By Tom Anderson
This is the first of a new series of writing-focused articles, in which I will review my experiences in what I regard as the single most challenging feat that any writer (or filmmaker) can attempt: the composition of a prequel. By some measures and in certain contexts, skill in successfully executing a prequel is a measure of one’s ability in the craft of authorship in general.
In order to justify this claim, I first need to be careful in defining what a prequel is. The term is often thrown around exceptionally loosely in common conversation, and can frequently be found with the extremely liberal definition of ‘any work of media that chronologically precedes another, regardless of publication date or context’. For example, a person using such a definition might say ‘Star Wars is the prequel to The Empire Strikes Back, or even ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ is the prequel to ‘The Two Towers’. Both descriptions are inaccurate and unhelpful, the first describing a film that was made in isolation before its success led to a continuation of the story, and the second describing two parts of a single story that were arbitrarily separated, originally for the reason of paper shortages! (See my previous article ‘Lord of the Reams’).
Neither of those examples fits a common, moderately inclusive definition of ‘prequel’ as espoused by, for example, dictionary.com: ‘a literary, dramatic or filmic work that prefigures a [chronologically] later work, as by portraying the same characters at a younger age’. This definition, however, is still insufficiently precise for my liking, and other sources such as America’s Merriam-Webster agree with me: ‘a work (such as a novel or a play) whose story precedes that of an earlier [published] work’. Thus, for example, The Hobbit is not a prequel to The Lord of the Rings by this conservative definition; though it features some of the same characters at a younger age, it was written and published earlier. By contrast, The Magician’s Nephew is certainly a prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as it features younger character backstories and setting origins, but was conceived, written and published years after the latter book.
I emphasise the word ‘conceived’ in this, because publication date alone can be misleading; while The Silmarillion is often described as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, I would dispute that, on the basis that the vast majority of it was written by Tolkien before he began The Lord of the Rings. This is not merely a semantic debate, as it informs many of the problems and issues I will be discussing in the writing of a prequel. Tolkien could draw upon his drafts of The Silmarillion as sources when writing LOTR and reference chronologically earlier characters and events in them without fear of contradiction—at least, other than from his eternal desire to constantly change things after the fact. By contrast, his friend C. S. Lewis could not draw upon the details of The Magician’s Nephew for background references when writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because it did not exist in even conceptual form yet, and this is very obvious when comparing the two books. Instead, he had to take a few cryptic hints from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and attempt to blow them up into detailed background in The Magician’s Nephew without contradicting things; for example, a single mention of the White Witch’s given name being Jadis.
This is what I am referring to when I speak of the challenge of writing a ‘true’ prequel. Coming back to characters and settings after the fact, attempting to pen backstory without contradiction or tonal inconsistency, is a case of nightmarish complexity for anyone who wants to get it right. Say in your original novel a big part of your protagonist’s personality is defined by his relationship with his girlfriend, but you said in the narrative that he only met her three months before the story takes place. What are you going to do in your backstory prequel that has to be set before that? Ignore this side of his personality altogether? Give him a previous relationship perhaps—but now it feels unnatural that this was never mentioned in the original book in contrast to his current one. OK, no, say she was his first true love—but then why did he never mention that when angsting over her kidnap by the villain?
This is one simple example, but this kind of problem balloons into dizzying complexity about almost every aspect of a prequel. What about plot events? A prequel needs some kind of plot to be compelling, yet the pre-existing, chronologically later story slams a straitjacket on what is narratively possible. Does your protagonist need to chase someone over the border into Canada—but wait, in the original story he had one throwaway line that he’d never been to Canada. Do you throw out the concept or invent some incredibly contrived explanation about him never actually crossing the border, or that he was sworn to secrecy about never going there and he always has to pretend he hasn’t to people, even though it was obvious in the original throwaway line it didn’t have anything like that kind of depth behind it…? Annoyingly enough, many authors go for the contrived route, sometimes even with an implicit wink and a grin to it as though showing off to the reader, and expend immeasurable brain power and ink that could be better directed towards new and less constrained stories.
