Payn's Ponderings; The problems with Prequels

payn

Legend
Greetings,

Welcome to Payn’s Ponderings; The problems with Prequels.

The prequel is something that despite numerous pitfalls, seems to never lose steam. I can totally understand wanting to know the story behind the myths. I mean, we hear about things like the mad king from the House of Dragons, how Anakin Skywalker fought in the clone wars, or the rise of Oz the great and powerful and find them compelling. However, does telling these stories often live up to their expectations? I do not think so. In fact, I have come to dislike nearly all prequels I have read or seen.

Problem #1: Prequels ruin the mystery.

I remember exactly when prequels as a concept died for me. I was in high school and started reading an Agatha Christie novel titled, Ten Little Indians (if the name sounds offensive don’t look up the original!) This is a story about 10 people with dark pasts all collected at a single point in time. Spoiler alert; They all start getting bumped off one by one! This sets the stage for the popular murder mystery genre and things like the board game and film Clue.

As I was reading I kept wondering, “who knows these folks secrets? Who is killing them?” The novel takes on a super natural feel like a blueprint that Hitchcock would follow in the years to come. When I finished those questions remained unanswered, yet the story was still satisfactory. What is this though? An epilogue? I eagerly read to see what was left of this story to discover. Soon, I realized that the epilogue was just a way to tie up loose ends in the most expedient manner. It made sense of the story in a way that robbed it of everything that made it special. I was so upset and let down by this. I wanted to travel around town to every bookstore and library and tear the epilogue from every copy…

The mystery genre is a genre of fiction that follows a crime (like a murder or a disappearance) from the moment it is committed to the moment it is solved. You may be ready to say, “but, Payn, not every story is a mystery!” I would agree, however, while not every story is a mystery, every story has mystery. Well, except the prequel, in a way. Stories are often told in the present tense. As the story unravels the past is hinted at, while the future is slowly revealed. Prequels don’t operate this way. The audience already has the solution, and the why, just not the how. As it turns out, the how isn’t as compelling as the why and solve. Which will bring us to the next prequel problem.

Problem #2: The myth is always better than the truth.

There is this episode of the sci-fi series Firefly about a man named Jayne. Spoiler alert; Jayne steals money from a small town mayor, but has to jettison the money to escape capture. The blue collar town folk find the money and believe Jayne intended for them to have it. Jayne becomes like Robin Hood to these folks. Turns out he is nothing like Robin Hood, and folks worship him all the same. Jayne had become a myth and beyond just a man. Jayne asks his captain to explain. Captain says something along the lines of every man a statue is made for is really a dink. You should never meet your heroes, they will always disappoint you. You’ve built them up in your mind, and they will never reach those heights. Prequels are like meeting your hero.

“The truth, is just a poor excuse for lack of imagination.” - Elim Garack There is another clever quote from Twain, or somebody, about truth’s shoe laces being undone still, while a good story has travelled the globe. The truth is always sobering compared the tall tales spun through time, it just doesn’t have the seasoning, the embellishment, the ability to inspire. A prequel has to live up mythic proportions which puts a terrible onus on the writers to attempt to live up to. I mean, it turns out the Kessel run is just a fuel station in dangerous space. Fuel in Star Wars? When did that become impor.. Oh right, thats a thing now in SW. Which brings up the next problem with prequels.

Problem #3: The cognitive dissonance of tone and content.

Any folks old enough to remember those NES adaptions of movies in the 80s/90s? (What the hell is going on in this Total Recall game???) When a brand has been established, folks expect a certain experience. Art that changes the expectation will receive an extra layer of derision from fans and critics when it’s off the mark. This egregious example is crossing media types, but serves the purpose of demonstrating how confusing improperly branded media items can be for folks. New Cowboy Bebop I’m looking at you. Is…is that how y’all see Vicious? Really? ...Really, really???...

