When is enough enough?
A couple of days ago Daniel Handler, the author better known to most as Lemony Snicket, posted a cryptic image on Twitter alluding to a top-secret upcoming project. Given the suggestion of mystery, most people, myself included, took this to be indicative of a new chapter of some description in his fictional universe that started with A Series of Unfortunate Events.
If I was to list my top five favourite fictional properties, the Snicketverse would absolutely be among them. I think A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the greatest works of children’s literature ever. Its TV adaptation, while imperfect, complements and enriches the books in all kinds of immensely satisfying ways. The prequel series, All the Wrong Questions, manages to be both fan catnip and something that stands entirely on its own two feet. I love everything Unfortunate Events adjacent, treated the arrival of each new ATWQ book and season of the show as an essentially religious event and yet my main emotional reaction upon seeing this new post was more or less ‘oh cool, looking forward to that’.
It’s not that I got over the franchise. Far from it. It’s the rare long-running fictional property that doesn’t have any real disappointments to its name (I even like the 2004 film). But if I was to guess as to why I’m not overcome with giddy excitement in the same way I was when the TV show was first announced? I’d say it’s because, by and large, I’ve had my fill.
This is a hard thing to quantify, given that if we like something we tend to want more of it. I’ve definitely been as guilty of this as anyone. But often there are only so many places for a story to go, and sooner or later we start to realise that the stories we love have been to just about all of them. In the best (and rarest) case scenario, arriving at this place takes the shape of my current feelings towards the Lemony Snicket franchise – I still love the series, I’ve never been let down by it, but there’s just not that much more I could ask from it. Usually, however, it’s either not quite enough, or too much.
When I was a teenager my favourite book series was Koji Suzuki’s Ring series. I’d fallen in love with the American and Japanese film adaptations and, wanting more, read the novels. This is where I found the real paydirt and to this day I think it’s such a shame that the books aren’t more well regarded. Suzuki used the tale of a cursed videotape as the springboard for an immense apocalyptic sci-fi saga that remains surprising and affecting through various mutations that, in less sure hands, could have been straight up ridiculous. His initial trilogy, Ring, Spiral and Loop build on each other to arrive at one of the most touching and haunting ambiguous endings I’ve ever read, something that leaves you wanting more even though you know it’s great as it is. And because you’re left wanting more, that means that when there is more you grab at it. In Suzuki’s case, ‘more’ was initially the short story anthology Birthday that served as a kind of parallel epilogue (makes sense if you’ve read it, trust me) to his trilogy, culminating in a conclusion to Loop that, upon reading it, I found weirdly disappointing despite it providing exactly what I thought I wanted. It wasn’t bad, just unnecessary. It was as though by leaving room for more but not filling it, Suzuki invited us to imagine the final beats of the story ourselves and in doing so gave some kind of strange ownership to his audience. Providing that final puzzle piece himself ultimately left the series too complete, somehow. It is, now that I’m writing about it, basically how I felt about El Camino. I was so excited for another instalment in the Breaking Bad story until I saw it and realised that it had no reason to exist other than the fact that, due to the existence of couple of loose ends that weren’t really that loose, it could. Nothing essential was added to a story that was already great and consequently fulfilling a vague desire for more became detrimental. Not enormously so – neither was a Scrubs Season Nine scenario – but still somehow undermining the integrity of endings that hit hard because they weren’t as neat as they perhaps could have been.
Incidentally, Suzuki has since returned to the Ring saga twice more. When his fifth instalment, S, was released in English in 2018 I was so, so excited. More than a decade since Birthday, nostalgia had set in and while I wasn’t exactly desperate to return to the world the chance to do so was very welcome. Besides, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe this new chapter would reignite that mysterious and singular power that the Ring books once had over me, whether Suzuki had found some exciting new corner of his world to play in. I bought the book, cleared a day to devote myself to it, and found it to be fine. It was, ultimately, another epilogue. There was nostalgia to it, but not much else. I saw some old favourite characters again, but I wasn’t left feeling like the story had been furthered or deepened in any crucial ways.
The closest comparison I can think of to this strange sensation of enjoying something but finding it still disappointing and hollow, is weirdly the feeling I got when I played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories. I had a lot of nostalgia for the original Vice City and the chance for a new adventure in that very familiar setting was beyond enticing. Then I played it and, yeah, it was the same map, just like I remembered it. The buzz of warm recognition soon gave way to the realisation that I wasn’t getting a whole lot new out of the experience. Just re-treading old ground. Pleasant and comforting, but nothing else.
I’ve written before about how stories need endings to have any meaning whatsoever, but realistically that can never sate our desire for more of the thing we love, especially if the thing we love has left loose ends. Look at Watchmen; I was always keen to continue that story. The Before Watchmen comics offered the warm recognition of being back in the world I loved, but not much more. Then Damon Lindelof came along with his masterful sequel TV series and gave me everything I could have wanted in a Watchmen follow up and more. I loved every second of that show but when it ended (perfectly, I might add) there was no part of me crying out for another instalment. I’ll watch it if it comes, of course, but at the moment the notion prompts the same reaction as the thought of more Snicket – ‘oh, cool, I’d check that out’.
And that’s okay! Better than okay; it’s ideal, really. We’ve all seen so many properties we love driven into the ground by endless returns to increasingly dry wells. It’s never a one size fits all thing; Watchmen and Unfortunate Events retained vitality through finding new perspectives on their fictional worlds and events that honoured the past but offered a future. Hannibal the TV series re-interpreted and remixed its source material to create something both familiar and utterly original. Maybe the key is that in these cases the new offerings were less direct continuations, but satellite reinterpretations, jumping into new mediums with different voices or else offering new stories that stood on their own two feet without demanding to be seen as the logical extension of the original. What they all prove is that there are ways to make franchise extensions interesting and vital, but it’s not always as straightforward as just continuing a finished story and hoping for the best. Because to do so more often than not results in the dilution of everything that made the story special to begin with (cough Star Wars cough).
I guess ultimately I would love to end up in a similar place to where the first season of Hannibal took me. I wasn’t overwhelmed with excitement for the TV series when it was announced. I was mildly interested having long loved the books, but I had no reason to think the show would be anything special. The realisation that it was became a dizzying thrill that reinvigorated my love for the originals and consolidated my passionate fandom for years to come. I thought I’d had enough. Now, I still find myself yearning for more. And isn’t that just a dream come true?
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