Sequels, Series, and Remakes

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Sequels, Series, and Remakes


Sequels, series, serials, and remakes are evidence of the commercial imperatives governing most forms of cinema. Producers, directors, and writers have often been under pressure to recycle popular formats, formulas, and themes as a way to minimize risk and ensure profitability. Sequels, series, and remakes also reflect the tendency of most forms of entertainment and art to engage in repetition or variations on a theme. Artistic patterns can be found in all genres: trilogies, suites, triptychs, canons, rhyme schemes, and motifs, to name a few, all point to the repetitious core at the heart of most aesthetic phenomena. Yet even as sequels, series, and remakes overlap, they also establish their own individual characteristics. The Superman character, for instance, has gone through numerous incarnations, including the 1978 film Superman (1978), a remake of two Columbia serials (based on comic strip characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster) that gave rise to a sequel, Superman II (1980), and to two more films in a series of four.


Series are generally defined as groups of films with self-contained stories that share the same principal character or characters and often the same situations and settings. Series may be conceived as such from the outset, as was the case with The Hazards of Helen (119 episodes from 1914 to 1917), or, as in the case of the James Bond (over 20 films from 1962 to the present) and Halloween (8 films between 1978 and 2002) films, they may emerge, evolve, or become institutionalized over the course of many years. Although films in each type of series can be said to constitute episodes, "episode" as a term is probably associated more with serials and preconceived series than it is with open-ended or evolving ones.

Building on precedents established in the mass-circulation press and in popular fiction in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, preconceived film series first emerged in the United States with the Edison Company's Happy Hooligan films in 1900 and 1901. In comic or in melodramatic mode, they became firmly established as a trend in the United States and France later in the decade, with the production of Biograph's Mr. and Mrs. Jones films (1907–1908), Kalem's Girl Spy films (1909), and Yankee's Girl Detective films (1910) on the one hand, and Pathé's Boireau (1906–1909) and Nick Carter films (1908–1909), and Gaumont's Romeo (1907–1908) and Bébé films (1910–1912) on the other. While the move toward multireel films in the early 1910s resulted in the emergence of melodramatic serials such as The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913–1914) and of serial-series hybrids such as What Happened to Mary? (1912) and Fantômas (1913–1914), comedy series in one-reel and two-reel form continued to be made. These films were built around comic personalities, such as Roscoe Arbuckle (1887–1933) in the Fatty series (1913–1917) and Max Linder (1883-1925) in the Max series (1910–1917), and animated characters such as Coco the Clown and Felix the Cat.

Serials and features became the norm as far as melodramatic adventure was concerned, but comic shorts featuring the likes of Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Daffy Duck continued to be made in series form in the United States for over forty years, shown alongside feature films and newsreels as an integral part of most cinema programs.

During the 1930s and 1940s in particular, B movies, too, became part of these programs. Whether made by small-scale independents like Monogram or Republic, minor studios like Columbia or Universal, or major studios like MGM and Twentieth Century Fox, the majority of B movies were produced in series. These included westerns such as the Hopalong Cassidy films (1935–1944 and 1947–1949), detective and mystery series such as Boston Blackie (1941–1949), The Falcon (1941–1949), The Saint (1938–1954), and Mr. Moto (1937–1939), medical dramas such as Dr. Kildare (1937–1947), and comedies such as Andy Hardy (1937–1958), Henry Aldrich (1939–1944), and Maisie (1939–1947). Series of A films, by contrast, were rare. Examples include Paramount's Road pictures (such as Road to Morocco) with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (1940–1952) and RKO's Topper films (1937–1941), neither of which were envisaged as a series initially.

In the United States, B series disappeared, along with B movies themselves, in the 1950s, when series programming and series production became a feature of broadcast TV. During the 1960s and 1970s, series tended to evolve on the basis of follow-ups, sequels, and prequels, as in the case of the Planet of the Apes and Herbie films, as well as the Pink Panther and Dirty Harry films. At the same time, a number of western and comedy series produced in Europe and a number of martial arts films produced in Taiwan and Hong Kong were highly successful. Since then, series in the United States have continued to evolve in much the same way, often around blockbuster films such as Superman and Batman (1989), but sometimes, too, around low- or medium-budget horror films (Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street) and comedies (Police Academy).


