Trilogies were not always a part of the cinematic landscape. While serials have been around since the Nickelodeon days, with moviegoers paying to see the same characters again and again and again, trilogies are a later invention. First, of course, sequels had to come into their own, which took years, and only then was the trilogy truly born.
Sequels and serials, to state the obvious, are two different things. From Russia with Love isn't the sequel to Dr. No but a continuation of the character James Bond in a new adventure. Likewise, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are not prequels and sequels, as they are often called, but, again, continuations of the character, Indiana Jones, from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The fourth film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, continues the character further.
I said "to state the obvious" near the beginning of the last paragraph but it clearly isn't obvious as Wikipedia's entry on sequels list the James Bond films as sequels. Technically, I suppose they are and so I must distinguish that for the purposes of this piece, a sequel is the continuation of a specific story that was only partially completed by the conclusion of the first film. It is not the new adventures of James Bond, Indiana Jones or any host of other action characters, from those in Lethal Weapon to those in Rush Hour. Nor is it a series of three movies that have been classified together as a director's trilogy (Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and her Sister, for instance, would be Woody Allen's New York Relationship trilogy) or three films made with disconnected storylines and characters that are thematically linked by the same director (The Three Colors Trilogy by Krzysztof Kieślowski) It is a single story drawn out over multiple parts which, again for the purposes of this piece, would be, in particular, three parts. The story can be a biography following one character as he grows through life (The Apu Trilogy or, in a more limited sense, The Godfather Trilogy) or a specific story progression (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy aka The Millenium Trilogy, The Star Wars Original Trilogy, Lord of the Rings) with the same characters over three movies.
It was the audience desire to see the same characters again that gave birth to serials, which hit their stride in the thirties. Hollywood achieved consistent box-office success by giving the public the same characters in similar situations doing the same things they did last time, only with different supporting actors, a new script (loosely defined) and a new title. No one operated under the delusion that Boston Blackie, Torchy Blaine or Flash Gordon were ever expanding on their characters or exploring deeper emotional terrain in the next installment, they just wanted to see them again in a vaguely similar adventure and would happily pay for the privilege.
And serial characters weren't always confined to low budget affairs. The Thin Man movies proved that the idea could work on a big budget too, as long as you had top dollar actors (William Powell, Myrna Loy) willing to keep it up. The Andy Hardy movies were also given ample budgets and starred Mickey Rooney, for years the top draw in all of cinema. And, internationally, Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa scored big with their nameless men fighting for survival (their own and that of others) in the Dollars Trilogy and Yojimbo/Sanjuro movies, respectively.
But all of the above info can be found on the aforementioned Wikipedia page, linked here, where you too can, if you choose, read all about sequels and serials and how they came about. The above was only intended to differentiate between the two before getting to the meat of the matter, which, having amply buried the lead, I present in the form of a question: Do trilogies work?
The answer to that question is essentially meaningless ("some do, some don't") but acts as a good enough jumping-off point for a discussion. A better question might be, "At what point does a story's plot become so complicated and/or its characters so complex that more than two to three hours running time is required to tell the tale?" After all, practically every book ever written and every movie ever made is a trilogy in and of itself. They have a beginning, middle and end. In the case of a cinematic trilogy, the story is simply broken up over three installments rather than presented in one overly long film.
I would love to start the conversation with the trilogy generally acknowledged to be the seminal work of the form, The Apu Trilogy, but as it is not readily available for most to see (it is not on Netflix for DVD rental or instant viewing although an older DVD transfer of the set can be purchased on Amazon - this unavailability is, by the way, shameful) and since I, myself have seen only the final installment on PBS decades ago, I should reserve it for later discussion, when I have acquired the set or, if fortune smiles upon me, it is presented at the AFI Silver and I can take it in on the big screen.
Instead, we'll start a few years later with a trilogy that didn't become a trilogy for almost twenty years. For sixteen years, from 1974 to 1990, The Godfather movies were a pair, not a trilogy, until, finally, in 1990, Francis Ford Coppola decided it was time to finish the story of Michael Corleone. Even now, there is little consensus as to whether or not that decision was a good one. Nevertheless, The Godfather movies, especially the first two, are considered magnificent works of cinema by most cinephiles the world over.
