Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments has had high praise, but are sequels ever as good as the original?

The follow-ups to The Handmaid's Tale, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Wolf Hall have wowed readers and critics but not so the sequels to Catch-22 and The Shining. Charlotte Cripps explores the hits and misses of sequels to classic novels over the years

Thursday 12 September 2019 14:34 BST

Finishing a good book always leaves you yearning for more – but is the sequel ever as good as the original?

With the publication of Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Testaments on Tuesday (10 September), this is a question every fan of her 1985 dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale is wondering.

The most highly anticipated book of 2019 arrives 34 years after the first (also Booker-shortlisted), and in the wake of the equally successful Hulu TV adaptation (three series of which have now been shown on Channel 4, with a fourth on the way).

Outside Waterstones in Piccadilly, hundreds of fans lined up to attend the midnight launch, which was attended by the 79-year-old Canadian author herself.

Bookshops all over the world also joined in with launches – not something experienced since Harry Potter.

Now fans mourning the loss of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV, can get their teeth into a more in-depth look at Gilead, where Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss in the TV adaptation) has been forced into sexual slavery, after the US government has been overthrown by right-wing religious tyrants. Atwood’s sequel is set 15 years after Offred’s last scene in the original book, in which readers are left wondering whether she escapes or is punished by the regime. The sequel is told through the eyes of Aunt Lydia, the brutal teacher of the fertile Handmaids, whom she rules with an iron rod, as well as through Offred’s two daughters, one of whom escaped to Canada, as a baby.

Reviews suggest it is well worth the wait, despite having a lot to live up to. The Independent, who gave it four stars, said “it can and does satisfy our hunger for more. It is an addictively readable, fast-paced adventure about the collapse of Gilead”. Others were disappointed by it, including The Arts Desk, who not only claimed “Most of it reads like a bad YA fiction”, but also that it “lacks the slow, fine claustrophobia of The Handmaid’s Tale. The writing is rushed, with clichés patching the gaps to get us from one moment of reaction to another”.

Another major sequel to be published in the last few years, of course, was Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the 2012 Booker Prize-winning sequel to the author’s Wolf Hall, which also won the Booker Prize in 2009. While the first book was an account of the speedy rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s court, the sequel was just as gripping in its account of Anne Boleyn’s fall, masterminded by Cromwell, after she failed to produce an heir.

It transformed historical fiction into an art form – and Mantel is currently writing the final part of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, which is due out in March 2020. It could be a triple whammy for Mantel, if she wins the Booker Prize again next year.

The Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, Gaby Wood, who acts as a moderator for the judging panel, tells me that it is essential that the Booker judges view a sequel as a standalone volume.

“It’s actually no different from the way in which judges have to try and erase the memory of a writer’s earlier books, even if they’re not sequels. Past work can have an unconscious effect on one’s reading of a present one, and judges have to remember that they’re comparing books published this year to each other, not comparing one writer’s new book with his or her backlist,” she says.

“As the judges are discussing a sequel, of course one of the questions that comes up – once you’ve eliminated comparison with past work – is whether the book works without the earlier volume. Sometimes – and I can’t name the books because this is largely the reason they never made it to the longlist – the answer to that is ‘no’. I think it’s more fair to readers, too – you don’t want readers to feel inadequate because they haven’t read this or that.”

The only other sequel to win the Booker was Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road in 1995 – the third novel in her Regeneration trilogy. Some said at the time that by rewarding the final volume, judges were actually rewarding the trilogy as a whole. But Wood, who wasn’t involved at that time, says this wouldn’t have been the case. “They certainly would have had to consider the book on its own merit.”

But how do other famous sequels fare? What sequels are coming up? And are there any flops?

Next month is the eagerly awaited second instalment in Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust series – in which he returns to the world of His Dark Materials trilogy, which has sold more than 17.5 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. Heroine Lyra Belacqua, later known as Lyra Silvertongue, who was just a baby in the critically acclaimed first novel in the Book of Dust trilogy, La Belle Sauvage (2017), returns as an adult in the second instalment, The Secret Commonwealth, which is set seven years after the end of the His Dark Materials series. What is astonishing is the way Pullman sustains the story of Lyra into adulthood in his sequel – although he refers to The Dust Trilogy as an “equel” to His Dark Materials, because it can be read as a stand-alone set of novels, without reading the former series.

Coming soon, too, is the follow-up to Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), titled Olive, Again, which will be published by Viking in October. It follows the next decade of the loveable heroine Olive Kitteridge’s life in the seaside town of Crosby, Maine.

Another big release this year was Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad (1952), which was published in English for the first time in June. However, it was not really a sequel, but a dazzling prequel to his epic masterpiece of the Soviet experience, Life and Fate (1960), which was first published in English in 1985.

Malorie Blackman’s long-awaited Crossfire, which came out this year, is the latest in her YA series Noughts & Crosses, which – like The Testaments – has come after a significant lapse in time since the previous book in the series, Double Cross, in 2008.

It also took JRR Tolkien a long time to write the sequel to The Hobbit (1937) when he published The Lord of the Rings (1954), which was a roaring success, 17 years later.

John Updike kept fans waiting 24 years for his sequel to his 1984 novel The Witches of Eastwick, The Widows of Eastwick, in 2008, which got fairly good reviews.

Stephen King’s The Shining was published in 1977; its not-so-famous sequel, Doctor Sleep (2013), followed 36 years later. Joseph Heller’s sequel to Catch-22 (begun in 1953 and published in 1961) arrived a mere 33 years later, but Closing Time (1994) didn’t match the power or impact of the enduring original.

