Why sequels are always better than the original

Like many people this week, I’ve just come back from the cinema, where I saw “Frozen II”. And it got me thinking about a theory I’ve been holding on to for a while: That sequels are pretty much always better than the originals. The vast majority of the time, when you see a film or a book that has “II” or “Part 2” or “The Reawakening” or similar appended to its title, you know you’re in for one hell of a good ride.

And as we all know, this effect is only magnified the longer a series of sequels goes on. They just keep getting better, and better, and better…

Now, I imagine some of you are gagging at this point. What do you mean?! Originals are better!

Well, yes. Most of us think this. But although most people agree that sequels are never as good as the originals in a series, they tend to obtain higher scores from audiences.

While this seems paradoxical at first, it actually makes a lot of sense. Let’s take a look at two popular series of books that were turned into movies, and see what I mean: Harry Potter and Twilight.

And then, we’ll look at two series that exhibit a very different kind of pattern – the Hunger Games and Game of Thrones – and talk about why.

The Harry Potter series

Aside from a few lumps and bumps, we can see an overall rising trend in reader and audience ratings of the Harry Potter series, below. (Scores are taken from Goodreads for the book series, and from IMDB for the movie series. IMDB ratings have been converted to a score out of five).

Readers rated the final book in the series (indicated in the graph as HP7, which received a score of 4.61) more highly than they did the first book (indicated in the graph as HP1, which received a score of 4.47). The box set (indicated in the graph as HP8) was even more highly rated again.

The same pattern is observable for the movies – apart from a few lumps and bumps, audiences rated the movies more favourably as the series went along. Part 1 of HP 7 received a score of 3.85, which is higher than the first film’s 3.8, and Part 2 was the highest-scoring film of all, at 4.05 (giving the film adaptations of book 7 an average score of 3.95).

The Twilight series

The first two books in the Twilight series are rated 3.5 on Goodreads. Book three is rated 3.6, and book four is rated 3.7 – even though most fans agreed that the earlier books were better.

While the movies aren’t quite as clear-cut, it is still true that the final movie (indicated in the graph below as T5) was more favourably received by audiences than any of the preceding films. Like the final instalment of the Harry Potter, the last book in the Twilight series was transformed into two films (Breaking Dawn Part 1 and Part 2), which averaged a score of 2.6 from audiences on IMDB – the same score asthe first movie, Twilight received. Critics, on the other hand, were much less impressed by the later movies in the series. Breaking Dawn‘s two parts received an average score of 48.5 on Metacritic (compared to Twilight‘s 56).

Are sequels really better?

If we just looked at the aggregate scores of the books and movies in these series, we’d be included to conclude that yes, sequels are generally better than the originals.

But there’s an important bias occurring here: selection bias.

In a free society, we choose what books to read, what films to see. We choose whether to go online and rate them afterwards.

And then, we choose whether to go and buy the next book. Or see the next film.

The people who picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone and didn’t enjoy it might have left a negative review, and then never bothered with another Harry Potter book again. Meaning that their negative views of the boy wizard as a character, or JK Rowling as a writer, are not counted against Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, or any of the other books/films.

Those who thought HP1 was okay, but didn’t enjoy HP2 might have given up on the series at that point.

And those who thought HP1 was good, HP2 was okay, but didn’t like HP3 might have given up at that point.

At every stage of the series, readers and viewers who dislike the series are dropping out, which means a higher proportion of those still reading/watching are dedicated fans. Yes, some people hate-read/watch (Twilight certainly received a lot of this). But most people don’t want to waste their time or money on things they don’t think they’re going to enjoy.

Thus, the further along you get in a series, the more enthusiastic the average fan is, simply because the less enthused ones opt out.

Consider the Harry Potter series: book 1 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has over six million ratings on Goodreads, and a score of 4.4 stars. Book 7 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has just over two million at time of writing, and a score of 4.61.

Or Twilight: book 1 Twilight has over four million ratings, and a score of 3.59. Book 4 Breaking Dawn has just over one million at time of writing, and a score of 3.7.

Why ‘worse’ books get ‘better’ ratings

Of course, it is difficult to say objectively that a book or film is “good” or “bad”. But the selection bias that occurs does help to explain the growing divergence in audience and critics’ scores that sometimes occurs.