Unlike series, serials are marked by continuous story lines. They emerged in the United States and France in the early 1910s, nearly always in melodramatic adventure mode. Prompted by the success of series films, and in the United States by the practice of showing one or two reels of multireel films on separate days, serial films drew as well on traditions of serialized storytelling established in the early nineteenth century and perpetuated in the early twentieth by mass circulation newspapers, journals, and magazines. The links between them became clear when episodes of What Happened to Mary?, often cited as the first US film serial, were published in prose form in McClure's Ladies World in 1912, and when Fantômas, an adaptation of a series of crime novels, was released in France in 1913 and 1914. Most of the episodes of What Happened to Mary? and Fantômas were in fact self-contained. The first true US serial, a form in which each episode ended in a cliffhanger, was The Adventures of Kathlyn. It, too, was serialized in prose form, as were Dollie of the Dailies (1914), The Million Dollar Mystery (1914), and others.

b. Lunel, France, 19 February 1873, d. 26 February 1925

Between 1907 and 1925 Louis Feuillade directed over eight hundred films in almost every contemporary genre in France, but he is now best remembered as the producer, director, and writer of serials. His career in the cinema began when he was hired as a screenwriter by Gaumont in 1905, becoming Head of Production two years later. In 1910 he began making films in series. Fantômas, his first serial, went into production in 1913.

Based on a series of novels by Marcel Allain and Pierre Silvestre, Fantômas (1913–1914) details the exploits of an arch-criminal and master of disguise and the efforts of a detective and a journalist to catch him. Set and filmed in contemporary Paris, it involves multiple acts of villainy and numerous sequences of pursuit, entrapment, and escape. Building on these elements, Feuillade's next serial, Les Vampires (1915–1916), centers on a gang of arch-criminals. Putting even more emphasis on disguise and multiple identity, Feuillade stages the gang's exploits, entrances, and escapes in such a way as to suggest almost uncanny or magical powers. The film's most striking character, Irma Vep (Musidora), is a true femme fatale, a figure of fear and fascination alike.

Although championed by the members of the French avant-garde, both Les Vampires and Fantômas were vilified by those who wished to elevate the cultural status of film in France. As a result, Feuillade gave his next serial, Judex (1917), an uplifting moral tone. Musidora was again cast as the villain. But the eponymous detective is the film's central character, his signature black cape the equivalent of the costumes worn by the criminals in Feuillade's earlier serials. Other serials followed, but they have rarely been studied in detail. However, historians of film style have shown renewed interest in Feuillade.

For many years Feuillade was considered a director whose use of deep staging and single-shot tableaux rendered him a conservative, someone who resisted the tendency toward analytical editing evident in some of his contemporaries. Later film historians, however, have seen his work as a variant on a distinct European style, its subtleties lying in the choreography of action and spectatorial attention across the duration of shots and scenes. From this perspective, Feuillade's style, one built on continual transformations in the flow of appearance, complements his fascination with protean identity and with the potentially unending structure of serial forms.


Fantômas (1913–1914), Les Vampires (1915–1916), Judex (1917)


Abel, Richard. French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915–1929. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Bordwell, David. "La Nouvelle Mission de Feuillade; or, What Was Mise-en-Scène?" The Velvet Light Trap, no. 37 (Spring 1996): 10–29.

Callahan, Vicki. Zones of Anxiety: Movement, Musidora, and the Crime Serials of Louis Feuillade. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2005.

Steve Neale

The centering of serials on heroines was a distinct US phenomenon, launching Kathlyn Williams, Helen Holmes, Grace Cunard, Ruth Roland, Pearl White, and other "serial queens" to stardom. However, although serials were produced in ever-greater numbers by the end of the 1910s, the principal attraction in cinemas was the feature film. Hence serials were increasingly

produced as low-budget specialties by second-string studios like Universal, Vitagraph, Pathé, and Arrow, and focused more and more on male rather than female protagonists. With the establishment of the studio system, the coming of sound, the advent of the B film, and then the economic difficulties of the Great Depression, serials remained the province of "Poverty Row" specialists like Republic and Mascot (the term "Poverty Row" refers to the section of Hollywood around Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street in which the offices of a number of specialists in low-budget productions were located), and minor majors like Universal and Columbia. Designed principally for children attending matinees on Saturday mornings, serials in the 1930s and 1940s often borrowed characters and story lines from comic strips and comic books (the Green Hornet, Dick Tracy, and Captain Marvel) and sometimes mixed genres (The Phantom Empire, 1935) in order to augment their exotic appeal. Westerns, mysteries, jungle stories, science-fiction stories, aviation stories, and swashbucklers were otherwise the principal types. Serials like Flash Gordon (1936) were so popular that two sequels, Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), were produced in serial form and edited feature-length versions made of all three.

