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The Problem With Prequels

Why do we insist on having prequels?

Actually, I’m not sure we do, not on any conscious level. Probably, if anywhere, the drive to create a prequel comes from the creator of the original, who – buoyed by enthusiasm both critical and financial for the original story – is compelled to prolong and entrench that enthusiasm by going back, way back, back into a story that was never really meant to be a story.

So, why do prequels never really work?

We might as well acknowledge the gruff, bearded franchise elephant in the room. That’d be you, George Lucas. Never has anyone initiated the concept of prequels so grandly and then trashed that concept so spectacularly than Lucas did with Episodes 1-3 of Star Wars. There has been so much blood letting and spilling on this that I don’t really want to add to the failure of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith considering the monumentally tepid and vacuous space they occupy in cinema already.

What’s damaging to me about Lucas’s attempt at prequels here is the damage they do to the original films. A story is created taking into account where it begins, where it ends, and the journey it takes to get from one to the other. It has to drive forward, it has to create tension, it has to surprise and shock, and reveal. These are things each of the original Star Wars films did. Other than the fact that the prequels Lucas created contained none of the above elements, and that we knew how they were going to end, the worst crime is that they removed tension and surprise from the originals. The stories weren’t designed to be told that way.

For those that then think that clearly the prequel should be viewed after the original, well, why? It’s not chronological, and we already know how it’s going to end. Why watch the beginning after the ending?

Ultimately, the problem with a prequel is that too often it’s backstory. It’s an explanation of the original narrative. For most writers, I’d hazard, backstory is important. It’s important to know, to develop, to weave in to the fabric of the story and the minds of the characters as a grounding depth to the narrative. But in the end it’s backstory, not story.

If a prequel exists merely as a voyeuristic fix for the creator and viewer, as just a way of seeing more, then it’ll fail. This was the problem for Lucas, and his insatiable desire to create rhymes with his original films. If the prequel film is too focused on reminding viewers about the original, then it’s trying to tell two narratives at once and again the whole thing falls down.

If we want to relive the experience of a story, watch the film again. Read the book again. That’ll prolong it. Don’t go and spend billions of dollars on an enterprise that will ultimately prove inessential and damage the untouched experience of the original narrative.

Here, Prometheus is worth mentioning. Initially billed as a prequel, it then quickly backtracked from that claim (probably once Ridley Scott realised the inherent pressure of delivering an effective prequel narrative). What resulted onscreen was an aborted attempt at a coherent prequel (suddenly that surgery table scene makes all kinds of metaphorical sense). It tried to explain and then not explain. It took great pains to set up story elements that were billed as crucially important for our understanding of the original, and then dismissed them as unimportant. It wanted to be a prequel and not be a prequel at the same time, and all we got was the sense that Scott’s brilliant original Alien story was perhaps more of an accident than any conscious directorial effort on his behalf. But again, it came out of the author’s desire to relive the enthusiasm for the original – and perhaps the creeping sensation that things were better back then, so why not (re)make a film from back then?

That he’s toying with doing the same to Bladerunner should send us all screaming into the hills.

So how do we make a prequel work?

Simple. Tell a different story. Not that I’m a fan of it, but Oz the Great and Powerfulfrom last year followed this model in the sense that Oz was never the main character. The original story was all about Dorothy. X-Men: First Class worked because it consciously abandoned the characters it had established so readily in X-Men 1-3. Godfather Part II managed to be a sequel and a prequel at the same time, by telling a markedly different story to the original, with a different protagonist.

A successful prequel won’t detract from the original, it will enhance it. Subsequent viewings (or readings) will be enlivened by a grander scale to the narrative emerging, the criss-crossing of different stories intersecting in a wider imagination of the viewer. It takes an author or director who is confident enough to let go of the original and create something that works in its own right, the audience will connect the two narratives in their own mind, they don’t need constant reminders this is a prequel, something Lucas failed spectacularly at.

This is why I’m sticking with The Hobbit, and not dismissing it as a cynical endeavour. What the films are aiming to do is enrich the original three, something the book of The Hobbit never actually did because it was never designed that way.

Returning to Star Wars, I had a discussion recently with someone about the viewing order, given the dismantling nature of the prequels. What they suggested is watching Episodes 4 and 5, then the prequel trilogy, then 6. Viewed this way, we still get the tension and surprise of Luke discovering who Vader is, and we then go into the prequels as backstory (amazing how that works so well), almost as if it’s Luke imagining and rediscovering Vader’s past. Then launching into Episode 6, where Luke is suddenly far more mature and readied as an individual, aware of his place in the grander narrative and ready to do his thing to save the day.

So, prequels need to either be integrated into the narrative as backstory – thus not live on their own as an existing story – or work damn hard to tell a wholly different story, and trust the audience to be intelligent enough to join the dots.

 

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