Film goers and film critics were generally in alignment as far as opinions on the Harry Potter series is concerned. Both audiences and critics gave Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 the most positive rating of the series, followed by HP3, and then HP4. Both agreed that HP2 was the weakest film in the series, followed by HP1. The only slight divergence was when it came to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1: which fans considered the equal third-best film of the series, while the critics considered it to the third-worst film, only slightly ahead of HP1 and HP2.

The Twilight series, on the other hand, exhibits a rather different pattern. While both fans and critics agreed that the T2 was the weakest film of the series (a second-movie slump similar to that exhibited in the Harry Potter series), they diverged quite sharply when it comes to rating the best. The final Twilight film, Breaking Dawn: Part 2 was considerably more favourably rated by IMDB users than any of the preceding films, but as far as critics were concerned, it received fewer favourable reviews than either the T1, or T3, making it the second-weakest film of the series.

Thus, while it may be true that sequels often have higher ratings than their originals, these audience ratings are less and less reliable the further we get into a series.

That is, if you understand them as an indication of the book or film’s overall quality and its appeal to a mainstream audience.

If you want to know whether a certain instalment in a series satisfies its target audience, then the further along in a series that a book or film is, the more likely it is that the remaining audience/reader reviewers are discerning fans.

What’s up with the box sets?

It’s worth noting one other seemingly unusual feature of readers’ reviews which can be explained by this phenomenon: the inordinately high scores readers award box sets.

It would seem logical to assume that the Harry Potter box set would receive a rating of around 4.55, given that is the average of the Goodreads scores for Harry Potter books 1-7. At a minimum, we’d expect the rating to fall somewhere between 4.41 and 4.61 – that is, somewhere between the highest and lowest scores achieved by the individual books in the series. Instead, we find it rated 4.78, much higher than any of the individual books received.

Likewise, it would seem logical to assume that the Twilight box set would receive a rating of around 3.6, given this is the average of the Goodreads scores for Twilight books 1-4. Again, at a minimum, we might expect the rating to fall somewhere between the lowest and highest scores achieved by the individual books in the series – so between 3.53 and 3.7. But instead, the Twilight box set received a score on Goodreads of 3.89 – again, much higher than any of the individual books received. In fact, some of the special edition box sets have scores as high as 4.35!

Is the whole (of a series) really greater than the sum of its parts?

I’d like to propose an alternative theory: that those who spend great wads of cash on collectible editions and box sets of books are those who are already fans, or at the very least, are closely aligned with the target audience. They’re people who watched all of the movies and just know they’ll love the books. They’re kids who read one or more of the books from the library who begged their parents for the whole series for their birthday. They’re people who own some or all of the books already, but want the nice box this set comes in, or they’re collecting all the different covers.

Very few people who aren’t sure they’re going to like Harry Potter or Twilight would have bought the whole box set. The financial barrier is simply too high. A special-edition collectible box set of Harry Potter retails for $299 on Amazon. If you were new to the series, wouldn’t you be more likely to buy the paperback of the first book for $8.74? Likewise, a limited-edition white hardcover box set of Twilight currently retails for $98.91 on Amazon. If you were just trying the series out, why wouldn’t you get the regular paperback for $11.72 instead?

Additionally, even many of those who do own the box set probably don’t bother rating the box set if they’ve already given ratings to one or more of the books in the series individually.

But superfans probably will.

The power of superfans

Admittedly, this is an extremely small sample of just two book/film series. But to compare with a couple of other series off the top of my head: all three books of The Hunger Games hover around the four-point-something mark (4.33, 4.29 and 4.03), with almost six million ratings for the first book, and just over two million for the last, but the box set has a score of 4.48 on Goodreads.

The Game of Thrones series also hovers around the four-point-something mark (4.45, 4.41, 4.54, 4.13, 4.32, 4.41, 4.39). Interestingly, book 1 has 1.8 million reviews, compared to just 1,430 for GOT7. That’s an even sharper drop off in readership than either the Harry Potter or Twilight series saw between their first and last books…

Why such a sharp decline? Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, A Dream of Spring hasn’t been released yet. In fact, earlier this year author George RR Martin stated that he hadn’t even started writing it.

