Three Simple Rules for Why Prequels Fail
I have a really good memory, even if a lot of it is filled with pop-culture stuff. I can remember when I saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and I can remember where I saw it. I can still remember being in the theater watching it. But for the life of me, I can’t remember how I felt about the movie when I left the theater.
I was probably in some weird nebulas between thinking it was okay and thinking it was good, but that was probably in part due to the hype and pageantry about seeing a new Star Wars movie in the theater. It was a big deal! But I grew older, I grew wiser (debatable), and I grew into a set of objective and subjective rules and guidelines that make up my schema for determining how I feel about a movie.
Honestly, the prequels are pretty bad. Prequels in general are pretty bad, and that is mostly due to the major sins they commit in relation to their source material. Prequels sometimes invalidate, sometimes contradict, and most of the time they unearth a lot of the surprises and stories from the original work that can even take away credence from the original itself! The central thesis boils down to: prequels, I hate them.
Sin #1: We know who can’t die
There is only one prequel, that I can think of, which I choose to acknowledge. Think you can guess it? I’ll riff aimlessly for a sentence or so to try and space out the answer. A fun fact: the original Star Wars and Return of the Jedi both released on May 25, which is also Geek Pride Day. The answer is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The movie has its fair share of shortcomings and all but it is still the only prequel I will acknowledge because it isn’t even really a prequel except that it happens before Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is really only one central fact linking these two together and that is Indiana Jones cannot die in Temple of Doom or else there would have been no Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I realize that the movie I picked as the only credible prequel violates the first rule, but in all honesty, this rule is almost always broken at least a little bit. The trouble is when too many characters are tossed into the prequel there can’t be any tension, any conflict because you know most of those characters can’t possibly die. It is one of the biggest problems in establishing characters and relationships in the Batman prequel television show, Gotham. Creative types figure that the best way to sell a prequel is to throw in as many characters from the source material for the pleasure of fans. This ends up backfiring because any sticky situation these characters face is moot since they have to survive or else they won’t make it to the original timeline. The Penguin isn’t going to get crushed in a junkyard, he’s not really even the Penguin yet!
An easy work around to this is telling a story with characters and locations that weren’t used. Qui-Gon Jinn was a great creation for Episode I because you could realistically have him as a part of the entire prequel trilogy if you wanted. Granted, audiences knew he would have to die eventually, but that could have happened anywhere and you could still have tense action that could result in peril. To contrast that idea, Ewan McGregor absolutely could not die otherwise the events of the original Star Wars couldn’t possibly happen.
Again, it’s a tough thing to work around especially for the main characters. The general idea is to not include characters that absolutely need to survive in situations that are deflated by having the background knowledge that this character cannot die.
Sin #2: You cannot contradict the source material
You know what I loved about the original Star Wars trilogy, when they talked about midi-chlorians being the life blood of the mystical thing known as the Force. Trick question, because that never happened because the idea of the Force being linked to a genetic mutation is fucking stupid. The Force is part mysticism, part hokey religion. End of story. Don’t change this shit up, George!
I was originally bearish when I heard about the Breaking Bad spin-off show that would track Saul Goodman’s path to becoming the type of lawyer he would ultimately become. Then I watched a few episodes and I saw that this world was nowhere near anything that happens in Breaking Bad (save for a few very subtle winks to the sharp-eyed viewer). Now, the people who make both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are extremely sharp and extremely talented, so they realized the steps needed to ensure that both shows could co-exist and not contradict each other. Even if Vince Gilligan goofed and left a watch on Walter’s hand, there are steps needed to make sure that ideas and people introduced in the events before the original don’t contradict.
It’s not a prequel, but one of the most endearing qualities about the Back to the Future movies is that they are fully aware of the repercussions and ripples that all events have on each other. In the prequel-original link, it would be like if the introduction of midi-cholorians in the prequels would somehow retroactively re-write the original trilogy to make it a natural part of the lore and foundation of the Force. But it didn’t, so it’s a sticking point. It’s also stupid.