Really, really a prequel is an especially terrible place to throw a changeup. I get that Lucas SW prequels probably look the way he imagined they should have back in ’77, he just didn’t have the tech at the time. Though, for me, all I see is bright shiny ships, plus aliens and droids all speaking English. Gone is this dark mechanical future with alien feeling to really bring the SW setting alive. This is even before considering any of the writing choices! The change, which could be neutral, or even positive, faces instant resistance from the cognitive dissonance. Playing with the formula in a prequel is playing with fire.

There are a few exceptions, of course, to this problem. Rogue One is a well-received prequel film. Despite its departure from the space opera heroic theme of previous SW films, R1 emulates the brand of classic SW. Battlestar Galactica, which to be fair was a reboot, used the reverse process to take a bi-bi-bi-bi-bi unsophisticated product and give it a smart and sexy makeover. Which is a clue to creative types to take liberties with things that suck, but have a good concept, and take chances there. At least folks expect it to suck, and thus have the reverse resistance to changes to tone and content.

Conclusion: To prequel, or not to prequel, that is the question.

I have laid out a series of examples and experiences as I see them. Prequels begin with an undue amount of hurdles to the creative process. You have to work around the typical mystery element, which is usually the most compelling element of storytelling. You have to live up to expectations that are larger than life. The truth is often sober and disappointing, how do you make that interesting in the face of myth? Finally, you need to navigate the brand that has been established to at least meet expectations. The more renowned the material, the less room for changing tone of the content.

So, what say ye, EN worlders? The prequel, yea or nay?

-Cheers
 

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ninjayeti

Adventurer
Well sequels are generally worse than the original as well. The difference is that we have a LOT more sequels out there, so it is possible to find some (Empire, Aliens, T2) that prove sequels can work in theory, even if they often don't in practice. With prequels you have a much smaller sample size and the best know example is so notoriously bad that it probably colors the judgement of prequels generally (although I would note that of the three prequel you mention in your post, you concede that one was well received - which is not a terrible ratio).

I would also note that your first two arguments above go to the order you experience the stories. This would suggest you could fix the problems inherent in prequels by watching/reading the prequel before the original. I would submit that the SW prequels are just bad, and would remain bad even if you managed to watch them without any "spoilers" from the original trilogy.

Ultimately I think creating a truly great book/movie/show is catching lightning in a bottle - while there is an obvious temptation to crate a new story about the same characters, it is unlikely to ever fully capture that magic. That's true whether the new story is a prequel or sequel.
 

Ryujin

Legend
I don't see a whole lot of issues with sequels, as long as they don't make a substantial change to the default assumptions about how the universe works. (I'm looking at YOU, Star Wars episodes 1-3.) OK, so sometimes seeing how the sausage was made can screw with your previous enjoyment of the first work, however, that's generally an issue of bad writing, not simply the nature of a prequel. For example look at how problematic the Alien prequel "Prometheus" is. It's not that way not because of the basic premise, but rather because a director decided to throw out rather important explanatory parts of the script (the original is available online) and because of choices like having two people run a half a kilometre in front of a crashing spaceship, only to have one survive because she rolled 3 metres to the left. The idea of "Prometheus" is sound and could answer some nagging questions. The execution was.... not great.

On the other hand the Star Wars prequels "Solo" and "Rogue One" were quite good. If the first suffers from anything, it might be that its fan service was too blatant, but it was otherwise a fine film.
 

Retreater

Legend
Even in the cases of decent prequels (Rogue One), they are unnecessary. They are stories that don't need to be told. We know the outcome. They are boring - pointless, Hollywood, cash-grabs. At their worst, they can detract from our enjoyment of the original films (looking at the Star Wars prequels, Clone Wars, et al), because they fail to understand what we loved about the first films.
So, no, I never want to see a prequel of any sort.
 

