According to Wikipedia, the term ‘prequel’ has existed since the 1950s, when it was occasionally used by science-fiction writers. These days, most people recognize the term from cinema, and most closely associate it with the second trilogy of Star Wars movies.
Recently, I was having a drink in the Eagle and Child with a friend, and we got to discussing prequels. We’d been talking about The Hobbit and how Peter Jackson is reworking it to serve as a prequel for The Lord of the Rings. As our conversation spiralled around, it became clear that both of us saw the whole concept of a ‘prequel’ to be inherently flawed. Our argument goes something like this...
At the most basic level, most people listen to/read/watch stories for one reason - to see what happens. Yes, characterization, beauty of language, and a great soundtrack are all important, but they are all secondary to the plot. As much as I love the grand shots of the Fellowship of the Ring walking across the beautiful New Zealand landscape, it is the quest to destroy the ring that keeps pushing me forward. Sure, I know the good guys are going to win (because I’ve read the book), but I want to see it happen. I want the climax, the payoff. I want the reward for my emotional investment.
Prequels, by their very nature, lack the payoff. The climax has already happened. In the prequels, Darth Vader is not redeemed. The Emperor is not defeated. The Death Star is not destroyed. Perhaps these movies could have succeeded as tragedy, but tragedy is not a popular genre these days.
Okay, the biggest problem with the Star Wars prequels isn’t that they are prequels (they’re just bad, especially numbers II and III), but even if they were well-made movies, I don’t believe they could have succeeded in a way that approached their predecessors. Okay, Obi-wan managed to hide Anakin’s kids, but that’s really just a conciliation prize.
It seemed to us, sitting in that pub, that the word ‘prequel’ is almost an admission. It says, ‘I’ve already told you the best part of the story, but let me go back and fill-in a few other bits you might find interesting...’. I’m tempted to go a step further. Is a prequel just laziness? Is it just easier to go back and write back story than it is to be fully creative and move a story forward?
To bring this discussion full circle, it should perhaps be mentioned that The Hobbit is a bit of a special case. If Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema wanted to do more movies set in Middle-Earth, then this was the only story they could tell. (The Tolkien estate isn’t allowing anything else). The Hobbit (book) isn’t a prequel. It was written first. If The Hobbit (movie) had stuck closer to the book it wouldn’t be a prequel. It would be a separate, but related story, with its own plot and its own big, dead dragon, Battle of the Five Armies pay-off. Unfortunately, by tying it closer to The Lord of the Rings, P. Jackson and crew have made it into a prequel. We will learn all about the rise of Sauron and his ring, but we will not see it destroyed.
Oh, I enjoyed the first Hobbit movie. I have little doubt I will enjoy the next two, at least on some level, but I already feel certain that I will not get the same return on my emotional investment that I did with The Lord of the Rings.