This sin is probably the easiest to avoid, at least with big picture stuff, because there’s wikis and show bibles, etc. that are available to make sure you don’t make a bone-headed choice and come up with something that clearly contradicts something already established. Temple of Doom takes part in another country and follows a quest for a different object, so the chance for contradiction is low. Gotham, on the other hand, is tracing a very familiar set of steps, so the showrunners essentially have to paint a lot of stories by numbers because these stories have already been told numerous times. Parents shot, join the League of Assassins, become Batman. Sure, other stuff happens, but you can’t start messing with the known facts in the prequel.
Sin #3: You cannot ruin the surprises from the source material
Imagine a world where someone of movie-going age has no knowledge of Star Wars (also imagine they possess the ability to make a critique of movies). If that person was to watch the six movies in their order they are numbered, then the original trilogy is about six hours of dull, retread ground. Yoda? We saw him for three movies already, we know who he is. Darth Vader is Luke’s father? Child, please, that’s old news, too. The prequels ruin every surprise from the original trilogy and it drives me nuts!
I’ll admit that something that always nagged at me was exactly how Marty McFly became friends with Doc Brown. I mean, it really bothered me. It’s a friendship that ceases to make logical sense. I’m not quite as big of a BTTF fan as I once was, but there was a time when I was combing through earlier drafts of the script for fun and insight. Most of the time there is a brief mention of the genesis for their relationship, which usually was framed as something simple like Marty cleans the lab, Doc buys him beer. It’s basic but it provides an objective logic. As humans, the resolution of uncertainty is a psychological principle that drives our need to understanding; there are just some things that we need to know to satisfy ourselves. For me, there was a time that I needed to know how they became friends. This is never mentioned during the course of the three movies but it is always accepted truth; Doc and Marty are friends. Now I just don’t care because it doesn’t affect the course of the trilogy.
Prequels can be built around small matters like these that satisfy our need to have a complete story about all of the characters and their relationships, but they come at a cost. The Star Wars prequels are three chapters detailing Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side and reinvention as the Dark Lord of the Sith. Like Doc’s relationship with Marty, we don’t necessarily need this story or these concrete facts, but those interested in all of the minutiae of the universe would lust after it.
The cost to having this story told is that all of the background knowledge which is gradually given to us during Episodes IV-VI, and which are all major cinema moments, is essentially dumped into our lap right away. Yoda is a master Jedi and he is a short, green guy. Anakin is Luke’s father. Don’t bother being surprised by these later with competent storytelling. The Empire Strikes Back is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time. Just think how much importance it would have if the prequels were actually made first and Empire was just a lot of re-tread story.
I’m not saying that prequels can’t be done, because they can. The trick is to exercise caution in terms of world-building and character development. Better Call Saul (even though it’s called a spin-off of Breaking Bad) is a prime example. It has elements and themes from the source and that’s it. It doesn’t attempt to answer too many questions or lace together any of the story that is contained in Breaking Bad, it simply takes parts from the original source and tells is own unique story.
A lot of the drive for creative types to cook up prequels lies in the fact that people who care about the universe a story is set in will always want more. The Star Wars Expanded Universe (SWEU) was ripe with lots of stories after Return of the Jedi, stories between the original movies, and stories before the original trilogy. Fans will always devour new stories that are linked to ones they know and love, perhaps sometimes there are elements from the original that need to be expanded upon, for instance the Tales of the Bounty Hunters SWEU book that provided a lot of backstory to a handful of the most well-known bounty hunters.
But why create these new works that can inadvertently countermand or spoil all of those luscious moments that we love from the original story. Prequels tend to be some machination to fill in the gaps of a vague story or character to squeeze out any remaining zeal for a property. Why can’t we just be left to imagine on our own what might have happened? Prequels can be good and entertaining, just please exercise some caution.
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