Prequels Always Suck (Unless They Stick to One Golden Rule)

From CNET:

We live in a world of sequels, reboots and spinoffs. But the absolute worst of a world where nothing is original? Prequels. Prequels suck.

Unless…

From Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, from Obi-Wan Kenobi to Andor, a prequel has to follow one golden rule to justify its existence.

A prequel has to tell us something we don’t already know.

What is a prequel? It’s a story that delves back into an earlier point in the backstory of a fictional series. The term was apparently first used in 1958 by sci-fi author Anthony Boucher, though creators have stepped back in time to explore the history of their characters since ancient Greek epic poem The Cypria filled in events before The Iliad, or ol’ Bill Shakespeare followedeth Richard III by rewinding to Richard II. As franchises and cinematic universes have become the dominant force in media, we’ve seen a glut of such tales, including 2022’s biggest TV shows: Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon, Lord of the Rings story The Rings of Power and Star Wars series Andor — which is technically a prequel to a prequel!

It was Star Wars that brought the term “prequel” into the forefront of the modern media industry. In the late 1990s, I wasn’t alone in getting excited about the Star Wars prequels. George Lucas telling new Star Wars stories? Yes please! A bunch of cool stars, including the pitch-perfect casting of indie darling Ewan MacGregor as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi? Sign me up! And the Force was strong with the Phantom Menace trailer, which marked a significant moment in the early history of the nascent Internet.

The excitement didn’t last.

I’m not going to rehash every criticism of the Star Wars prequels — which actually weren’t all bad — and I’m not here to single out George Lucas, who after all did give us the original trilogy. I refer to the infamous Star Wars films because they’re the first modern prequels, and in some ways they’re the apotheosis of the problem with prequel stories.

The pleasure of a prequel — or sequel or reboot or remake — is obvious. Any opportunity to spend more time with a beloved character is welcome. And if, as with Star Wars or Breaking Bad, the story has come to a natural end, a simple way to dip into that world again is to go back to an earlier point in the story. See the start of the Empire, or the origin of Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul. And it’s always fun to re-create a beloved story on new terms — basically, playing “Who would you cast in a remake of…?”, the fun game my friends and I used to play at school because we didn’t have girlfriends.

. . . .

And look at The Hobbit movies, a prequel trilogy to the Lord of the Rings series. OK, I know plenty of people love those movies and relish the return to Middle-earth. But that’s one movie’s worth of story stretched into three overlong epics. Do we really need these multiple movies, or could directors like Peter Jackson, Jon Watts (Spider-Man) and Taika Waititi (Thor) spend those years doing something new and original instead?

At least The Hobbit doesn’t actively contradict the beloved original films, another potential danger of a prequel. When a prequel messes with the continuity and canon of a series, it runs the risk of rendering the original nonsensical. Star Trek prequel TV shows Enterprise and Discovery both found themselves stuck in such a continuity cul-de-sac that they had to resort to time travel silliness to make it work (the same nonsense that hamstrung the big-screen JJ Abrams reboot). And once again, we can go back to Star Wars: When various characters meet each other in the prequels, it actually contradicts the original films.

But when it all comes down to it, the fundamental flaw with prequels is that all too often, all they tell us is what we already know. Ultimately, nine hours of prequel movies explaining Anakin Skywalker’s family history don’t have the emotional impact of the single line “No… I am your father.”

Link to the rest at CNET and thanks to F. for the tip.

5 thoughts on “Prequels Always Suck (Unless They Stick to One Golden Rule)”

  1. “But that’s one movie’s worth of story stretched into three overlong epics.”

    I’ve seen such comments before and they always strike me as rather silly. The narrative content of a typical film is the equivalent of a long short story or a short novella, which is why short stories by the likes of James Warner Bellah were the starting point for some great movies (though in normal Hollywood fashion “starting point” needs to be emphasised, as screenwriters rarely felt the need to be true to their sources and faced with a novel would dispense with most or all of the plot).