Ryujin

Legend
Even in the cases of decent prequels (Rogue One), they are unnecessary. They are stories that don't need to be told. We know the outcome. They are boring - pointless, Hollywood, cash-grabs. At their worst, they can detract from our enjoyment of the original films (looking at the Star Wars prequels, Clone Wars, et al), because they fail to understand what we loved about the first films.
So, no, I never want to see a prequel of any sort.
Does any story need to be told? The original didn't need to be told. If they can keep to the spirit of the original (like Rogue One and Solo, not like episodes 1-3), then there's no harm and nothing wrong with how your favourite characters came to be who they are. If you don't like the very idea of prequels, then you don't need to see them. They obviously weren't made for you.
 

payn

Legend
Sequels have their own challenges, but they are not necessarily the challenges that prequels face. This essay is specific to prequels. Also, not to get caught in my few examples, I'll list some more that didnt work for me.

Solo
First King of Shannara
A knight of the Seven Kingdoms
Scorpion King
Underworld Rise of the Lycans
The Dark Tower: Gunslinger Born
The Hobbit: the totally expected Trilogy
Red Dragon
The Exorcist the Beginning
The Family Corleone
Wicked

Even in the cases of decent prequels (Rogue One), they are unnecessary. They are stories that don't need to be told. We know the outcome. They are boring - pointless, Hollywood, cash-grabs. At their worst, they can detract from our enjoyment of the original films (looking at the Star Wars prequels, Clone Wars, et al), because they fail to understand what we loved about the first films.
So, no, I never want to see a prequel of any sort.
I came to the same conclusion, though not exactly through the same reasons, and not quite as cynical on the take either. I like more stuff of things I like. I dont blame writers, directors, producers, etc.. for making more. The context of why they are doing it varies and can be cash grabs, its usually easy to see them coming though.

I think the allure of prequels appeals to certain types of folks. Folks likely different than myself. I know some people had a really hard time with LotR1 because it didnt reach a penultimate conclusion, and same for Dune part I. Some folks just cant handle stones unturned. They want all ends tied, they expect solid conclusions. Its ok if the myth is busted or the surprise of the mystery is ruined, because not knowing is worse. I cant really comprehend that, but I can critique artworks such as prequels. Mostly, they are bad for stated reasons. Though, I'd love to hear more from prequel fans, Im just not sure where they hide out. Doesnt seem to be at the boxoffice ;)
 

MarkB

Legend
For me the problem with prequels is that they rarely expand a story or setting - instead, they merely consolidate, filling in gaps that were never structural weaknesses in the first place.

When I look to get more out of a good story or setting, my questions are never "how did they get here, in detail?" They're "what happens next?", or "what else is going on out there?"
 

Part of me wonders what it would've been like, had Jackson started with The Hobbit and moved onto LOTR from there. Many (but not all) of the failings of The Hobbit trilogy came from trying to match the tone of LOTR to a story that called for something different, smaller.

The Hobbit: the totally expected Trilogy

I'm of the mind that prequels generally don't work. Rogue One works because it's a well-told story, but frequently prequels (Star Wars or otherwise), just aren't. I'd specifically add a fourth problem:

Problem #4: Plot Holes

Frequently in an attempt to write something new and exciting, or to tie the threads together, you end up getting unavoidable plot holes that damage the narrative consistency of the original works. Stuff like Obi-Wan not recognizing R2-D2 and C-3PO in A New Hope. Recently I tried reading the Dragonlance prequel, Darkness and Light. I eventually gave up because you had so many inconsistencies: Sturm recognizing Draconians before he ever saw one, healing magic when it was supposed to be gone from Krynn, not to mention the plot of the novel was so fantastical that it seemed impossible that it never was even mentioned in all the stories set after it.
 

Parmandur

Book-Friend
Parenthetical to discussions in other threads, Robert Jordan's novel New Spring is a good example of a prequel that stands on it's own and is not ruined by the original text, nor does it spoil it.
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
Frequently in an attempt to write something new and exciting, or to tie the threads together, you end up getting unavoidable plot holes that damage the narrative consistency of the original works. Stuff like Obi-Wan not recognizing R2-D2 and C-3PO in A New Hope. Recently I tried reading the Dragonlance prequel, Darkness and Light. I eventually gave up because you had so many inconsistencies: Sturm recognizing Draconians before he ever saw one, healing magic when it was supposed to be gone from Krynn, not to mention the plot of the novel was so fantastical that it seemed impossible that it never was even mentioned in all the stories set after it.

