On Prequels

Consider the following scenario:

You see a monster movie.  You’re thrilled with feelings of fear, paranoia, and uncertainty.  Your mind races to figure out the origins of the monster, your imagination is sparked, and the film ends without resolving any of your unanswered questions.  You leave the theater with a lingering sense of wonder and mystery; it was a great, resonant film.

But hold on a minute–it seems your questions will be answered after all.  Finally, the mysteries will be solved.  Anything you might have imagined to fill in the blanks of the story–any images you might have conjured to account for what you saw on screen–can now be discarded.  At long last, an official prequel has been announced.

Are you elated?  Disappointed?  A little of both?

The concept of the prequel, a term first exploited in the marketing material for The Godfather: Part II, is becoming more and more popular and profitable in today’s movie industry.  Basically, a prequel is “a work that supplements a previously completed one, and has an earlier time setting.”  Recently, we saw the release of X-Men: First Class and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  Later this year, we will see a prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing.  Next year, we will see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a project that began life as a proposed prequel to his seminal science fiction film Alien.  And let’s not forget George Lucas’s dreaded, unforgivable Star Wars prequels.

As audience members, what is it that makes us crave prequels (and dish out loads of money to see them)?

Simple: it’s our innate human drive for certainty, our desire for order, and our hunger for rational, causal explanations in all things.  In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes writes:

And first, it is peculiar to the nature of man, to be inquisitive into the causes of the events they see, some more, some less; but all men so much, as to be curious in the search of the causes of their own good and evil fortune.

I might discuss the problem of cause and effect and its relation to science and religion (as explored by Hobbes, Hume, and Nietzsche) at a later date.  The important point I want to make now is that we enjoy the feeling of certainty that our mental creation of causal relationships brings to us.  We enjoy abstracting a world of being from a world of becoming, even if the abstraction is false.  Such abstractions alleviate our fear of the unknown, and they are necessary for our survival. What I want to suggest is that the movie prequel, like science and religion, is a product of the same human desire to explain things as they are with a story of how they came to be.  But unlike religion, this does not involve self-deception (confusing our abstractions with reality).  And unlike science, there is no authoritative process in place to arrive at the best, most accurate explanation available.  This is not a problem in itself; in art, we do not necessarily need an authoritative version of a story.  However, whether we like it or not, artists sometimes offer us one.  True, this satisfies our hunger for clear, causal relationships.  Why, then, are we so often dissatisfied with the results?

In the original Star Wars film, there is a scene toward the beginning where Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker about his father.  We learn that Luke’s father (Anakin) was “the best star-pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior.”  Indeed, he and Obi-Wan were Jedi warriors in the Clone Wars.  Obi-Wan then gives Luke his father’s lightsaber:

Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it. He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damned-fool idealistic crusade like your father did.

He continues:

An elegant weapon for a more civilized time. For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times, before the Empire.

Anyone who saw the original Star Wars film before the release of the prequels was able, like Luke, to take the bones of Obi-Wan’s story and add flesh to them.  We used our imaginations to picture the Clone Wars, to picture a young Obi-Wan fighting alongside Anakin on a “damned-fool idealistic crusade,” and to picture the peaceful time of the Old Republic.  It was a mysterious past to Luke, and so it was to us.  All of us pictured something magical and unique; none of us pictured what George Lucas eventually realized on film.  Yet we all flocked to the prequels (all three of them) in droves.  We wanted to see them as much as we worried we would despise them.  And this is because, as I discuss above, we crave the pleasure in crafting causal relationships, in solving mysteries, in feeling a sense of certainty about the order of things.

So the prequels fulfilled that desire in us; but still, we hated them.  Our own imaginings of the events, which were with us since childhood, were no longer relevant.  The earlier absence of certainty had actually forced us to fill the vacuum with our own creative fruit. George Lucas took this fruit and squashed it with his authoritative version of what led to the events in the original three films.  He even altered the original films to follow more accurately and seamlessly the three new ones.  And he made the unaltered originals more difficult to obtain.  This is artistic tyranny.

And this would also have been the case had Ridley Scott’s Prometheus remained an Alien prequel.  Scott had said that the movie would explain the origins of the deceased “space jockey” that the crew of the Nostromo discovers before finding the hatchery of xenomorph eggs.  The space jockey, one of the most memorable and haunting images designed by H. R. Giger for the film, needs no explanation.  It is a mystery to the crew, and so it is to us.  Alien is a horror film, and much of the horror derives from our fear of the unknown.  We do not understand the xenomorph, a creature of complex biology with an impossible metabolic rate.  And this is why it is frightening.  We do not understand why the dead space jockey was transporting the eggs, and we do not know what went wrong.  That is scary.  Explaining it with a tyrannical sense of authority, as Scott would have done, would have detracted from the horror as much as it would have answered our burning questions.