Imagine that. Over a thousand reviews, and a rating of 4.39, for a book that not only hasn’t been released, but that doesn’t exist yet.

Meanwhile, box sets of Martin’s six existing GOT books have a score of 4.7 – again higher than the average score, or any of the individual books’ ratings.

It is worth noting, though, that both the Hunger Games and the Game of Thrones series do not adhere to the same patterns of consistently rising scores as the series progresses which we saw for both Harry Potter and Twilight.

While, as we might predict based on the above analyses of Harry Potter and Twilight, both book series have box sets that are much more highly rated by readers than any of the individual books (HG4 and GOT8 in the below graphs), the overall trend of these series is downhill.

Hunger Games

For the books, HG1 received better ratings than HG2, which in turn received better ratings than HG3. The first two films received scores in the 7 range on IMDB (which converts to scores above 3.5), while the second two films received scores in the 6 range (which converts to scores around 3). The final film was not only rated less favourably than the first, but less favourably than any of the earlier films in the series.

The chart for GOT appears messy in large part due to the factors mentioned above. Additionally, we should not expect the book and TV series lines to mirror each other as closely as the Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games book and film lines generally correlate, because the GOT book series and TV series are quite different in terms of their content. However, if we remove the book line scores for GOT7 (the as-yet unwritten, unreleased “book” which has inexplicably gathered many times the reviews most independently published books will receive in a lifetime!) and the for GOT8 (the box set which artificially inflates the line) we can see that both the book series and TV series appear fairly flat, other than a bump for the TV series, and a pit for the book series in GOT4. That is, up until we get to the end of the TV series, where there was not only a sharp decline in the number of episodes produced (dropping from 10 per season in GOT1-6 to just 7 in GOT7, and 6 in GOT8) but also in the audience’s evaluations. GOT8 is by far the worst-rated season of the Game of Thrones series, with an average score of just 3.21. The series finale was the single worst-rated episode of the whole eight years, with a score of just 2.05 out of five.

Admittedly, even at its worst, GOT was a massively successful – and popular – series. The series has an overall score of 9.4/10 on IMDB, and it is currently the eighth-highest-rated TV series on the platform. Likewise, the Hunger Games series achieved not only sales but ratings from fans that most of us authors can only dream of. But if we understand the increasing selectivity of audiences tuning in to TV series, or going to the cinema, or buying books correctly, then what we’d hope to see is a pattern more like that of Harry Potter. For a series to be delivering consistent quality, its ratings should actually be going up over time. That is, in order for a sequel to be considered as good as the first book or movie, it should actually have a score that is higher than the first book or movie received from audiences, because there are fewer reviewers who don’t like the author/series/genre in general detracting from the overall score.

Different reviewers, different roles

The same is not true, however, when it comes to critics, because generally, approximately the same number of critics review each film in a series. Metacritic compiles reviews from 36 critics for the first HP film, and 41 for the last (that is, the number of reviewers actually increased slightly). The numbers stayed relatively stable for Twilight, too: 38 critics’ scores are collected for the first Twilight movie, and 31 for the last. Similarly, 49 critics’ reviews are collated for the first Hunger Games movie, and 45 for the last.

While much has been made of the rise of online review platforms and the power of the consumer, I do not believe professional reviewers to be obsolete. On the contrary, professional and amateur reviewers complement each other wonderfully.

Even more crucially, in a time when it seems every author is being encouraged to turn every book into a trilogy, and then those books go on to become films that are split into even tinier pieces, comparing audience and critic scores can help us understand how good a series really is.

Audiences and professional reviewers both play a critical role when it comes to reviewing books, films, and television shows, and the longer a series goes on, the more distinct their roles become. The aggregate audience scores produced by enormous platforms like Goodreads and IMDB have the power of big numbers behind them. What is more, they tell us whether people like us – the fans of something – are continuing to have their expectations met by that series. On the other hand, professional critics provide those who are new to the series a potentially less biased view of how it compares to other works and whether it maintains its quality over the long run. By understanding how these scores are calculated and the inherent biases in them, we can better interpret reviews of our favourite media, and appreciate the distinct roles of different kinds of reviewers.

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