A Qualified Defense of Prequels

I gather Alex Knapp is not overly fond of prequels:

For reasons surpassing my understanding, current pop culture has just become entranced with prequels, prologues, and unnecessary exposition. What writers today seem to have forgotten is that background information is just that – background. It’s color or information that should be brought up only as it serves the plot.

I don’t know about this.  I guess I’m more welcoming of writers taking what is background in one story and developing it into the foreground plot of another story.  Unlike Alex, I liked the idea (in theory) of depicting in separate films the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker.  If a new story can be told, why not tell it?

Well, okay, there may be some good reasons.  I share Alex’s skepticism about the proposed Watchmen prequels, for example.  My rule for the writing of prequels (and sequels): tell a new story that 1) succeeds artistically on its own aspects and merits and 2) doesn’t in the mere telling debase the literary value of the original narrative or any of its parts.

The writing of a story creates a world.  Sometimes that world is open to expansion, further development, or even narrative reinterpretation.  Sometimes, however, that fictional world functions as a closed system, so to speak, or in such a way that what is left untold or told with only hints and traces is just as important and meaningful as what’s explicitly shown and said.  In such cases, writers would do better to leave the original story alone to work its magic.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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14 Responses

  1. The problem with the Star Wars prequels is that the story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker isn’t an interesting story. It may have some dramatic possibilities, in some sense (none of which were realized), but the point of Anakin isn’t HOW he fell, it’s THAT he fell (and then the real Star Wars trilogy happened).

    You could not but make an uncompelling story about his fall.

    • North says:

      Yes well also Lukas also made an -especially- uncompelling story about the fall. Not only was Anakin’s romance howl inducingly badly written (“Sand is rough, you are smooth”) but his actual reasons for falling were moronic.

      The prequels turned Darth Vader from a scary dramatic complicated force enthralled to evil into the Force’s derptastic chosen one who has algi for a Dad. Not cool bro, not cool.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I disagree. I thought Anakin’s fall compelling in large part because the Jedi, their political maneuverings, and their governing quasi-religious philosophy shared in the blame. Lucas, to his credit, deconstructs the Jedi ethos in both Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith. In the former, we learn that the Jedi understanding of good and evil is basically bunk: once you start does the dark side, it may not forever dominate your destiny. Luke proves Yoda and Obi-wan wrong. In the latter, the shallowness of the Jedi ethos is further exposed: they willfully put Anakin in a morally compromised position and, while using Anakin as an instrument, prove almost entirely useless against the rise of the Sith. In a sense, the Jedi deserved to fall along with Anakin: their philosophy is fundamentally inadequate to overcome the most important trials of life.

  2. Will Truman says:

    I don’t understand why the background cannot be a story unto itself. That Anakin Skywalker fell may have been the main point of his role in 4-6, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot be a story in its own right. It all depends on how well, or poorly, it is told.

    I have no idea if BW will be any good. If all they’re doing is setting up the original series, then yeah, that would be dull. But these are characters that, I would think, have all sorts of stories to to be told about. That we know where they end up can add to the story, but comic books in particular are built on foreknowledge of what is going to happen and what is not going to happen (by convention, if not by pre-existing story).

    • Ryan Bonneville says:

      As I said, I think the story of Anakin’s fall has dramatic possibilities. You can certainly tell a story about it, but what’s the point of that story? What’s it about?

      Maybe you can tell a story about how noble intentions ossify and evil becomes seductive by eschewing rules. I suspect this is actually almost what Lucas was going for, but I’m not convinced it has anything to do with Star Wars in particular. There’s no reason to tell that story.

    • Ryan Bonneville says:

      And I don’t even want to talk about Before Watchmen. The entire idea is so idiotic it would boggle the mind of anyone who hasn’t invested stupid amounts of time in the reading of mainstream comics. Given the business model there, the creation of a Watchmen prequel was as inevitable as it is asinine.

  3. Jaybird says:

    Stephen King talked about the two types of writing that he’s found himself doing. The first is when he’s constructing something. He builds a story from the raw materials he has at his material. The second he called “excavating”. As he wrote he kept discovering new things… about the characters, about the universe they lived in, about their relationships…

    He said that he prefers excavation.

    Now, I bring that up because if a prequel has been constructed, you can usually tell. These are the prequels I don’t like.

    The excavated ones? Those are awesome.

    • Ryan Bonneville says:

      I guess it’s worth confessing up front that I don’t like “continuity” stories. I don’t see the value in transforming everything into a soap opera. A prequel has to clear an extremely high bar to be worth telling.

      • Will Truman says:

        This could make a conversation all its own. One of the things I like about prequels, moreso than sequels and ongoings, is that there are limits to the extent it can devolve into something like a mainstream continuity.

        If this had been After Watchmen (Nite Owl & Silk Spectre in leather! New Rorschach! Dr Manhattan returns!), I’d actually be pretty horrified.

  4. Mary says:

    I can’t comment on Star Wars (I’ve never seen it), but Wicked has been a wildly successful prequel to The Wizard of Oz.

    • North says:

      My dear dear Mary, I would like to heartily agree with you on that. Setting aside the musical (a worthy article but a strange doppleganger of its source text) I have found the Wicked series quite fascinating. Though it bears noting that the writing habits of the author, particularily his tendency to time jump -through- the most interesting and pivotal points of his plots has caused me to hurtle my poor abused copy to the floor more than once (damn good thing I didn’t get it on the Kindle).

      • Mary says:

        Hmm, yes I just can’t put Gregory Maguire’s novels down except to slam them shut in frustrated delight (just to open them back up again and devour a few more pages).