With Dragonlance, there were so many terrible and contradictory novels shoveled out that it's best to follow Weis and Hickman's rule - only their novels are "canon". The rest are just folklore, stories and rumors about the Heroes of the Lance and are not to be considered authoritative. :)
 

"Hey, did you hear the one about that time Sturm And Kitiara went to Lunitari..." is probably a better take on it than the book actually happening.

There are some I like, but yeah, the quality on them is generally not the best. The first step in being a good prequel is to be a well-done work.

With Dragonlance, there were so many terrible and contradictory novels shoveled out that it's best to follow Weis and Hickman's rule - only their novels are "canon". The rest are just folklore, stories and rumors about the Heroes of the Lance and are not to be considered authoritative. :)
 

payn

Legend
UPDATE:

The problem with Prequels continues with The King's Man. This one was a little baffling being that its predecessors are many decades in the future and put very little demands on the prequel. Yet, here we are with a mess of a movie that very rarely fits the franchise tone. Problem #3 is blaring like a clarion call during this long slog of a movie. The story is also completely at odds with the Kingsmen in that its spends 2/3 the film trying to be a pacifist organization. Until ultimately everyone agrees that violence really is the answer. Problem #2, the myth is always better than the truth. I wish I never knew the origins of the Kingsman now.

Prequels, meh. Amiright?
 

Ryujin

Legend
UPDATE:

The problem with Prequels continues with The King's Man. This one was a little baffling being that its predecessors are many decades in the future and put very little demands on the prequel. Yet, here we are with a mess of a movie that very rarely fits the franchise tone. Problem #3 is blaring like a clarion call during this long slog of a movie. The story is also completely at odds with the Kingsmen in that its spends 2/3 the film trying to be a pacifist organization. Until ultimately everyone agrees that violence really is the answer. Problem #2, the myth is always better than the truth. I wish I never knew the origins of the Kingsman now.

Prequels, meh. Amiright?
They played pretty fast and loose with what was stated in the first movie; that Kingsmen was founded by a group of aristocrats, who were tired of seeing their children die in war. It was pretty much a throw-away line in the first movie, but where were the "aristocrats" (plural) who supposedly founded it, in the prequel?
 

Rabulias

the Incomparably Shrewd and Clever
The Hobbit: the totally expected Trilogy
Part of me wonders what it would've been like, had Jackson started with The Hobbit and moved onto LOTR from there. Many (but not all) of the failings of The Hobbit trilogy came from trying to match the tone of LOTR to a story that called for something different, smaller.
While I agree The Hobbit films misfired on many levels, I consider the LotR films to be sequels, despite the films' release order. :)
Stuff like Obi-Wan not recognizing R2-D2 and C-3PO in A New Hope.
Eh, that can be hand-waved away easily enough for a guy who misled Luke about his father's fate "from a certain point of view." How was Obi-Wan even out there in the desert to rescue Luke if he had not foreseen the events happening through the Force? Perhaps he needed to not acknowledge knowing the droids for events to play out as they should? Maybe Obi-Wan recognized the droids but has a good poker face.

Though the problem does not go away, even if you assume all my suppositions to be true. Obi-Wan may be playing a long con, but R2-D2 (whose memory has not been wiped as far as we know) is not in on it (unless it's a really, really, really long plan Obi-Wan and Yoda have cooked up). He should have started saying stuff like "Hey Obi-Wan! It's me, R2!" Heck, R2-D2 should have recognized the Lars homestead and the last name of "Skywalker." Or maybe he did and thought, "This is it! This is the moment Yoda and Obi-Wan told me about! I need to stay quiet, get this restraining bolt off me, and bug out to these co-ordinates in the desert tonight!" But that really seems to stretch things a lot. :)
 

I can't argue with that, since technically, the books are the sequels to The Hobbit.

