Prequels Revisited

A few months ago, I wrote what I consider to be one of my weakest essays: On Prequels.  Indeed, even after originally posting it, I quickly dove back in to give it a major facelift.   But I still wasn’t happy with the results.  It wasn’t until my two commenters expressed their views that I was able to elucidate, finally, what I was hoping to accomplish.  But the damage was already done; the essay has proven to be the second most popular page on my blog.  Therefore, I thought I should return to the topic once again, if only to clear up any confusion.

So what was I hoping to accomplish exactly?  I think I wanted to explore the apparent disconnect between a person’s strong desire to see a prequel and his or her subsequent disappointment with it.  Of course, this disconnect is mostly imagined, as it ignores the question of the quality of the film.  Indeed, many filmgoers are left completely satisfied and not the least bit disappointed with certain prequels (e.g., Rise of the Planet of the Apes).  In other cases, there is no discernible desire in audiences even to see a particular prequel (e.g., Dumb and Dumberer).  As one of my commenters wrote: “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.”

So why did I focus on this non-issue?  Perhaps I saw it as a means to discuss the psychology at work in needing to explain what is with a narrative of how it came to be.  This would account for my otherwise inexplicable use of a quote from Hobbes, and this is certainly in line with my present philosophical interests.  But why, of all things, would I choose prequels as the subject by which to explicate these thoughts?

Maybe, at bottom, I really just wanted to talk about prequels (but only the bad ones) and why I do not like them.  The philosophy bit might simply have been an excuse to do so (i.e., bullshit).

In any case, by the end of the essay, I discovered that what I was really doing was offering a defense of fan fiction.  Not that fan fiction needs to be defended, especially by one who does not read it or write it.  Its practitioners are legion, and they can surely stick up for themselves.  But I was hoping, nonetheless, to broaden its meaning.  For example, any time we imagine characters that are not our own in scenarios that have not been created, we are writing fan fiction–even if we are only doing it in our heads.  And as for the prequels (and sequels) that are actually produced?  They, too, are fan fiction (though with financial and legal backing).

So my gripe was never with prequels per se.  My gripe seems to have been with a particular kind of prequel: the prequel as forensic exercise, as opposed to the prequel as artistic opportunity (see the comments on my original post for a further explanation of this).  Even this distinction falls short under scrutiny, however.  Ridley Scott’s upcoming Prometheus, for example, looks to be both a prequel as forensic exercise as well as an artistic opportunity.  So if prequels are not the problem, and if distinctions cannot really be made between different types of prequels, does it really just come down to the quality of the individual films, whether standalone, sequel, or prequel?  That’s probably a safe bet (and the one I should have made at the start).

Before I conclude, I would like to discuss one more grievance that I made in my original essay.  This has to do with what I hyperbolically called “artistic tyranny.”  My definition of that term was certainly off base.  Or was it?  George Lucas’s constant revision of his past work is a bit neurotic and possibly in bad taste–but is it tyrannical?  Can an artist even be tyrannical?  In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche writes:

[…] he who wants to live on after his death must take care not only of his posterity but even more of his past: which is why tyrants of every kind (including tyrannical artists and politicians) like to do violence to history, so that it may appear as preparation for and step-ladder to them.

Thus, Lucas did violence to his early films so that they would appear as preparation for his later ones.  So, yes, perhaps there is such a thing as artistic tyranny, despite the exaggerated nature of the term.

Further reading:

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One thought on “Prequels Revisited

  1. I agree that, despite the seeming simplicity or banality of the conclusion, quality truly is the ultimate test of a prequel or sequel– just as it is the ultimate test of any work of art. Audiences today are rightly skeptical of most prequels/sequels because of several decades (if not more) of experiencing second-rate products in those categories. “Attack of the Clones”? Sigh. “Psycho IV”? Ouch. “Fierce Creatures”? Go fish. And yet few would argue that “The Dark Knight” was an inferior sequel to “Batman Begins,” or that “A Fistful of Dollars” paled under the weight of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

    Additionally, it’s worth noting that many films could be construed as containing their own prequels and sequels within one single work of art. Think of James Cameron’s [sadly] unsinkable “Titanic”: the timeline of “old” Rose could be considered the sequel to the timeline of “young” Rose, or vice versa (action as prequel). Isn’t every flashback a form of prequelling, and every final “ten years later” a form of sequelling? In most cases, these instances of providing before-&-after information falls within what you have called “forensics,” since they are done by the initial author/artist/directer in order to give better understanding or conclude a narrative arc. And so if it is not considered “tyrannical” for an artist to add these “interior” prequel/sequel sections into the body of a single work, then why should it be tyrannical of them to create entire separate sequels or prequels? As long as the works strive to be of an equal or similar caliber to the original, and do not distort or pervert the original without meaningful cause, then they have every right to exist (if it can be argued that any work of art has “rights”).

    At least, that’s my two cents for this evening.

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