The story of the trilogy is the story of Michael Corleone as he rises to the head of the Corleone Family. It follows Michael's character without a continuing story, that is to say, when the first Godfather ends, there is no cliffhanger, no unresolved moment we anticipate being the starting point of the next film. The movies aren't about plot but about Michael, how he changes, grows (or doesn't) and, perhaps, redeems himself. Interestingly, the movie of the trilogy most reviled, Part III, may be the most important for making the trilogy "work", to the extent that it does work at all.
The Godfather movies illustrate a problem symptomatic of many trilogies, one that, simplified, could be stated as such: The first movie tells the whole story. Many trilogies essentially work this way. From Star Wars to The Matrix to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the continuing story is unnecessary to the first movie. The continuing story of Michael Corleone, Luke Skywalker, Neo or Lisbeth Salander may be of interest and, perhaps, satisfying to the those seeking deeper exploration of the characters, but to the first movie, completely unnecessary. Had there never been another Godfather movie after the first one (or Star Wars or Matrix or Dragon Tattoo) no one would have noticed. The first installments of all of those trilogies work just fine on their own and feel completely enclosed. Had there never been another Godfather film, I don't imagine people would have been complaining, "I can't believe they left us hanging! What happens after that door closes?!"
And so the second installment must carry some emotional weight, some deeper understanding of character than the first, since the story is only of minor importance. The Godfather, Part II, in this respect, also seems to work on its own, independent of the first. It certainly helps if we have seen the first film but if we haven't, it's not a disaster. The second film contrasts father Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) with son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) at different stages of their familial career. In the first film, we saw Vito entrenched in his position as Head of the Family and Michael just making his way up, albeit reluctantly at first. In the second film we see the reverse: Michael is now entrenched and Vito is now making his way to the top. In both films, Vito seems to do his work with a personal connection to those around him. The first movie even begins with Vito accepting requests for personal favors on his daughter's wedding day. In the second film, this quality is explored further, including his rise to power by killing the kingpin of Little Italy, Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin).
Considering Vito's power-grab, one could argue that he takes on the risk of killing Don Fanucci, not only because he believes Fanucci's power is weak and doesn't want Fanucci demanding shares of his takes but also because he is tired of seeing the community terrorized by him. That may not be true but the point is, it could be true. It could be imagined that Vito would kill Fanucci for the good of the Italian-American community and, as a side-benefit, gets to be the new Don for the neighborhood for his troubles. Whether it is true or not is entirely beside the point. Vito is presented as someone for which that kind of action would not be entirely improbable.
In the first film, when Michael takes on the role as Head of the Family, it feels different. After his encounter at the hospital, where we see Michael emboldened for the first time, we see him at the family home telling his brother Sonny (James Caan) how he will kill the two men responsible for the near murder of their father. When he assures Sonny "it's not personal, it's business," we believe him. It's his father and family that have been threatened and yet we fully believe that, to him, it is just business.
That line about it being "business" only fully resonates when we see how unbusiness-like Vito's actions are in the second installment. When Vito helps a widow and her dog stay in the tenement building from which they were about to be ejected, it is of no possible financial benefit to him. In fact, he's paying out of his own pocket to make it happen. It's about as far from being business-like as one can imagine. It's personal, strictly personal.
And none of this has anything to do with a trilogy. The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II are two sides of the same coin. They simply tell the story of Michael, contrasted with Vito, with one movie, the second part, furthering the exploration opened up in the first. But, again, there is no point where Part II feels like an unfinished "middle movie" of a trilogy, like Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, in which the viewer is abundantly aware that there is more to follow. No one expected a Part III in 1976 which is why, when none appeared, people weren't demanding to know "what happened next" in the adventures of Michael Corleone. It was only in 1990 that the third installment created a trilogy, first by simply existing and, thus, making the sum total of Godfather movies three, but, more importantly, by shoe-horning into the "story" Michael's redemption or, at least, his attempt at it.
Whatever the qualities of the third film, or lack thereof, the point is that none of it feels necessary in the slightest. The first two films exist so completely on their own as individual works that the third feels like nothing more than an installment designed to create a forced trilogy where there wasn't one to begin with. In this regard, I'd have to rank The Godfather Trilogy as one of the worst trilogies under the definition of a trilogy used here. What it feels like is two masterworks of the cinema, Parts I and II, working off of each other but not necessarily continuing from one to the other, followed by a third unrelated film with the appendage "Part III."