With all this in mind, one might ask the reasonable question ‘Why would anyone want to write a prequel?’ It is a question worth asking. One cynical reason, especially in the world of film, is a cash-in. Sequels are easier, but come with their own problems: an iconic character might have been killed off in a dramatic scene so they are no longer usable, for instance. This leads to the better-known issues of sequels, such as vapidly contradicting the message of the previous film and making it all feel futile. Casually bring back a fan-popular villain whom a hero sacrificed so much to defeat forever, as in The Rise of Skywalker. Kill off an awkwardly placed character who our protagonist spent the last film, in-universe set only days or weeks earlier, working so hard to save, as in The Bourne Supremacy and The Matrix Revolutions. Ruin happy endings and cathartic closures for the sake of a recognisable name on a poster that might sucker in a few more punters.
Critics have grown wise to shameful sequels, even if they still often pull in the audience. Prequels, on the face of it, avoid some of these problems. They can’t ruin happy endings (unless they ruin the reputation of the protagonist through what they put in his backstory). You have access to all the iconic characters, well, unless the original film clearly showed them meeting for the first time, or described it in dialogue as happening in a different way to the way you want to portray it now (e.g. Pixar’s Monsters University). And when you’re casting different people to play younger versions of your popular characters, you can avoid paying the inflated salaries of the original actors who became successful off your original film. Film prequels therefore often tend to focus on the same side of things as cash-in sequels: they’re just a way to do Another Adventure, and don’t necessarily think too much about consistency or chronology. One can usually at least expect writers not to kill off characters that appeared in the chronologically later film; this factor also robs prequels of drama and tension, as we know our favourites must survive, and hints any ‘new’ characters may not. But, generally, film prequels will happily put in ‘wisecrack exchange/cool stunt you remember from the original’, even if its appearance in the original was clearly portrayed as the characters saying/doing it for the first time.
This is not true of all film prequels; some, as is more common in the literary world, instead focus on trying to show the backstory of a popular character, or his origins; trying to add depth to the original work rather than just cashing in on it. An interesting variation might be if our protagonist is following in his parents’ footsteps, what did they do years ago? If he’s part of a secret organisation, what was that like in a previous era? This has become more popular in recent years, not least due to increased interest in period pieces and improved special effects in portraying earlier eras convincingly.
A good example is the film X-Men: First Class. The first three X-Men films had effectively run the franchise into the ground by killing off many iconic characters and finishing story arcs. These were followed by the prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine, looking at the background of the most popular character. While I felt this film was excessively criticised at the time (its best line of dialogue gets a shout-out in by book The Surly Bonds of Earth), it certainly commits some prequel cardinal sins. It is unusual in that it manages to do ‘main character gets his memory wiped at the end to tie up loose ends’ without it feeling too contrived, as the previous films had already established that Wolverine suffered from amnesia and was trying to remember glimpses of his backstory—although the exact means of the memory loss is clumsily foreshadowed in dialogue. But X-Men Origins: Wolverine also features contradictory backstories and timelines for other characters as well as a throwaway love interest. The amnesia explains why she can’t impact on the later character arcs but this can’t fix the distasteful impression the viewer receives. Consistency of tone as well as content is important in prequels.
By contrast, the aforementioned X-Men: First Class focused on the backstories of Charles Xavier, Magneto and Mystique while casually tossing out much of the backstory timelines established in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (e.g. Xavier has hair and is wheelchair-bound in the 1960s but was bald and standing upright in a chronologically later sequence in the other film; Emma Frost appears as an adult villain in the 1960s, ignoring her appearance as a teenage victim in the chronologically later other film). First Class unsurprisingly received much more critical praise; not only did it have superior acting, but it had a plot that felt like a worthy adventure in its own right and largely fitted with the hinted backstory from the original trilogy, and it embraced its status as a period piece and took joy in portraying the Cold War era. Though not without its flaws, First Class can therefore be regarded as a good example of a prequel ‘done right’.
As we shall see in subsequent articles, there are precious few of these, and many more of prequels ‘done wrong’. Of course, there are also many curate’s eggs which mix a combination of good and bad practice. At the end of the day, one must remember Tolkien’s warning that mountains visible in the distant background of a story add to its depth, but ‘to go there is to destroy the magic’. Yet it is not only Hollywood cynical cash-ins, but our insatiable desire to learn more about our favourite characters and fictional settings, that ensure prequels will always be with us. Beginning with the next article, we’ll start looking at some other prequels and the examples they bear of ‘dos and don’ts’.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.