    My copies of Pride and Prejudice and The Hobbit both run to about 300 pages, and the BBC 1995 P&P series managed to get almost the whole book – pretty faithfully and without abridgement – into six hours. If Peter Jackson had been equally faithful to the Hobbit then – allowing for the fact that action scenes can turn a page of text into many minutes of blood and thunder – a running time for the trilogy of six to seven hours would be expected. Of course, he was even less faithful than in the LoTR, which may explain coming in at about 8 hours. The Hobbit is not a film series I particularly admire but there’s no way a more faithful rendition could have fitted into one movie.

    As for prequils, I quite enjoyed the Star Wars ones (and am to old to care about the derision this will arouse) and really liked Rogue One, but the Star Trek ones left me cold.

    • The STAR WARS prequel Trilogy pales before the Original trilogy, but it shines in comparison to all the Disney movies. And as regards to Rogue one, I tend to agree with the OP that an entire movie dedicated to a single sentence in the first movie was a bit…extreme. Though Vader wading through rebels was amusing. And then, not content to prequel the original now they’re going to prequel the prequel.

      Agreed about Trek, Paramount is as creatively bankrupt with Trek as Disney is with Star Wars.
      Both pale before THE ORVILLE (especially season 3) and THE EXPANSE. And I’m pretty confident the STARGATE revival will outclass them too, for the simple reason they seem willing to move forward in the timeline instead of going prequel/reboot crazy.

    • What Felix said concerning the Star Wars Prequel & Sequel trilogies. The Filoni cartoon version of Clone Wars (the one with Ahsoka Tano) was awesome, and I would cite it as a great example of how to write prequels and historical fiction. And yes, I know the prequels aren’t actually historical fiction, but the same rules for writing that genre apply to writing prequels.

      Suspense was never built around whether or not Anakin or Kenobi would survive their fights with Ventress, Grievous, or Dooku, because we knew the two Jedi would be around for the Original Trilogy. Instead, the showrunners took the time to show the development of different aspects of the Clone Wars, and how it affected the characters and events of the Original Trilogy.

      A prequel does an excellent job when it retroactively adds depth and meaning to the original. A fan made this video based on the prequel trilogy: Obi Wan has PTSD. In the comments, people rave about Alec Guiness’ performance, because of course he didn’t know anything about the Clone Wars when he delivered those lines. But everything he says is backed up with flashback scenes from the prequel trilogy.

      But otherwise, I’ve come to look upon prequels with suspicion, because they’re now just used to perpetrate crimes against a franchise (Star Trek). It’s a way for writers who hate learning a series canon to infiltrate a fandom they don’t like for their own purposes. Sequels typically require whoever is writing them to actually be familiar with the original. If I were holding the purse strings in Hollywood I would never greenlight a single prequel / origin story unless the showrunner proves they know the story well enough to write a sequel first.

  2. My kid has been opining on prequels lately, and wants me to throw this example in:
    I would like to present FFVII : Crisis Core, agreed on by a great many to be the exception to the Prequel suck rule. It has its detractors of course, but in being a video game, the nature of a well laid out critique often seems to rest on the person’s enjoyment of the gameplay itself; always a different beast than the plot. Other complaints are offered about one or more members of the support cast: ‘If I ever knew a guy who mostly spoke in lines from his favorite play, I’d punch him in the face’. eg ‘repetative dialogue’ ‘hackneyed themes’, etcetera.

    Despite all that, it has three main points of connection to the original game, final fantasy seven, and it utterly changes how we view some of it.
    At a point in the first game, the player “Cloud, SOLDIER, First Class”, meets a girl in the slums, who idly remarks that she knew another SOLDIER like him. He asks for the guy’s name, saying maybe I knew him.
    She changes the subject.
    Later, you can visit a house with a couple who mention their son, Zack, who went to Midgar a few years ago. If the girl is in the active party at this point, she runs out of the room.

    When she dies, as friend or love interest, the player mourns.

    In the orginal, there is a sucession of disturbing documents in a secret underground lab :

    “Escapee Report no. 1
    X Month X Day
    Two escapees were located
    near Midgar.”

