‘The Sequel is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing

Harry-potter-films

Sequels to science fiction and fantasy books, films and TV series are often described as ‘darker’ than their immediate predecessor, a trend that I first noticed with Harry Potter. Retrospectives on the book series tend to assume that Voldemort’s return in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, shifted the series towards a ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, tone; retrospectives on the film series point the finger at the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, where director Alfonso Cuaron deliberately created a Hogwarts with a very different feel to Chris Columbus’s version (at the time, most newspapers ran with ‘Harry Potter hits puberty‘, praising Cuaron’s revamp). Nevertheless, this trend started earlier; every Harry Potter film was described as darker than the one before it. A number of professional reviewers praised the second film, Chamber of Secrets for being ‘better and darker than its predecessor’. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film ‘deepen[ed] the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences. This is as it should be: Harry’s story is supposed to get darker’, referring to J.K. Rowling’s stated intention that the series should ‘grow up with its readers’. However, even after the tonal shift when Voldemort regains a physical body in Goblet of Fire, reviewers kept praising the films for being darker than the last. ‘Harry Potter grows older and darker’ was Time‘s headline for their review of Order of the Phoenix .

Given the larger number of books and films in the Harry Potter series, this trend is most obvious for this franchise, but is not confined to it. You might not think that a series that kicks off with the state-sanctioned murder of 23 children and adolescents by their peers could get any darker, but according to reviewers, the Hunger Games franchise did. The Atlantic found Mockingjay: Part 1, the third film in the series, ‘darker, more relentless’ than the previous installments, spelling out what they meant while unintentionally proving the Sequel Is Always Darker rule: ‘The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more.’ The Star Wars prequel Rogue One was obviously going to have a different tone from the earlier films, given its content, but alongside its universal reputation as ‘dark’, fans still asked ‘Should Rogue One Have Been Even Darker?‘ To look at a different kind of follow-up, remakes of classic movies are often praised as being ‘darker’ than the originals. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake was seen as ‘the darker side of Willy Wonka‘. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been reviewed as both ‘darker’ than the original 1990s sitcom and comic book series and as getting darker than its original self season-by-season. Showrunners also love to tease fans with ‘darker’ sequels, as with this piece on the third season of Stranger Things,  which claims, ‘it’s definitely going to get darker still – [it will go to?] places that I think audiences are going to really love.’

But what do reviewers actually mean when they say that a book or film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor? We could spend ages arguing over what it means to be ‘dark’ (kill count? tone? grey morality?) or whether or not these sequels are actually darker, but instead, I want to suggest that when people say something is ‘darker’, they mean it is ‘better’, and this is a big problem.

Why does darker = better, especially when it comes to popular science fiction and fantasy series? My hypothesis is that it’s a signal that these books and films are worthy of adult attention, and so it’s OK if you’re an adult and you like them. Popular associations surrounding these genres still associate them with children, and one way for both artists and their fans to try and shed this ‘childish’ reputation is to talk about how dark their work is, and how much darker it’s going to be. This also explains why the first episode may be dark, but the next one is always darker: series need to ‘mature’, ‘grow up’, ‘develop’, because these are all Good Things, whereas remaining in the supposedly immature and undeveloped world of childhood is bad.

This is problematic enough in itself, because it simultaneously devalues children and adolescents, claims that young people don’t want complex stories, and assumes that being into ‘darker’ media makes you a better, more serious adult. It sets up a false binary between cheery, morally black-and-white children’s fiction and dark, morally grey fiction for adults. However, I’d also argue that playing into this narrative leads writers, filmmakers and showrunners into serious trouble. I’m going to reserve my full Harry Potter rant for another post, but suffice it to say that I think Rowling’s decision to make the series ‘grow up with Harry’ not only gives it a horribly uneven tone, but actually leads to it becoming less morally interesting. Rogue One disappointed me terribly because it served up such simplistic and boring characters compared to its companion film, A New Hope, as if being serious means that you don’t get to have a personality (you know you’ve gone wrong when the robot is the most compelling person in your film). And season three of Stranger Things misstepped by deciding that it had to fully embrace adolescence rather than exploring the ways in which our protagonists are still children – or realising that it was its celebration of childhood creativity and ingenuity that made the first two series so great.

