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Prequel Pitfalls and a Philosophy of Film-making, Part I: A Question of Purpose

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The Prequel. It is hardly a new beast- but it is undeniably enjoying a heyday like never before, under the auspices of modern cinema. From X-men to Peter Pan, film after film rehash the early days of well-known characters, while franchises from the Wizard of Oz to Star Wars to Star Trek (and, in cinematic adaptation terms, even Lord of the Rings- despite being based on a previously-existing non-prequel work, the Hobbit movies are clearly being done as prequel-style tie-ins to the LOTR movies) are telling before-they-were-famous reimaginings of their iconic casts’ early days.

It seems that every time you turn around these days, there’s a new movie telling (or retelling) the origins of a famous media character, or telling the story of the famous media character BEFORE he was the famous media character, or showcasing the young famous media character and young famous media villain, and how the two grew up and developed into the opposing characters that they’ve become well known as (when they used to be friends!).

There are films about the famous media character’s parents. Films about how a minor character that the famous media character meets on their journey was once a hero themselves (or how the villain was, for that matter). There are also tales set in the far past of the fictional realm that the famous media character will one day inhabit, which are otherwise unconnected- or show the rise of the evil or unusual status quo within which the famous media hero will one day grow up.
In short, Hollywood- which seems to have developed an allergy to originality sometime in the 90s, and is deathly averse to making any movies that aren’t based on something else- is currently obsessed with prequels and origin stories.

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The prequel is an odd beast, a chimera of old and new that often pays tribute to what came before (which hasn’t come yet, in-universe), and is heavily steeped in pre-destination… after all, we all know how it’s going to turn out in the end.

And that’s just one of the many issues that hamper the development of a proper storyline in prequels; the story is either very predictable, or throws in unrealistic and slightly-incongruous surprises and twists in order to confound the storyline that the audience thinks they know will come to pass. (‘Nothing says that this couldn’t have happened, but none of the sequel characters ever mentioned or referred to it, when you’d think something like this would be a fairly big deal to them if it’s in their past…’)

Predictability, or incongruity- narratively speaking, it’s somewhat of a lose-lose situation. And it’s not the only one inherent in the prequel format. There are many pitfalls and difficulties inherent in creating a story that has to lead up to a pre-established tale. Just a few of these obstacles include:

• The average story and character go through an arc- from a starting point, through a journey, to a destination. Generally, this holds true for all storytelling, including a prequel’s… but if that prequel uses the same character as the original work, then their journey can necessarily only get them as far as the point at which they start in the ‘sequel.’ This necessitates starting from a sub-starting point, and climaxing in growth only to the point of mediocrity, where the next story will pick up. Either that, or the character will have a proper journey of their own in the prequel… which they will suddenly show no evidence of having taken at the start of the ‘sequel,’ lacking the skills/respect/abilities/attitudes gained in this prequel.

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• Alternatively, the story can be about an unrelated character or setting from the same fictional universe. However, in these instances the prequel struggles for relevance and often comes off as a far more bald-faced cash-grab, merely seeking to exploit the franchise name rather than telling any story relevant to the original work.

• Narratively (and inherent to the previous points), the story hangs under a cloud of inevitability and futility; the predetermined and well-known end-point can easily result in a feeling of pointlessness. We all know where the story’s going to end up; the only spark of interest comes from seeing how it does so. Depending on the kind of story being told, that journey can be a very unpleasant, very uninspired, or very uninteresting one. And there’s an even greater reason that the narrative can feel pointless, in many cases…

• The original story could easily- and, in fact, was- told without this prequel… and by definition, won’t be affected by it. The prequel is a tie-in that exists in isolation, limited only to telling backstory… a glorified expository flashback. Some sagas- like Star Wars, or the chronicles of Narnia- have built-in questions to be answered. But many modern franchises add stories to narratives that always stood on their own… which immediately demonstrates the utter superfluousness of such a tale.

• Similar to the arc issue that we began with, anything added into a tale’s backstory to spice things up, give it relevance, or meaning in the life of the character just creates bad continuity. The prequel can only tell the established backstory (which is known already), and any backstory it tries to add can, by nature, only be either too pointless to deserve a mention in the original, or inconsistent with the original (seemingly causing a glaring error of omission within it).

Essentially, issues like the above list tend to mean that the average prequel either struggles with relevance- trying to maintain interest in the face of a known plotline- or the severe continuity issues that result from trying to shoehorn in a previously-untold epic as the backstory of a previously-known epic.

Does this mean that all prequels are wastes of time, or that all fall prey to these issues? No. There are some prequels which are truly extraordinary, and add to the tapestry of their universe- Narnia’s ‘Magician’s Nephew,’ for instance. The issues listed here are just the common pitfalls- which a prequel can easily fall into if written lazily (as most movies these days are, it seems), or are just out for a cash-grab, without really having any particular story to tell.

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The inherent weaknesses of a prequel story all tend to stem from the fact that the popular work that spawned it, unless designed for a backstory-entry, is already a self-contained whole. It is locked and finalized- like a flattened Photoshop document, or a burned CD. You can copy it, add things on top of it… but never dive into its components and actually affect it. What is, is done- and immutably so. Whatever follows can, at best, apply itself to the exterior like a coat of paint, affecting a superficial and external addition- but it can never integrate itself with the whole in any meaningful way.

And those that try to do so fall into what I personally consider the most grievous sin inherent in modern prequels… the arrogant and troubling tendency to rewrite the original upon which they’re based. But that, perhaps, should wait for its own blog…

About Andrew Gilbertson

Forged in the fires of internet message board debates on Nitcentral.com, professional video editor Andrew Gilbertson has always been a filmmaker and writer. At last count, he’s edited over 40 short film projects in a roughly 8-year period, all of which are showcased for free at www.nolinecinemas.com- along with short stories, audio dramas, and podcasts. But his primary effort at the present is the Heavens Declare series, a sci-fi novel saga that he hopes to have ready for Grail Quest Books within the next year or so.

He currently shares a suburban home with Sarah Gilbertson, the love of his life, and a newly-minted third member of the family, in a town that he’s geekily gleeful about sharing the same name with the hometown of a Doctor Who companion…

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