    “Escapee Report no. 2
    Description at the time of capture.
    A Former member of SOLDIER/Number( )
    No effect could be detected from
    either Mako Radiation Therapy
    or Jenova on him.
    B Regular/Number ( )
    Reaction to Jenova detected.”
    “Escapee Report no. 3
    Status.
    A Shot for resisting.
    B Escaped during A’s resistance.”

    Our player is B.

    Crisis Core, the prequel, tells us more about the girl, and about that man she knew- who is A- shot for resisting. over the course of that prequel we meet this young man, a wannabe hero, who works to keep his idealistic outlook, and who looks up to his mentor. We watch him learn. we watch him grow. We empathise with him.
    And then we watch his heroes fall, one by one. We see him demand answers from the last one left- and fail while the town goes up in flames.

    We know he will fail, because in the original, Nibleheim has burned, and there is only one legendary SOLDIER on the record- not the three from this installment. With almost all the support cast literally stricken from the record, you’d think this is a continutiy issue- not so! They are forgotten even as this one unfolds, decalred dead and erased from the records as embarassments. The villain’s snap in the first remains triggered by learning unsettling truths about himself and several days of sleep deprivation. This prequel adds to that with several emotional traumas and betrayals in the preceding time.

    His snap remains a foregone conclusion. And the final thing is what the designers set out to do-
    make a prequel about a character any afficiondo of the orginal knows will die, at a specific time and place. What this adds is how hard he fought to get that far, and the extent of the army he faces on the cliff of his last stand- three men survived it long enough to bring him down at last, while he pictures the face of the girl he loves. It shows us how hard he tried to get his fellow experiment, Subject B, somewhere safe, and how much he still talked to him, as if the catatonia would break any moment. Those parents who never saw him again? Here he had a chance to see them- and chose not to lead his enemies to them. and his last stand- he dragged B, Cloud Strife, behind the only cover available, then charged the army; sucidal, foolish, and the only chance he had at keeping them from looking behind those rocks. “Boy oh boy” he says wryly. “the price of freedom is steep.”
    The army waiting for him levels their guns, unwilling to shoot first, unknowing what he may be able to do, but unwilling to break or run from this mosnter in the shape of a man.
    He recites his creed, and charges forward. “Come and get it!”

    They set out to make a guy who only existed as a dead man in a flashback and narrative gap a compelling, likeable person, and then kill him at the last chance for freedom. If only, if only he had had been just that little bit faster, stronger, less worn down, if only the rescue out looking had reached him in time- but it didn’t. He brought down all but three- but still, he died. The three soldiers who killed him in the original- are now shown as the three survivors of his final stand- and once it’s down to three, you know he’s about to die.
    It worked devastatingly well.
    Insofar as I undesrstand it, the goals they worked under and the constraints they kept the writing to fall under the rules laid out here for a decent prequel- correct me if I’m wrong.

    • No need to correct.
      It trod new ground and, if one never had anything to do with the sequel it stood fine on its own, as far as I can tell.

      The HBOMAX HOUSE OF THE DRAGON stands as another prequel (of sorts) that doesn’t depend on the earlier release to have meaning. It is in fact totally divorced from GAME OF THRONES other than taking place in the same general geography two centuries before. Totally standalone.

      In books the same applies to quite a few series where the individual stories are distinct and can stand alone fine as one-offs but do gain added texture when viewed within the greater timeline.

      A good example there are Bujold’s VORKOSSIGAN SAGA where each book is self contained and the series can be read in any order, published, internal chronology, or random. In most cases, not only does someting like CETAGANDA stand on its own, so does the rest of tbe series without it. Yet by if one does read KOMARR afterwards, the protagonist’s cryptic (intentionally) comments to the female lead will bring a smile of understanding. It is something he experienced by tries not to dwell on. Beautifully handled.

      So yes, the OP rule is, like all rules situational and can be broken when it can be justified in the full context of tbe series. Unfortunately, more often than not, prequels (and sequels) exist solely as “the same but different” money grabs. Money is good but not alone and having a further justification is best.

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