I think it’s time to abolish the assumption that darker is better, or even that calling something ‘dark’ is a meaningful description. I love a lot of fiction that has been called ‘dark’, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Mirror. But give me The Force Awakens or the book version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone any day over other films or books in those franchises that try to be ‘dark’ because they think that’s how to be ‘grown up’, and, in doing so, reinforce our limited ideas of what is worthy of our notice.

 

 

26 thoughts on “‘The Sequel is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing

  1. I love this discussion, and agree that there’s a level of creative joy to series openers like Philosopher’s Stone that is almost totally lacking in later/”darker” installments. There’s not much space to continue developing the details, the logistics, of a world if you’ve decided to prioritize an immediate moral dilemma, or a specific challenge. I suppose you could argue this is self-reinforcing (with reference to HP again, we already know a lot about how the wizarding world works before Goblet of Fire), but – by the same token – that’s the book where JKR introduces the Quidditch World Cup, which gives us wizarding sporting/pop culture in much greater detail than ever before. It’s inventive in a way that, e.g., the quest to find the Horcruxes really isn’t – and, again, it’s joyful. (The team mascots! Ludo Bagshot’s amplified voice!)

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    • I think that is absolutely true of the last two HP books. Still, I’m re-reading Order of the Phoenix at the moment, which is arguably the series’ ‘darkest’ point if darkest = most morally complex (Snape’s Worst Memory is so chilling), and I’m struck by how brilliantly and imaginatively it expands the world (as does Goblet of Fire, as you say), and how this work is squandered in the last two installments of the series. So I guess I don’t think this is inevitable.

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  2. This is such an interesting discussion! I feel like darker sequels have always been something we’ve taken for granted, so it’s especially intriguing to try to unpack it like you just did.

    I totally agree with you that what makes something “darker” is hard to define. Is it just gratuitous “adult” content (violence, death, torture, etc.), or is it something else?

    I think, also, that series can by their very nature necessitate that the sequel be “darker.” When you have a series of books or movies, you want to keep people interested in them as the story progresses, so each subsequent book or movie needs to be better than the last. And when you need to keep a story going, especially if it’s one that’s as long as the Harry Potter series, you need to keep raising the stakes, or else it loses momentum. And so making the story darker might also coincide with having to raise the stakes to keep the story interesting. Whether that works or not is up to the skill of the author, I think. 🤔

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    • Thank you! I need to actually write up my Harry Potter post so I can fully work out my thoughts on the series’s reputation for increasing darkness – but yes, I think it would definitely be fair to say that there is a raising of the stakes in Goblet of Fire with Voldemort’s physical return, and that this makes the threat to Harry and the wizarding world more immediate, so the books do get ‘darker’ in that sense. I guess my concern is that I don’t find that this necessarily coincides with the books becoming more morally complex, which is a different way to think about what makes fiction ‘dark’.

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      • Yes! I definitely agree with you. I think raising the stakes can make a story potentially more action-packed or suspenseful, but not necessarily more complex or interesting. It feels like it has more to do with the structure or plotline of a story rather than its characters or themes, and so the darker content doesn’t always end up translating to more morally complex.

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  3. I’ve heard people call the Netflix series Anne with an E darker than the books and the beloved 1985 made-for-TV adaptation. But I wouldn’t call it “darker,” myself. I felt it was more realistic, such as the trauma Anne faces as an orphan following her after adoption. The school bully who harasses girls who don’t find him attractive, as well as a gay student. The female teacher berated for wearing pants is almost fired for setting a bad example. And, of course, the indigenous girl who leaves her family to go to school only to be held hostage (basically) by the government. The creators of Anne with an E appear to have thought about what times actually would have been like, rather than keeping everything in jolly good fun. In fact, author L.M. Montgomery could be quit miserable herself, writing to support her husband who had mental health issues. This is all different than shows that think more violence is a reflection of the real world, that children are going to face such violence and extreme ethical choices, like they do in the Hunger Games story, every day. Nice post!