Serial production continued apace during World War II, often featuring Axis powers and agents as villains, but began to slow down during the period of industry recession and audience decline in the late 1940s. By the early 1950s Columbia and Republic were the only studios making serials, and as serials old and new became a television staple, production for the cinema in the United States ceased altogether after the release of Perils of the Wilderness and Blazing the Overland Trail in 1956.


Sequels are usually defined as films that contain characters and continue story lines established in previous films. Examples include Edison, the Man (1940), a sequel to Young Tom Edison (1940), and Father's Little Dividend (1951), a sequel to Father of the Bride (1950). Prequels set characters and story lines in periods of time prior to those of previous films, as in Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979), a prequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1979). The Godfather Part II (1974), which moves backward as well as forward in time, is an unusual mixture of both.

Sequels date back to the 1910s, when Maurice Stiller in Sweden made Thomas Graal's Best Child (1918) as a sequel to Thomas Graal's Best Film (1917). Unlike remakes, series, and serials, however, sequels did not become institutionalized until much later. In the United States, Paramount produced Son of the Sheik (1926) as a sequel to The Sheik (1921), and Douglas Fairbanks produced Don Q, Son of Zorro (1928) as a sequel to The Mark of Zorro (1920). In Germany, Fritz Lang made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) as a sequel to Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922). And in the 1930s in the United States, Universal made The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) as a sequel to Frankenstein (1931), thus helping to generate what eventually became one of a number of Gothic horror series.

After the occasional sequels made in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, it was in the 1970s and 1980s that "sequelitis," as the film critic J. Hoberman called it, appeared to take hold. The Godfather (1972) was followed by The Godfather Part II; American Graffiti (1973) by More American Graffiti (1979); Grease (1978) by Grease 2 (1982); and Jaws (1975) by Jaws 2 (1978), Jaws 3-D (1984), and eventually Jaws the Revenge (1987). The trend toward sequels continued unabated into the 1990s and early 2000s: The Terminator (1984) was followed by Terminator 2 (1991), Young Guns (1988) by Young Guns 2 (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) by Hannibal (2001), and Spiderman (2002) by Spiderman 2 (2004).

Sequels are thus a hallmark of what has come to be known as the New Hollywood. However, this does not mean that Hollywood prior to the 1970s was less dependent on pre-established formulas or less prone to the recycling of characters, stories, and settings; nor does it mean that sequels as such are devoid of ideas and intelligence. On the one hand Back to the Future, Part II (1989) and Back to the Future, Part III (1990) both work playful variations on the temporal paradoxes at stake not just in Back to the Future (1985) (whose very title is an index of their nature) but in the sequel format itself. And Alien (1979) and its sequels—Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), and Alien Resurrection (1997)—each spin variations on the topics of motherhood, difference, and identity, variations whose dimensions have multiplied as the series itself has progressed. On the other hand, as Thomas Simonet points out, the recycling of stories, formulas, characters, and scripts in Hollywood in the 1940s and early 1950s was actually more extensive than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly if remakes, as well as serials and series, are taken fully into account.


A remake is generally thought of as a film based on an earlier film, usually with minor or major variations of plot, characterization, casting, setting, or form, and sometimes language and genre as well. Examples include Scarlet Street (1943), Fritz Lang's Hollywood remake of Jean Renoir's French film, La Chienne (1931); In the Good Old Summertime (1949), a musical remake in color of The Shop Around the Corner (1940); Chori, Chori (1956), an Indian remake of It Happened One Night (1934); The Magnificent Seven (1960), a western remake in color of The Seven Samurai (1957); The Thing (1982), a widescreen and color remake of The Thing from Another World (1951); and Black Cat (1991) and Point of No Return (1993), Hong Kong and Hollywood remakes respectively of the French film La Femme Nikita (1990).