The same can be said of any attempts to explain the events in John Carpenter’s The Thing, an astoundingly good and terrifying film.  The opening sequence is probably one of the best in horror movie history.  A Norwegian scientist is hunting a dog across the Antarctic wilderness.  The dog arrives at a U.S. research base.  No one there speaks Norwegian, so no one knows why the Norwegian scientist is willing to risk his own life to kill the dog.  The U.S. team can’t get him to stand down, so they kill him.  The prequel that will be released this year will tell the story of the Norwegian scientists, how they discovered the alien creature under the ice, and how it subsequently destroyed them and escaped.  Don’t we already know all that we need to know?  And isn’t it scary enough imagining what must have happened on the Norwegian base?  Not knowing for sure?

Not according to screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who describes his process this way:

It’s a really fascinating way to construct a story because we’re doing it by autopsy, by examining very, very closely everything we know about the Norwegian camp and about the events that happened there from photos and video footage that’s recovered, from a visit to the base, the director, producer and I have gone through it countless times marking, you know, there’s a fire axe in the door, we have to account for that…we’re having to reverse engineer it, so those details all matter to us ‘cause it all has to make sense.

So what Heisserer has done is taken the few details about the Norwegian base available in John Carpenter’s original film and crafted a fable to account for them.  The problem is that his version of events is probably going to be considered official canon.  Where does that leave everyone else who has seen the original film and imagined a different (possibly superior) prequel?

In an article discussing the problem of artists altering their own work (specifically, George Lucas altering the shootout between Han Solo and Greedo), Phillip Berne concludes:

[…] I’m much more interested in the opinions of other audience members than I am in George Lucas’s definitive answer.

This is comforting.  No one is going to stop making prequels, and no one is going to stop seeing them.  However, if we are dissatisfied with the results (as it seems we often are), we do not need to accept them as authoritative.  This is art, not science.  Across the internet, there are countless sites dedicated to debating different versions of stories, discrediting grand narratives, and yes, even creating new stories for well-loved characters (fan fiction).  For better or worse, and in spite of artistic tyranny, our imaginations remain free.

Further reading:

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4 thoughts on “On Prequels

  1. It seems to me– and bear with me, for this might initially appear to contradict the “artistic tyranny” argument, but it shouldn’t– that the true “work” of the prequel is indeed the original creator’s prerogative. In fact, it is his/her duty and responsibility. But that’s because the creator is the only person who *needs* to know the backstory behind what we see on the screen or page; the creator is the only person who should be able to explain the “burning questions” like who killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur in “The Big Sleep” (and apparently Chandler could, he just refused– rightly– to tell Faulkner, Brackett, Hawks, Bogart, or Bacall).

    Point being, if an author is going to create a believable character/story/etc, they must know everything about that character/story/etc; if they’re going to create an interesting character/story/etc, they must know which elements to obscure from the audience. (Many more famous people have made this argument much better than myself.) In Brad Bird’s brilliant feature “The Iron Giant” (based, coincidentally, on a short story by the British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes), Bird knew that Hogarth Hughes’ father was a fighter pilot who got shot down in WWII. In the film, however, our only clue to this “prequel” is a brief glimpse of a framed photo in Hogarth’s bedroom of an anonymous man standing by a fighter jet. Backstory? Sufficient. Should Bird have spelled it out more plainly? No.

    Where I’m going with this is to say that it seems that most “prequel” material is unsatisfying because, as you pointed out, Art, it tells us information that we either didn’t need or didn’t want to know. Unnecessary backstory is almost guaranteed to be either boring, confusing, distracting, irrelevant, or all of the above. It’s what gets left on the cutting room floor after the perfectly crafted story is complete. The artist should *know* the prequel inside and out, and then *not* create it.

    It’s interesting to note a possible parallel over the last few decades between the rise in popularity of the prequel and the shift in crime entertainment from detective stories to forensics cases. In old-fashioned mysteries, the solo detective (whether Holmes, Poirot, Marlowe, or Spade) was really the central character; the crime was merely an incident to showcase the detective’s brilliance (or, in noir, his frustrations). In contemporary shows of the CSI ilk, however, the facts tend to take preeminence over the people (which conveniently goes hand-in-glove with the larger ensemble casts). In the former instance, we have character-driven story: how the body got there isn’t really as interesting as watching the hero try to catch the killer. In the latter, however, we more often tend to get backstory-driven prequel: we spend our 30 or 60 minutes watching the hero obsess over finding as many clues as possible to determine how the body got there in the first place, meaning we learn lots of irrelevant trivia but only discover the killer (who we may not even care about at this point) in the final ten seconds. In the former, we move the story forward from the crime; in the latter, we recreate the pre-story up to the crime. Which is the more dramatically compelling option should go without saying. (I realize these dichotomies are not universal; apologies for overly broad generalizations.)

