Are Prequels Necessary?
Prequels are a much-maligned method of storytelling. When the next installment in a series is announced to be a prequel, the usual reactions are almost invariably one of two, disappointment or indifference. After all, these events have already happened. Why should we care when we already know the outcome? Where is the suspense when we already know who will die and who will survive?
In this article, I will be talking about the purpose of prequels and their importance in fiction. I am also going to use a selection of examples, discuss audience reaction, what they did right and what they could have done better. I will also identify what exactly makes an engaging and successful prequel.
The Purpose of Prequels
So what exactly does a prequel do and who are they for?
Prequels expand upon what we already know about a fictional world. They take an event that happened before the original work or an established character’s past and tell that story, filling in the gaps. As a general rule, the film, book or TV series presumes that the audience has knowledge of the original work. There are often callbacks, in-jokes and sly references to future events. Primarily, prequels are there for fans of the original material and are generally not all that accessible to outsiders. It gives us the opportunity to better understand how things came to be the way they are and to see how characters have evolved from their past selves.
Do people actually want prequels?
Given the most common reactions to prequels as an installment in a franchise, it might lead you to wonder why they are made. Why risk spending money on a product that will likely not be as welcomed as another sequel? There must be some demand for these stories.
Well, it appears that there is. Sometimes, an author does the job of developing their world so well that the backstory of a single character or a hinted at tragic romance has fans asking, why aren’t we hearing that story instead?
This is true of the A Song of Ice and Fire series where if key fan theory R+L=J is true, then there is an untold tragic love story that many readers would want to see brought to life. Similarly, a few brief moments of flashback in Underworld were enough to pique many a viewer’s interests as to the origin of Sonja and Lucian’s love story. This, of course, led to Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. However, people appear to be split in terms of audience reaction. Many consider it an unnecessary addition to the series while others, like myself, actually preferred the shift in genre and character focus. The only true problem with it was the too-short run time.
It would be difficult to talk about prequels without mentioning Star Wars. Indeed, it could be argued that one of the reasons the Star Wars prequels have been so derided by certain members of the fandom was because the films could not possibly live up to the expectations and the anticipation built up over almost twenty years. True, the acting and writing are far from perfect but as prequels, they succeeded in telling the story that they set out to. Despite the almost universal derision faced by the three films these days, when they first came out they were moderately well received and actually did quite well at the box office. So it is clear that prequels are at least to some extent, in demand.
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The Storytelling Advantages to Prequels
Prequels provide the opportunity to showcase a vastly different world that existed before a cataclysmic event. This can be seen in Caprica, the prequel series to Battlestar Galactica. It allowed us to see human societies as they were before the Cylons existed. This can bring whole new insights into a fictional universe.
Another thing a prequel can do is change the direction of a series or even present an opportunity to reboot a stale franchise. This was the case with X-men: First Class which experienced an extremely positive critical reception despite people’s initial mistrust. After the disappointments of Last Stand and Wolverine (a less successful example of a prequel which made nonsensical changes like rewriting Sabretooth as his brother), First Class reinvigorated the series, making people care again.
Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices made the shift from urban fantasy to steampunk and is, in my opinion, the more competent series. While still being similar they offered a different kind of adventure.
The Huntsman: Winter‘s War drastically changed its tone from its predecessor, being much more fun and upbeat. In doing so, it may have drawn in people who were less enamored by the first film. Though, going out of its way to distance itself from the first film by not having Kirsten Stewart reprise her role (likely due to the behind the scenes adultery scandal) was obvious and badly handled.
Winter’s War also subverted expectations by being both prequel and sequel using gaps in the narrative to its advantage. Instead of simply following events we have been told happened, it’s assumed that the Huntsman may not have been the most reliable of narrators. Doing this allows a prequel to stand out. Rather than be trapped by what has to happen, a good prequel should take advantage of subtext and mysteries, capitalize on what the characters don’t know rather than what they do. This is something that Wolverine failed to do correctly.
A prequel can add to a world by offering a differing viewpoint, reveal an unknown truth or chart a character’s journey from hero to the villain we are familiar with. Finally, it can offer more time in a beloved universe which is no small thing.
This is something that The Hobbit (films only as the book was written before LOTR) and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offer. Of course, many fans welcome the extension of a beloved fictional universe while others are not interested unless familiar characters appear in the work. I happen to think that the latter position is somewhat close-minded. If you love a fictional universe, surely more of it is a good thing? However, these two examples were more positively anticipated than usual likely because enough time had passed to make them more welcome due to nostalgia.
What makes a successful Prequel?
So, in summary, a good prequel should:
- Expand and enrich a familiar story world.
- Make us care.
- Build on and manipulate what we know.
- Take advantage of gaps and subtext.
- Be in some ways written for the fans.
- Tells a good story.
- Be a story that the fans have actually asked for.
- Not take the place of a promised sequel.
In conclusion, I believe that prequels are a useful and interesting form of storytelling that can expand fictional worlds for creators and consumers alike. They are, however, difficult to get right and should be handled with care.
What do you think about prequels? Is there one that you think worked particularly well? Is there one you hated? Is there a prequel you would like to see explored?
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