However, the issue of what constitutes a remake is complicated by the degree of variation involved, the extent to which original versions or previous remakes are acknowledged, and the fact that originals and previous remakes may themselves be adapted versions of novels, plays, and other preexisting sources. (There have been over a hundred film versions of Cinderella, over eighty film versions of Hamlet, and over sixty film versions of Carmen.) The production of different versions of films for different markets (a feature of the early sound era), and the extent to which films were copied or reshot prior to the existence of copyright legislation (a feature of the early silent era), simply add to the complications. As a result, remakes have been subject to a great deal more theoretical thinking than have serials, series, and sequels. Thomas Leitch has proposed a useful typology of remakes based on the ways in which they relate to original films and previous remakes, on the one hand, and to their common source or "property" on the other.

Leitch notes, first of all, that while producers typically pay fees for the right to adapt novels, short stories, or plays, they usually pay no such fees for the right to remake a film. He notes, too, that remakes generally seek to please a number of different audiences—those who have never heard of the original film, have heard of the film but not seen it, have seen the film but do not remember it, have seen but either did not like it or only liked it to a degree, have seen it and liked it, and so on. Although most remakes seek to be intelligible to those who have never seen or are not aware of the original, they also seek to provide additional enjoyment to those in the know.

When original films and their remakes are adaptations, other issues arise. For Leitch, remakes of adaptations take one of four different stances toward earlier adaptations and the properties adapted. The first is to readapt a property in the interests of fidelity, thus by implication downgrading the status of earlier versions. This is the stance often taken by remakes of classic literary texts such as Hamlet or Camille. The second is to update the property, revising or transforming its ingredients in obvious ways. Updates often signal their status by adopting a quasi-parodic tone (as in the 1948 and 1973 versions of The Three Musketeers) or, more obviously, by using titles such as Joe Macbeth (1955), Camille 2000 (1969), or Boccaccio 70 (1972). The third is to pay homage to a previous adaptation. Here the focus is on an earlier film rather than on its source. Examples include Nosferatu the Vampire (1982), a remake of Nosferatu (1922), itself an uncredited adaptation of Dracula. The fourth, simply, is to remake an earlier adaptation. The true remake, as Leitch calls it, evokes a cinematic predecessor in order to update, translate, or improve it—to highlight its insufficiencies (its dated attitudes and techniques, its foreign language and style, its inability, because of some or all of these things, to capture the essence of the property on which it is based) and thus render it superfluous. Examples cited by Leitch include the 1959 version of Imitation of Life, the 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and such Hollywood remakes of foreign films as Cousins (1989), Sommersby (1993), and The Vanishing (1993).

An additional type of remake is what might be called the "authorial revision." Here, producer-directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, and Howard Hawks revisit, rework, or update the components of earlier films. Examples include Hitchcock's 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much; Capra's Pocketful of Miracles (1961), a remake of Lady for a Day (1933); and El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970), Hawks's subsequent elaborations on the ingredients of Rio Bravo (1959). As the director Jean Renoir said, filmmakers often spend their careers remaking the same film. Insofar as this is true, it returns us to the paradoxical status of repetition and repetitive forms in the cinema. For, although authorial repetition is valued as a mark of individual distinctiveness, institutional repetition, whether in series, serial, sequel, or remake form, is nearly always viewed as its opposite. This paradox lies at the core of nearly all discussions of forms of repetition in the cinema.

SEE ALSO B Movies;Genre;Studio System


Cline, William C. In the Nick of Time: Motion Picture Sound Serials. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1984.

Forrest, Jennifer, and Leonard R. Koos. Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Hoberman, J. "Ten Years That Shook the World." American Film 10, no. 8 (June 1985): 34–59.

Horton, Andrew, and Stuart Y. McDougal. Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Lahue, Kalton C. Continued Next Week: A History of the Moving Picture Serial. Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1964.

Leitch, Thomas. "Twice-Told Tales: Disavowal and the Rhetoric of the Remake." In Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice, edited by Jennifer Forrest and Leonard R. Koos, 37–62. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Nowlan, Robert A., and Gwendolyn Wright Nowlan. Cinema Sequels and Remakes, 1903–1987. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989.

Simonet, Thomas. "Conglomerates and Content: Remakes, Sequels and Series in the New Hollywood." In Current Research in Film: Audiences, Economics and Law, vol. 3, edited by Bruce A. Austin, 154–162. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1987.

Steve Neale