Trilogies reign triumphant
They say three is a magic number. Every child knows that the way to tell a story is to have a beginning, a middle and an end. At film schools all across America, the three-act structure is taught like the holy gospel, the magical story sauce that will make your movie compelling. Nowhere is this more evident than in the all-powerful movie trilogy, the holy grail of film series lengths.
Of course, modern movie franchises have found it hard to contain themselves to only three movies. As long as part three is still bringing in the dough you can be sure that parts four and five are not far behind. That doesn’t change the fact that when people talk about the greatest film series of all time, they more often than not bring up trilogies. “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings,” ‘Back to the Future,” ‘Indiana Jones,” “The Matrix,” “The Godfather,” the list goes on and on and on. There’s something perennially powerful about the three-act structure, and the trilogy is the three-act structure taken to its most grandiose state.
The setup is as universal as it is simple. The first film constructs an intriguing world filled with wonderful characters, and provides a simple story that seemingly resolves at the end, but leaves room for growth. The second film throws a ton of complications into the mix, adds characters and an overarching narrative and ends on a huge cliffhanger. The third one wraps everything up.
Many of the best “second in a trilogy” films are rightly accused at their time of release as being over-complicated movies that only exist to lead into a third movie. That’s true, but is that really a fair criticism if the movies are meant to act as a cycle? Would it be fair to complain that the second act of a play only exists to set up the third? Many second chapters fair better upon release of the third, and audiences can see where all this is going. Conversely, if the third film is bad it can retroactively hurt the second one as well. “The Empire Strikes Back” was controversial when first released due to the unfinished feeling of its ending, but ever since “Return of the Jedi” it has been considered the best of all the “Star Wars.” On the flip side, “Dead Man’s Chest” and “The Matrix Reloaded” were both hurt in the eyes of geek history by the disappointment of their follow-ups (for what it’s worth, I love all three “Pirates” films, but I digress).
Of course, sometimes the trilogy isn’t allowed to stand on its own. “Star Wars” has all manners of sequels, prequels and spin-offs since the original trilogy wrapped up almost forty years ago. “Lord of the Rings” was eventually followed by “The Hobbit,” and even “Toy Story,” which seemingly had closed the book as hard as it could possibly be closed, is coming back this summer for a fourth go around. These extra movies often hurt the perfectly balanced symmetry of a trilogy, but in some cases they merely restructure the original story in context of the others. The original “Star Wars” movies are now the second act in a trilogy of trilogies, which for trilogy aficionados is absolutely amazing.
Despite the lack of traditional trilogies in modern movie making, almost anything can be restructured into a trilogy if you look at it in the right way. “The Marvel Cinematic Universe?” They’ve got three phases. It’s a trilogy. “Harry Potter”? One through three are the first act, four and five the second and six through eight the third. It’s a trilogy. College? Freshmen year is prologue, sophomore year is act one, junior act two and senior year act three. It’s a trilogy. Meals? Breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you have three names, you are a trilogy. The three-act structure is the only structure, and it is beautiful. Internalize that and you will never be disappointed in the arc of anything ever again.