Question of the week: is there a point to prequels?

Prequels are seemingly all the rage right now. The Hobbit‘s about to be filmed, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is on Starz and Caprica has been and gone. And, of course, prequels have a long history on TV, in books, in theatre and the cinema: Star Wars infamously acquired itself three prequels and even a movie such as Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion (starring Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino, two of my favourite actresses) managed to get itself a prequel (starring Katherine Heigl and Alex Breckenridge, two more of my favourite actresses*):

But – cue today’s question:

Is there a point to prequels?

While it can be fun to see how things came to pass and how characters came to be the way they are, you largely know how everything turns out. You know who survives, who ends up bad, who ends up good, etc. There are no real surprises. And usually, prequels are pretty awful.

So are prequels largely just writers’ background material stretched out into an actual story or do they have worth? And are there, in fact, any good prequels that you can think of?

As always, leave a comment with your answer or a link to your answer on your own blog

* Although I should point out that while KH and AB do do quite excellent impressions of Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino respectively, they’re actually supposed to respectively be playing Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow’s parts. Huh. Now there’s a scriptwriter and a director who weren’t paying attention.

  • Yes, there certainly can be a point. Case in point the newish Star Trek movie. Admittedly the prequel cunningly pushed itself into an alternate universe, so you don’t know what’s going to happen to the characters, but the first part of the movie at least is a prequel, and it works well.

  • Mark Carroll

    I am quite sure I’ve been prejudiced against prequels, then been pleasantly surprised by specific instances, none of which seem to be coming to mind. It turns out that the journey is the interesting part but I wish I could recall how I became persuaded of that. I might, however, be thinking instead of films where I knew how the film was going to end.
    It’s easier for me to remember examples from literature. For instance, with Asimov’s Foundation series, the Hari Seldon books were more engaging that I expected. And I’m about to read Stephen Baxter’s Transcendent which I’m pretty sure is an Exultant prequel.
    The film Memento feels like a peculiar example of many bite-sized prequels.
    Looking online reminds me of the second Godfather film. And on TV I did like the first season of Enterprise before we got into the Xindi stuff.
    I suppose, more generally, there’s the point that if interesting stuff happens now, it doesn’t mean that different interesting stuff didn’t happen previously.
    Of course, there’s the related question of what benefits from being shown out of order. For instance, I think the Star Wars films work better watched in story order than release order.

  • On the whole prequels are a bad idea.
    However, they can work when they are part of a reboot ( Batman Begins is largely prequel ). They can work when they are pretty much standalone stories ( Star Trek, Hannibal Rising), or not obviously a prequel ( Indiana Jones (TOD), The Good, The Bad and the Ugly ).
    Star Wars would have worked had it been filmed as one. It’s an interesting story of what turned Anakin in Darth Vader – Lucas just messed up up by adding lots of gumpf!
    You shouldn’t really class The Hobbit as a prequel, as it’s the film makers that have made it in the wrong order.

  • SK

    No, if all you are trying to do is just provide more helpings of characters audiences already know and like, without actually trying to say anything or have, you know, a point.
    Yes, if you’ve got something interesting to say which adds to the original and is helped by the association (so, for example, you should be using the extension to comment on aspects of the original — not just shoehorning your own preoccupations that have nothing to do with the original into a story which piggy-backs on another story’s success, yes, Wicked, I’m looking at you).
    But these are basically the same considerations that apply to sequels, aren’t they? Don’t do they if you’re just trying to provide ‘more of the same’ or to piggy-back on earlier success; do do them if (a) you have something new to say and (b) that something new is related to and comments on the original (otherwise, do something new with it).
    I don’t see how ‘knowing what’s going to happen at the end’ comes into it: with the popularity of the prolepsis prologue as a lazy means of giving some kind of psudo-thematic-unity and manufactured shock value, it’s practically impossible these days to watch a film without finding out what’s going to happen at the end in the first five minutes.

  • MediumRob

    “I don’t see how ‘knowing what’s going to happen at the end’ comes into it: with the popularity of the prolepsis prologue as a lazy means of giving some kind of psudo-thematic-unity and manufactured shock value, it’s practically impossible these days to watch a film without finding out what’s going to happen at the end in the first five minutes.”
    That’s kind of true, but the point of the flash forward is to give the viewer something to think about, a mystery to solve – who are these people, how did they end up in this situation and what happens next since it’s typically a cliffhanger? Both Fallen and Fight Club do this quite nicely.
    But with a prequel, all you have of those three options are the first two and sometimes only the second option.
    Take Caprica. Okay, completely new characters beyond young William Adama. But every single question Caprica raised had already been answered by BSG or in the pilot episode. So how did the Cylons come to be? Well, we know that – it was Zoe. How did they get religion? Zoe. Were the monotheists or the polytheists right? The monotheists – BSG says so. Will William Adama become a criminal? No. All answered before the end of the first episode, leaving the show with nowhere to go.
    Spartacus: Gods of the Arena has a slightly similar problem. You know who’s still alive by series proper. You know whose ambitions will fail. You know other characters have to die or disappear somehow. You know Spartacus is unlikely to show up. All that’s really there is seeing how the characters end up in the positions they’re in at the start of the first season.
    @brian: As for Star Trek, the reboot, that explicitly says the timeline is all messed up so it’s no longer a prequel: the whole of Star Trek, ST:TNG, DS9 et al are likely to have been completely wiped out by the movie. Enterprise was barely a prequel at all until the final season, only really being set in the same universe and with a few name checks to link it with the future series. And that, too, had the time travellers from the future to suggest that time could be rewritten and that the show itself wasn’t there a prequel in the truest sense.