Apparently JRRT attempted to write yet another revision to The Hobbit in the 60s to bring it further into line with LOTR, but he abandoned that, as he did the sequel to LOTR.

While I agree The Hobbit films misfired on many levels, I consider the LotR films to be sequels, despite the films' release order. :)

To be fair, yeah, in the original trilogy, Obi-Wan was never entirely honest. Still, you'd have thought Lucas could've managed to avoid these basic plot holes. But then again, even the original Star Wars, when you look at some of the early drafts, was always this close to falling apart in this or that nonsense to begin with.

Eh, that can be hand-waved away easily enough for a guy who misled Luke about his father's fate "from a certain point of view." How was Obi-Wan even out there in the desert to rescue Luke if he had not foreseen the events happening through the Force? Perhaps he needed to not acknowledge knowing the droids for events to play out as they should? Maybe Obi-Wan recognized the droids but has a good poker face.

Though the problem does not go away, even if you assume all my suppositions to be true. Obi-Wan may be playing a long con, but R2-D2 (whose memory has not been wiped as far as we know) is not in on it (unless it's a really, really, really long plan Obi-Wan and Yoda have cooked up). He should have started saying stuff like "Hey Obi-Wan! It's me, R2!" Heck, R2-D2 should have recognized the Lars homestead and the last name of "Skywalker." Or maybe he did and thought, "This is it! This is the moment Yoda and Obi-Wan told me about! I need to stay quiet, get this restraining bolt off me, and bug out to these co-ordinates in the desert tonight!" But that really seems to stretch things a lot. :)
 

wicked cool

Adventurer
going to disagree with some of this. certin sequels can also be bad. Its due to directors , a step back in acotr quality and budgets and not material

The Hobbit for all accounts is rated as a good book. its a prequel of sorts. As book its better than the movie (there are parts of the animated hobbit movie i enjoy more than the movie). Its not Tolkiens fault its jacksons

i enjoyed Rogue 1 a lot knowing that clearly someone survived to get the plans. The last scenes are better than anything that the most recent star wars movies have made

i enjoyed the rebels/bad batch cartoon-technically prequels . in many ways they did a better job portraying Anakin than the prequel movies

Rise of the planet of the apes-i enjoyed these prequels.
xmen first class-prequels and i think better than the originals

the good the bad and the ugly-a little before my time but this a prequel and is the best of the 3 movies of the spaghetti westerns. these 3 movies are some of the better movies made with the same actors playing different villians in each. Clint Eastwood knows how to make a good movie
 

payn

Legend
the good the bad and the ugly-a little before my time but this a prequel and is the best of the 3 movies of the spaghetti westerns. these 3 movies are some of the better movies made with the same actors playing different villians in each. Clint Eastwood knows how to make a good movie
Actually, Leone had no intention of the Man with no Name movies actually being connected at all. Independent stories that used a lot of the same actors.
 

Red Dragon
...
Wicked

Since someone already did the "Um, actually..." about The Hobbit, I'll do it for these two as well. Red Dragon was published as a book before Silence of the Lambs, and was also the first movie (Manhunter). Hannibal Rising is a true prequel. As for Wicked, it's an alternate timeline. The period it covers already existed in other Oz novels. That being said, on to the real topic.

IMNSHO, the #1 problem with prequels is character arcs. It's almost impossible to have a meaningful arc for a character in a prequel if that character has another meaningful arc in the original product. A prequel arc either tells a story we already know, or contradicts things we know about the character.

The character arc of Han is what I hate about Solo. In the original trilogy, Han was a tough, seasoned smuggler who internally battled with his rough exterior but eventually showed his heart of gold when it mattered most. He had meaningful character definition as a "tough guy" from the outset, and developed well over time. But if you watch the prequel, he spent his whole life as a well meaning loser who could never catch a break and always followed his heart. That kinda destroys anything meaningful about his turn to good at the end of ANH (or other developement in ESB, RotJ, etc.). And it means the "tough guy" we met in Mos Eisley (and ESB, etc), never really existed. Conversely, in Rogue One we're allowed to have a meaningful arc for Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, because we've never met them before and we don't have to dovetail their story into the original trilogy. Their story is allowed to stand alone, and it works.

