So the other day I was watching Star Wars, the original, GOAT trilogy, when I wondered about the structure of the trilogy. You see, Star Wars, as a trilogy, intentionally follows a pretty strict structure. Let’s call this “trilogy structure.”
Trilogy structure pretty much is just a set of rules for what has to happen in each of the trilogy parts, so the first, second, and third movie. Considering Star Wars is, you know, one of the biggest pop culture franchises ever, I think trilogy structure worked out pretty well for them. But is it just Star Wars that uses trilogy structure?
No, practically every trilogy (well, at least the nerdy ones) use trilogy structure. I’m not going to argue whether or not trilogy structure is bad or good; I’m just going to establish a set structure that every trilogy seems to follow, and let you decide if trilogies need to be more creative or not.
So, most trilogies start with a main character in a “peaceful yet anxious” stage. The main character is always living peacefully, but he/she is also secluded from the outside world and always has been. The main character dislikes their peaceful life to an extent, craving adventure; sometimes they want to become involved in a conflict taking place outside.
We see this as Luke Skywalker dreams of being a pilot despite being stuck as a moisture farmer on Tatooine, Neo from The Matrix desperately searching for, well, the matrix despite living a bland life as a computer programmer, and Frodo Baggins fantasizing about his mentor Bilbo’s adventures. Even Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games, who really doesn’t want to be involved in any real conflict, still feels out of place living her normal life in District 12. So that’s how all of the first movies start.
Next, something crazy happens. I really don’t have all that much room to elaborate, but basically someone or something forces the main character, usually against the wishes of his/her friends and family, out into the bigger world. For Luke, he receives a message from Princess Leia and then his aunt and uncle are killed. For Neo, he is tracked then bugged by the agents. Frodo gains possession of the One Ring, and Katniss’s sister Prim is drafted to be in The Hunger Games, forcing her to volunteer as tribute.
At this point, as the main character explores the outside world, he/she begins to learn about some giant conflict that he/she will be dragged into. Rebels vs. Empire! Humans vs. Machines! Fellowship vs. Sauron! Districts vs. Capital! The hero might experience a little doubt about what side they belong on, but will ultimately choose one side and largely stick with it throughout the rest of the trilogy. The hero also usually gets a mentor figure here (Obi-Wan, Morpheus, Gandalf, or Haymitch).
So now that that whole giant conflict has been set up, the hero usually does some hero stuff for a little bit, meets a few allies and enemies, all culminating in a final battle at the end. At the end of the first movie, it will always end on a relatively happy victory. Why make the audience sad already? Luke blows up the Death Star, Neo defeats Agent Smith, Frodo escapes the Nazgûl, and Katniss wins the Hunger Games (with Peeta too!). It seems like it’ll all be happily ever after.
Except it’s not. Then, the second movie begins, and boy do things suddenly get dark. Tonally, the movie goes out of its way to get rid of whatever happiness the audience might have had earlier. The Empire invades Hoth, the Machines are plotting to attack Zion, Frodo gets entangled with Gollum, and District 12 is in poverty. You’re watching and you think, “Could things get any worse?” Well, they do. Though the movie will greatly expand the world and the amount of characters, it’ll also establish just how messed up everything is. Is there a secret dark emperor? Yes. Is Agent Smith multiplying? Yes. Are there all these different kingdoms getting beat up by Sauron? You betcha. Is the Capital even more evil and corrupt and planning a new Hunger Games to get rid of Katniss? Aw yeah. Darkness.
Importantly, the second movie will always end on a victory, but a melancholy at best one. Yes, Luke escapes Vader, but he lost a hand and Han Solo is frozen now. Neo may have saved his friends, but now he’s in a coma and Agent Smith is in the real world. Frodo is all beat up and barely has enough will to keep going on, and District 12 was kinda, you know, blown up (but Katniss and her family survived at least.) At this point, you’re thinking things can only go up.
And in the third movie, they do. The third movie (or in The Hunger Games’s case, third and fourth) basically has a bunch of small, inconclusive victories leading up to a big final one. The world is expanded slightly, but the main focus remains on the battles. Slowly but surely, good triumphs. The hero spends the majority of third film in self-doubt about their ability to win, but by the end they achieve their idealism and defeat the evil forces. Luke overcomes the dark side and defeats the Emperor. Neo overcomes self-doubt and embraces his role as “The One.” Frodo overcomes the temptations of the One Ring and defeats Sauron. Katniss overcomes her fears of being a leader or symbol for a resistance movement. The movie ends by laying out the new peaceful world where all the characters will be happy, and then everybody is happy. The end.
So that’s trilogy structure. On the one hand, it’s somewhat cool to compare different films with such different styles and see their similarities. On the other hand, it’s a little annoying that every trilogy has to follow this same formula. Who knows? Maybe there is no right answer; maybe trilogies are meant to follow the formula, maybe not. Maybe I’m overthinking this. Probably that last part.