    Quick side note: every horror film that I’ve seen remade is just 10x more gore. It makes me wonder WHAT IS GOING ON!?

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    • I considered using Anne with an E as an example for this post, but decided that I wanted to stick to SF/fantasy! I think this really shows how just calling something ‘darker’ doesn’t tell us much about it at all. I think the first series of Anne with an E, in particular, brings out some things that are implicit in the original story more explicitly, which makes it feel more disturbing. As you say, later series also tackle historical injustices against indigenous Canadians. However, I felt it was in some ways less realistic or less gritty than the original, eg almost everybody’s uncritical acceptance of the gay character and black couple, which pushes it into historical fantasy. I did find the tone in the last two series weirdly uneven, and so didn’t like them as much as the first.

      Totally agree that some horror films seem to assume that more gore makes them better and more serious! I hate it.

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  4. 100% agree with this post! I’ve never consciously thought about this trend, but I do agree that it’s problematic. It seems that “darker” means that there are more complicated problems and bad things happening (more deaths, more scary and dangerous creatures to face, less time for joking around, etc) but this doesn’t mean that any of those conflicts are meaningful or necessary to the story. I look forward to your HP rant—I find that when I reread it, I always stop at Goblet of Fire, which was the one I most enjoyed in the series. Maybe it’s also time to reread the last three books to see how it’ll hold up…

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    • I have a lot of time for the first five Harry Potter books, but think that the final two mark a very sudden and remarkable drop in quality. This seems to be a pretty unpopular opinion in fandom – most people seem to think the books got better as they went along, or think that they got worse but the rot set in with Goblet and/or Phoenix. While I can see that there are a lot of structural problems with Phoenix, it’s still one of my favourites because of the way it expands Harry’s horizons and gives us a glimpse of a more adult, morally complex world (which is then totally dropped in the last two books 🙁)

      And yeah, hate the idea that serious books can’t also be funny or have lighter moments.

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  5. Really interesting analysis! This is one of those situations where my more detached opinion and my personal tastes don’t align at all – I 100% agree with you about the fetishization of darkness and how reductive that is to all the brilliant storytelling that doesn’t need to lean on darkness as a crutch for emotional resonance; but on the other hand I love darkness! (You can take the girl out of the emo teenager, but…)

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    • This is actually why I wrote this piece in the first place, though, because I realised that I’d been defining myself as someone who likes ‘dark’ media, and so would get excited when somebody would say ‘the next film/book/etc is darker’, but then I’d often be disappointed. So I started to realise that what I meant by ‘dark’ (basically, moral complexity) wasn’t necessarily what other people meant, and that the term was so vague it was becoming useless.

      How would you define a ‘dark’ text?

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      • Ohhhh goodness asking the big questions. You know – I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about this before?! I definitely second what you said about moral complexity – that’s a key component for me. But also just… well-written tragedy almost always works for me; my emotional engagement usually goes up the higher the stakes are. With HP it’s hard because I do think the tonal shift in the series worked really well – OotP is my favorite, probably followed by GoF, but then HBP is SOLIDLY my least favorite. But to me that’s not about the darkness and more about how unfocused that book feels overall? Where I really reject ‘the darker the better!’ logic is with things like the Game of Thrones tv show where gratuitous sexual assault was thrown into every episode because lol historical realism or whatever. But otherwise I feel like darkness is something I generally embrace on principle – though now you’ve gotten me thinking that I should probably try to discern what it is I’m actually responding to rather than this enormous and vague concept…

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        • This is such an interesting discussion! Thanks for responding at such length. So for you, darkness is partly linked to ‘high stakes’, which suggests there is higher risk of death etc.? That makes sense to me as an alternative definition – I certainly think that A Song of Ice and Fire (NOT the TV show) is convincingly dark because we soon recognise that few of the characters are safe. As an adolescent, I remember getting frustrated with books that always preserved the main cast and made a big deal of the demise of minor characters, so I agree this is something that I probably seek out in SF/fantasy as well.

          OotP is also my favourite Harry Potter book, so we’re in agreement there – I think it’s the most morally complex novel in the series. My issues with the tonal shift are centred on HBP and DH, which return to an uncomfortably black-and-white view of things AND don’t dare to kill any characters who are really important (but I’ll leave that for another post!)