The other thing I would like to posit is that it's okay for a movie to exist without character arcs being the most important thing. Hollywood seems to think that every movie these days needs a full character arc (and a romance, and a plot twist at exactly the 40 minute mark, etc...) at the center of the movie. I disagree. Clint Eastwood doesn't change at all in the Good the Bad and the Ugly. James Bond never needed a full backstory with meaningul growth before Daniel Craig. Heck, you can even tell great character stories without a central character arc in movies like The Big Lebowski or No Country for Old Men. The real success of movies like Rogue One, Temple of Doom, or the Planet of the Apes prequels is that they all actually have a good underlying plot without a focus on character growth. If a movie is a good movie with a good plot, it will succeed on it's own merits without giving us an arc about a character we already know.

I'll even go on record and say that as a heist movie set in the Star Wars universe, Solo was actually a fairly good movie with an interesting plot, and could even fit in with what I know of the Clone Wars stuff. The fact that they shoehorned Han and Chewie into it is actually the worst thing about it.
 
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MarkB

Legend
Since someone already did the "Um, actually..." about The Hobbit, I'll do it for these two as well. Red Dragon was published as a book before Silence of the Lambs, and was also the first movie (Manhunter). Hannibal Rising is a true prequel. As for Wicked, it's an alternate timeline. The period it covers already existed in other Oz novels. That being said, on to the real topic.

IMNSHO, the #1 problem with prequels is character arcs. It's almost impossible to have a meaningful arc for a character in a prequel if that character has another meaningful arc in the original product. A prequel arc either tells a story we already know, or contradicts things we know about the character.

The character arc of Han is what I hate about Solo. In the original trilogy, Han was a tough, seasoned smuggler who internally battled with his rough exterior but eventually showed his heart of gold when it mattered most. He had meaningful character definition as a "tough guy" from the outset, and developed well over time. But if you watch the prequel, he spent his whole life as a well meaning loser who could never catch a break and always followed his heart. That kinda destroys anything meaningful about his turn to good at the end of ANH (or other developement in ESB, RotJ, etc.). And it means the "tough guy" we met in Mos Eisley (and ESB, etc), never really existed. Conversely, in Rogue One we're allowed to have a meaningful arc for Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, because we've never met them before and we don't have to dovetail their story into the original trilogy. Their story is allowed to stand alone, and it works.

The other thing I would like to posit is that it's okay for a movie to exist without character arcs being the most important thing. Hollywood seems to think that every movie these days needs a full character arc (and a romance, and a plot twist at exactly the 40 minute mark, etc...) at the center of the movie. I disagree. Clint Eastwood doesn't change at all in the Good the Bad and the Ugly. James Bond never needed a full backstory with meaningul growth before Daniel Craig. Heck, you can even tell great character stories without a central character arc in movies like The Big Lebowski or No Country for Old Men. The real success of movies like Rogue One, Temple of Doom, or the Planet of the Apes prequels is that they all actually have a good underlying plot without a focus on character growth. If a movie is a good movie with a good plot, it will succeed on it's own merits without giving us an arc about a character we already know.

I'll even go on record and say that as heist movie set in the Star Wars universe, Solo was actually a fairly good movie with an interesting plot, and could even fit in with what I know of the Clone Wars stuff. The fact that they shoehorned Han and Chewie into it is actually the worst thing about it.
Good commentary, especially about the difficulty of working in a new character arc for an existing character.

Solo could have worked if it showed Han transitioning from his initial naivete into the cynical character we know from A New Hope. It almost starts to reach for it with him shooting first at the end.

Mainly, though, it just needed to not try to hit every single piece of backstory we've ever heard about Han all in the same movie.
 

Re. Solo: I figured Han would be getting more cynical as the movies went along. Of course, this would have required there to be more movies. A shame, I thought it was a pretty good movie and was keen to see more.
 

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