For decades, and perhaps still, the most famous trilogy was the Star Wars trilogy. This trilogy, existing entirely between The Godfather, Part II and Part III with seven years to spare, falls more in line with a traditional story-bound trilogy. The second installment, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, leaves little doubt to the viewer that this is the middle of the story and there will be a final installment yet to come. And even though the first film works entirely on its own, a trilogy is created from it that feels more or less honest, even if it's not until the second film that it becomes apparent it is a trilogy. The same can be said of another eighties blockbuster trilogy, Back to the Future. Like almost every other trilogy, the first movie can easily exist on its own (and I like to pretend that's the case, quite frankly) but the trilogy that does exist works as a trilogy when viewed in totality.
More recently, another popular trilogy, The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl that Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest) followed the same pattern but made the exploration of its characters deeper and more meaningful to the story. The first movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, works as a completely contained single film. Again, no second or third movie could have ever been made and the first film wouldn't have felt unfinished. It's only in the second film that a continuing story sets itself up and by the end of the second installment, we're left wondering what will happen to Lisbeth, with a third installment clearly telegraphed to the viewer.
Still, The Millennium Trilogy works better than most because the main characters, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), resonate with the viewer as people with more going on inside their heads of interest than anything going on in the story. In fact, the story that takes us through the second and third installments interested me far less than simply watching Rapace and Nyqvist play their parts. The story, involving government intrigue, cover-ups, lies and courtroom showdowns, has already left my head a mere year or so after watching them. Most of it left my memory within weeks. What kept me interested was those two actors playing those two characters. They seemed real, vulnerable and desperate. The courtroom showdown could have been about anything, really. In the end, it's nothing more than a MacGuffin. The point is to watch Salander and Blomkvist and root for them because we feel connected to them. In this way, The Millennium Trilogy is one of the few trilogies that seems to exist as a lengthy character study, like The Godfather films and The Apu Trilogy.
However, what about a true trilogy, one in which even the first film makes it clear that the story within it is to be told in parts and the first part, upon completion, does not stand on its own as a finished story?
By those standards, The Lord of the Rings is probably the truest cinematic trilogy in existence. This may very well be the case because the original work upon which they are based, the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, were intended to be one volume of a two volume set, rather than a trilogy. It was the publisher that decided the massive story should be broken into three works, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. This probably explains why the first installment doesn't feel entirely self-contained because it was, in fact, literally, the beginning of a story Tolkien had written as one volume with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. There is, within the trilogy, a specific story that continues from one to the next and each character within that story has specific goals and duties to perform in the service of that story. It is, without doubt, a trilogy, not just a set of three movies that have been made to work together. Each one stands on its own as a terrific entertainment but makes no attempt to be a complete story. The first two are adamant in their presentation that the viewer know this is only the beginning and middle. It passes the "First Movie" test of the trilogy, something no other trilogy discussed here has done: If no other movie were made after The Fellowship of the Ring, yes, people would wonder why the story was left hanging, as it were. The Lord of the Rings is indeed a trilogy, perhaps one of the few true trilogies in existence.
And so, it could be concluded, trilogies don't work very well, generally speaking. More often than not - much more often than not - they start with a first installment that, if need be, could stand alone as a single movie without ever having two sequels attached to it. Trilogies tend to feel like Hollywood greed more than a deep artistic need to "finish" the story. There's a first movie, it performs tremendously at the box office and the studios decide, "This should be a trilogy," at which point the second film gets made and finally starts a story to be completed in the third.
Trilogies have even started up in the middle of a film series that, otherwise, didn't originally set out to properly continue a story but rather present new adventures, ala James Bond. This happened with the Star Trek franchise after the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The next two Star Trek films continued a story that hadn't existed as a continuing story until Star Trek III: The Search for Spock got made. By the end of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the story finally finished and it was clear there had been a trilogy and a fairly decent, if inconsequential, one at that.
The Lord of the Rings will most likely continue to be the standard bearer for true trilogies, that is, stories that break their beginning, middle and end into three separate films. The Godfather movies will continue to have two of the best movies ever made contained within a nominal trilogy, but it doesn't feel like a trilogy at all. The first two movies stand alone as explorations of Michael contrasted with Vito, to be watched in tandem or separately. The third is something else altogether and exists solely to make a trilogy where before there was none.
Sequels and serials will never go away. There's too much money to be made and audiences actually do enjoy seeing the same characters again and again. If they didn't, television would have never succeeded. But when it comes to a trilogy proper, the landscape is pretty barren. There are plenty of them out there but for most, the first time's the charm. The second and third times aren't even needed.