    On a different note, I would like to point to a few recent prequels that have been adequately done. 2005’s “Batman Begins” and 2006’s “Casino Royale” both, in my opinion, did excellent jobs of reintroducing bloated, tired, cartoonish, and cliched franchise characters in new, edgy, dangerous, and psychologically compelling ways, and both in true prequel “how he became who he became” fashion. True, both prequels were technically unnecessary– Tim Burton gave us wholly adequate flashbacks explaining the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents in 1989’s “Batman,” and Terence Young’s 1962 “Dr No” debuted Bond in fine form as a brawny thug who hadn’t yet quite mastered the refinement of a tuxedo or vodka martini. And yet, I am grateful for the new insights into both characters given by the recent prequels. These examples, however, were most likely possible because the directors were dealing with long-lived, shape-shifting, serial-style franchises, whereas the travesties of the “Star Wars” prequels or the aborted “Alien” effort were (or would have been) due to the original creators tampering with their own previously finished products. It’s one thing to “reinvent” or reinterpret a character or story that’s already in the public domain; it’s another to rewrite the canon from inside.

    A final note: it will be fascinating, in light of this discussion, to see people’s reactions to Peter Jackson’s forthcoming “Hobbit” films, since they will be widely but wrongly interpreted as being mere “prequels” to the Lord of the Rings franchise, whereas in reality Tolkien wrote the original “Hobbit” story without ever intending on creating the entire cosmic mythology that became LoTR, the Silmarillion, the Unfinished Tales, et cetera ad infinitum. And I know I’m in an incredibly small minority here, but, to be completely honest, I view “The Hobbit” (the book) not as an inferior Young Adult prequel to the mature LoTR trilogy, but rather as a sleek and superior original with a bloated and unnecessary set of three tedious sequels. But that’s just me.

    • Kent: great insights, as usual. I love the examples you chose (The Big Sleep and The Iron Giant) to demonstrate the importance of an artist knowing a work’s backstory but then showing restraint in revealing the information to the audience.

      I also appreciate the dichotomy you pose between detective stories and forensics cases. It’s interesting that the most popular detective story on TV right now is probably House, in which the hero solves medical mysteries instead of murder mysteries, leaving those, I guess, to the CSI teams.

      As for your examples of adequately done prequels, I must point out that Batman Begins and Casino Royale are not technically prequels; they’re considered “reboots.” According to Wikipedia:

      “It is also important to note that a prequel must be part of the same series as the publication to which it is a prequel. If, as with the case of Batman Begins it starts the story (and the series) anew, it is not a prequel; but rather a reboot.”

      Your overall point is sound, though: reboots of “long-lived, shape-shifting, serial-style franchises” tend to be more satisfying (or at least more acceptable) to an audience than prequels.

      Finally, I feel the same way about The Hobbit vs. The Lord of the Rings. I’m curious to see how much the reverse order of the films will affect the production of The Hobbit. Will it turn out to be less an adaptation of the source book and more a prequel to the original three films (i.e., will it contain scenes and details not found in the original work but which only serve to foreshadow certain elements found in The Lord of the Rings)? We shall see.

  2. I realize this isn’t going to recommend itself to you very much since you are a believer in Films (as in artifacts), but I don’t personally get too caught up in the idea of ‘canon,’ and there is a weird and occasionally wonderful subculture of people who don’t either. Prequels can be thought of as product for people who like a work enough to have nostalgic attachment but not enough to use their own imaginations to determine what comes next – you, and the guy talking about the Thing prequel, liked prequel-creation on the part of viewers and filmmakers to a forensic exercise, but I think of it more of an artistic opportunity. Not necessarily for a professional filmmaker – those who control the rights to popular properties are always going to have too much editorial control to allow outsiders to do anything really interesting – but for amateurs. Me, I’ll see a prequel (or sequel) if it looks to recommend itself on its own grounds, but not so much just because I like the original property – ex., I was interested in the Planet of the Apes prequel, because I liked the cast and the movie looked well made, but I don’t have any opinions one way or another on the original movies. By the same token, I had no interest in seeing the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, despite actually really liking the originals. Even when I see a prequel or sequel I really like however, I tend to view it as ‘optional’ – existing on a continuum where it is neither superior nor inferior to my own ideas about what ‘really’ happened.

    • Thank you for the comment! I think your overall view is very much in line with my conclusion that we do not need to take canon too seriously (expressed in my final paragraph). And I hint at the “weird and occasionally wonderful subculture of people who don’t” when I mention fan fiction as a possible antidote to a bad prequel. I completely agree that a viewer’s own ideas about what ‘really’ happened can be equal (or even superior) to any definitive statement (e.g., a supplemental work) from the artist.

      That said, I appreciate the distinction you make between ‘prequel as forensic exercise’ and ‘prequel as artistic opportunity.’ I should have been clearer that my criticism here is focused more on the former type. A good example of the latter type is “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” a prequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” With this prequel, the filmmakers decided to tell the story of an earlier Indiana Jones adventure. However, rather than use the earlier story to explain events and situations in “Raiders” via cause-and-effect relationships (a creatively limited game of connect-the-dots), they created an artistically rich and independent work. Conversely, in George Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequels, we’re constantly fed scenes crafted solely to make us think things like: “Oh, so that’s why Boba Fett wears that helmet.” Such scenes are uninteresting gimmicks and only diminish the artistic resonances of the original works.

      With that in mind, it seems I also unfairly grouped audiences who may prefer prequels of one type with those who prefer prequels of the other type. And, of course, there are those who might enjoy them both. I will not presume, this time, to know their motivations.

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