundred pages later, I am still reading – despite my disappointment. I care enough about the characters that I want to find out what happens, and the writing is still as wonderfully readable as ever. There have been a couple of nice twists, but my overriding sensation is one of over-familiarity. This is the video game approach to sequels, taking the framework of what has gone before and repeatedly trying to perfect it. And this seems to work for games, possibly because repetitive mechanics are the whole point of the experience – you, the player, are learning to master a particular task.
Books, on the other hand, are all about taking you somewhere you've never been or giving you a completely different perspective on life. Yes, they must have rules and structure, but these are to ground the narrative, not to interfere with the imaginative process. Hollywood tells us that sequels are all about giving the audience more of what they want, which accounts for the diminishing creative returns of most movie franchises. Sequels can be wonderful, even life-affirming things, but that relies on writers injecting a whole load of stuff that the audience didn't know they wanted. Audiences didn't know they wanted to see Gollum have an argument with himself, or find out that Darth Vader was Luke's father or experience Lord Voldemort suddenly coming back from the dead. But these are moments we remember for all the best reasons.