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  7. What an interesting post and discussion. It would be interesting to apply the same analysis to crime series perhaps – except I haven’t read enough of any of them. Again, with SF/Fantasy series I’m bad at finishing! I have however read all of HP, PofA is my favourite due to its brevity, but I agree with your points on vols 6/7. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series was great, and went up and down in ‘darkness’ throughout. I was interested that you didn’t comment on Lord of the Rings though – arguably, that does get darker and darker (however you choose to define it)?

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    • I considered including LOTR, but I wanted to choose examples where I felt it was either dubious that the series became darker or where the series becoming darker made it worse, to indicate how it’s often not very useful to say that a film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor. I agree – I think that the LOTR books and films do get darker as they go on, if by darker we mean that ‘the stakes are raised’ and we realise that the protagonists will be changed forever by their experiences, so there is greater emotional realism and recognition of trauma. I also think that you could argue that the books and films get better as they go on – my favourite of the films is The Two Towers but I can see an argument for The Return of the King. So it wasn’t the most useful example for this post!

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  8. Great and thought-provoking post. I agree that “darker” should not mean “better” and there is the perception of growing up being equated with something better, though I don’t think most people necessarily mean it gets “better” when they say “darker” (maybe I want to believe they don’t mean that) 😉 It depends – what I think they mean is that it gets “more serious” but that does not necessarily mean “better”. When you have a fantasy or sci-fi as your examples – “darker” may be perceived as “better” because we have finally scarier monsters (fantasy, maybe) as an example or “more claustrophobic atmosphere” – more thrills and higher stakes – darker – more serious, no “child’s play” anymore. That won’t necessarily translate into higher quality material or even more entertainment.

    I remember in 2012 I wrote a post on HP films on my other blog where I argued that the first HP films were the best in the series (Columbus ones) and the downfall began in sequence – starting from “the lightest” – it only got worse and not only because they got “darker” – though I also think that since HP was only 13 in the third movie, the presentation of the story shouldn’t have been as though he turned 21 – and it felt sometimes like it was.

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    • Thank you! I think there have been shows that have been accused of becoming ‘too dark’, but these seem less likely to be called ‘darker’, rather ‘bleak’ or ‘nihilistic’. For example, looking at the reviews for season four of Black Mirror, the reviews that say it’s a ‘darker’ season are all positive reviews – same thing with Game of Thrones (apart from the people who are cross because the later series have such bad lighting that it’s literally too dark for them to see anything!) I’m also interested by the fact that showrunners often trail their new series by saying that they’re getting ‘darker’, which strongly implies that, in this context, it must mean ‘better’, as they’re obviously trying to get viewers to tune in.

      I’m afraid I have to disagree with you on the HP films – I think 1 and 2 are the worst in the series, especially 2. I can definitely see how there was too much emphasis on ‘darkness’ in film 3 and indeed my favourites are films 4-6 (the film of HBP massively improved on the book IMO!)

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      • Films 1 and 2 are the worst in the series? Are there any particular reasons for this? Whatever else they can be described, they are certainty one of the most faithful book adaptations ever produced and their choice of cast and music, if nothing else, are out of this world, surely. If there was any HP magic or excitement as Rowling intended it to be, it was in those first two films and the rest was just a hectic, disjointed, and yes, too dark, theme park.

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        • For me, their faithfulness was the problem; I think film adaptations generally run into issues when they try to be too faithful to the books they’re based on, and this was particularly evident in film 2, which felt so disjointed.

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  10. I could not agree with you more! I generally prefer happier books, so I hate it when I feel like an author chose the darker of several possible endings just to be edgier/more adult/more serious. I’ve been thinking about this topic as it related to several recent posts asking if there are happy, literary books. I certainly don’t think there’s any reason for those two things to be mutually exclusive.

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    • It creates a lot of tension for me, because I like some elements of what’s defined as ‘dark’, but find others to be gratuitous or as you say, deliberately ‘edgy’. I’d be interested to read more happy literary books – I’ve tried a couple of ‘up-lit’ novels but found they didn’t work for me because of poor writing.

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