Other famous sequels include JK Rowling’s follow-up to her debut Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997). Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets was published to great acclaim one year later.

George RR Martin followed A Game of Thrones in 1991 with A Clash of Kings in 1999 – the first two books which make up A Song of Ice and Fire, which became TV’s Game of Thrones. Fans have been waiting eight years so far for his sixth book in the cycle, Winds of Winter.

Another big sequel was, of course, Dan Brown’s worldwide bestseller The Da Vinci Code in 2003, which was the sequel to Angels and Demons, which flew off the shelves in 2000. Perhaps its success was partly due to the fact that readers saw both novels as an educational pursuit – as Brown positioned himself as some kind of authority on Catholicism and art history. But it turned out his version of historical facts and art history wasn’t so correct, and led to accusations of plagiarism, which he defended in court.

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding in 1996 which amusingly chronicled the life of a thirty-something single woman in London. Its follow-up, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, published in 1999, was much praised in reviews – although some picked up on a sense that the genre might be getting tired and Fielding should throw the towel in while she was winning. But the author continued the story in her third novel, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, in 2013 (now she was 51 and on the dating scene) by which point it read more like Jilly Cooper.

Sequels in children’s fiction are much more common than in adult books. We’ve had The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain – which was inspired by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) – but considered a defining classic of American literature.

Ernest Hemingway, a fan, said: “All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn… It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) by Roald Dahl has enthralled children ever since it was published in 1964, but its sequel, Charlie and the Glass Elevator in 1972, was not so memorable. The sequel lost its sense of direction as Charlie and Willy Wonka accidentally zoomed into orbit aboard the glass elevator.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis (1950), which is the best known of seven novels in The Chronicles of Narnia, was successfully followed by Prince Caspian (1951). Lewis actually didn’t think he would write any more Narnia books after the first, but ended up writing seven in total, over a period of four to five years.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll is followed up brilliantly in Alice Through the Looking-Glass (1871), in which the heroine re-enters a fantastical world where everything is reversed – even logic.

Perhaps much more surprising was the sequel to Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic Little Women in 1868, which sold out in days. Sadly, Little Men, in 1871, lost the original book’s feminist spirit.

In 2015, Harper Lee’s “sequel”, Go Set A Watchman, was discovered unexpectedly and dubbed a sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a whopping 55 years later. It turned out to be the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird – and was published with Lee’s consent. It was not the masterpiece that To Kill a Mockingbird became, which arose from her publisher who saw the first draft, directing her to focus more on Scout’s childhood.

Some sequels just don’t work at all. After a 30-year wait, Ira Levin’s sequel to Rosemary’s Baby (1967) – titled Son of Rosemary (1997) – in which the son born of Rosemary’s rape by Satan is now a 33-year-old man – was a total flop.

Other sequels are written by new authors who try to breathe life into somebody else’s work.

The sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind, Scarlett (1991), was written by Alexandra Ripley. It debuted on the New York Times bestsellers list, but it was panned by critics and fans who thought it lacking in the literary prowess of its predecessor.

Likewise, there have been numerous sequels to Jane Austen’s novels. PD James did well to honour Pride and Prejudice so well, with her best-selling sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley, that continues Austen’s story brilliantly with a murder mystery.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier has a few sequels: Rebecca’s Tale (2001) by Sally Beauman continues the plot and was approved by the Du Maurier estate. Its appeal came from the fact that it revisited the original story – but from the point of view of Rebecca herself, the first Mrs de Winter, who until now had not had the chance to be heard.

The Mrs de Winter sequel to Rebecca by Susan Hill in 1993 was panned by some critics – The Independent who called it a “timid sequel” said, “Eventually we realise that there is nothing here except the old ghosts, dragged out of their dignified retirement and forced to dance again.”

Other sequels worth a mention include The Silence of the Lambs in 1998 by Thomas Harris, which is generally considered his best book and features cannibalistic doctor Hannibal Lecter, first seen in Harris’s 1981 novel, Red Dragon.

The Mysterious Island (1874) by Jules Verne was the sequel to his Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870 – which was arguably Verne’s real masterpiece – but nevertheless, the sequel concluded many of the stories in the first book.

D H Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), the sequel to The Rainbow (1915), which two months after publication, was banned for its treatment of sexual desire, follows the continuing loves and lives of the Brangwen sisters, Gudrun and Ursula – and is considered to be one of the greatest novels written in English in the 20th century. Lawrence actually intended the two novels to be one, with the working titles The Sisters and The Wedding Ring. But they were published as two separate novels at the request of his publisher. But after the outcry over The Rainbow, he wouldn’t publish the sequel. The sequel was eventually made available only to subscribers because of the controversy caused by The Rainbow and a limited edition of 1,250 book were printed, but like most of his works, most famously Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928, it continued to cause controversy because of its sexual subject matter.

Meanwhile Ulysses in 1922 by Irish writer James Joyce – a modern reworking of The Odyssey – features the character of Stephen Dedalus, first seen in his debut novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was published in 1916. On the “Most difficult novels” list on Goodreads, Ulysses is ranked in top place for “novels that make you work the hardest”. But don’t let it put you off – it’s a fine sequel – just a weighty one (about 700 pages depending on the edition).

The Testaments is published by Chatto and Windus, £20

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