Looking back, I’ve noticed a sort of thread running through some of the posts I’ve made. And in truth, this thing was quite influential when it came to what inspired me to write science fiction in the first place. It began with the infamous Star Wars prequels, the movies which ruined what used to be a very influential and nostalgic franchise. It was then reinforced by the odious Dune prequels, which tarnished the legacy that inspired me to write science fiction in the first place. Since then, I’ve noticed these same elements at work in any prequel I’ve chanced upon and the lessons only seem to get more concrete.
While I’m no expert on the fine art of writing, be it science fiction or anything other genre, by the time I started doing it I was pretty clear on what I wanted to create. Basically, I wanted to write something I would enjoy, something that emulated the greats I had come to know and admire. But when it came to what I DIDN’T want to do, I found prequels summed up a lot of it succinctly (especially the aforementioned examples). I’m sure I mentioned as much in previous posts, but today, I thought I might speak to these things specifically; outline why prequels can – and often do – suck!
1. No Surprises:
Whether it was the Star Wars prequels, X Men Origins: Wolverine, the Legends of Dune series, or anything else prequel-oriented, there was one undeniable problem they all had in common: we already knew what was going to happen. By stories end, we know that the characters are going to become whatever it is they were in the original story, and we know who’s going to live and who’s going to die. In some cases, we even know how, so there really are no surprises. The only real purpose of a prequel is to fill in the background, explain HOW things happened and how the characters and story we are familiar with came to be.
For example, in Star Wars, we know that Anakin becomes Darth Vader, that Palpatine is the villain and will take over the Republic, and that Amidala will give birth to Luke and Leia before dying. There are a host of other details which the more nerdy among us were familiar with as well, and we were all drawn to theaters back in 1999 hoping to see how they played out. But in the end, when all was said and done, I don’t think any of us came away satisfied. Seeing how things happened when you already know what will happen just seems to make for a disappointing experience.
2. Sense of Duty:
Another thing that brings down a prequel is the fact that things MUST be explained. In short, the writer, director, author, etc. has a list of things which need to be covered before the end. These things have to fall within an established framework – i.e. what has already been established by the original story – and cannot contradict or be inconsistent with them. So really, in addition to having a story where there really are no surprises, you also get a story where things have to proceed in an established fashion and often seem heavily contrived. The end result is not what would feel natural based on the story so far but based on what needs to happen for the sake of the original story.
X-Men Origins will suffice as an example here. In this movie, the story had to show where Wolverine came from, how he and his brother (Sabretooth) had their falling out, and how his memory got erased. The result was actually pretty weak, in my opinion. Basically, Colonel Striker shot him in the head with Adamantium bullets, which he knew wouldn’t kill him but would erase his memory. Now, how did he know ahead of time that that would be the effect it would have? Second, why do that instead of lobbing a rocket-propelled grenade at him? Simple, because the story required it. Wolverine is supposed to be an amnesiac in the first movie, so this movie had to show how.
And while were on the subject, why didn’t Wolverine’s girlfriend kill Striker at the end when she had the chance? The woman had suggestive powers and had the man in her grasp, so why not tell him to march off a cliff? Again, because the story demanded it. Striker needed to live to see movie two, so instead she said some fluff about how she’d be no better than him and just told him to take a walk until his feet bled and he fell from exhaustion. I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, I was disappointed.
3. Less Is More
A lot of people insist that when it comes to back stories and background, the less we know, the better. After all, wasn’t Darth Vader scarier before we knew that he was once portrayed by Hayden Christensen? Wasn’t he a lot more menacing before he cried over the loss of Padme? I know for a fact that I’m not alone when I say that the whole “NOOOOOOO!” scene at the end of Revenge of the Sith brought him down in my eyes. What was once a titanic force of badassery was transformed into a whiney, bitchy child through the simple act of fashioning an origins story.
To use a non-prequel example, consider the Batman franchise. In the Tim Burton version, we got to see the Joker’s origin story, but in the Christopher Nolan version, we got nothing. And frankly, wasn’t Ledger’s updated take on the Joker much more scary than Nicholson’s because of it? Sure, his dialogue and acting were spot on at capturing the insanity and terror of the laughing psychotic killer, but wasn’t part of that assured by the fact that we had NO IDEA who he was or where he came from? The origins stories that he told – “wanna know how I got these scars?” – and how they kept changing was part of what made him so effective. As the audience, we wanted to know, how DID he get those scars? Why IS he so crazy? But by denying us this, I think we were kept wanting and we respected the movie more for it.
The same is true of Batman himself. In Burton’s, we got an exact reversal of what happened with the Joker. Aside from the fact that his parents were murdered, apparently by a young Jack Napier (who would go on to become the Joker), we knew nothing about him. Where he got his skills from, his equipment, and how he got started. This served to make him a much more mysterious character which in turn made him more interesting. In Burton’s Batman, he was the focal point whereas the Joker was his nemesis. But in Nolan’s updated version of The Dark Knight, the Joker was undoubtedly the focus while Batman was just the hero trying to stop him. I’d say what he knew – or in this case, didn’t know – about them was central to that.
4. The Audience’s Imagination Is The Writer’s Greatest Weapon:
I believe it was the famous photographer Duane Michals who said “I believe in the imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” Okay, I Googled that, sue me! But the man had a point, and it applies doubly to movies since they too are a visual medium. What the readers and/or an audience can imagine based on snippets of a story is infinitely more powerful than what they can be shown with a few hundred pages of text or a two hour movie. This is why less is more. By giving the audience less to work with, they have more freedom to imagine and create. If you tell them what happened, detail for detail, then they have nothing except for what you’ve given them.
This, I think, is precisely why prequels are so often a disappointment, at least in my estimation. I’ve always considered myself to be an imaginative person. Given a blank canvas, or one with just a few details, I can create just about anything. And I’m hardly alone in that fact. Imagination is something everyone has – to varying degrees, sure – but it’s part of what makes us human and gives our lives meaning. Being able to express our inner life makes us happy, and there are few things more hurtful and insulting than having someone mock or dismiss that creativity. It’s also one of the cornerstones of a free society, the freedom to create and not be persecuted for it.
So it’s little wonder then why people are drawn to movies where books they’ve read are being adapted to film, or to prequels, where things that have been previously alluded to are acted out. People go to see them because they want to know if it will bear any resemblance to what they themselves imagined. Or, they go because they just want to see what the director’s own vision was. Either way, when you get around to seeing it for yourself, is it not a letdown no matter what? Isn’t that the real reason why people who’ve read the book constantly insist that the movie isn’t as good? That certainly seemed to be the consensus amongst LOTR geeks. And I should know; by The Two Towers, I was one of them! And isn’t that the real reason why the Star Wars prequels sucked as much as they did? We, the fans and audiences are active participants and create out of what we are given. Being told point blank what happened removes half the fun of it!
Some Tips For Writing:
Well, that’s all I got for now. Except to say that if someone is hoping to do a prequel, there are certain tips that I’ve come up with that can help. These are by no means established rules, just the result of my own amateur experience and observations. For one, a writer should take care not to give too much away when writing background. As always, less is more. It’s enough to let the background stay in the background and focus on the story. The more the reader/audience has to work with, the better. That way, when you are writing out the back story, you have much more freedom to work with, and don’t have to worry about staying within boundaries.
Second, a good idea is to write things out ahead of time. When I was thinking up Legacies, I began by writing out an outline for the entire background of the story. I didn’t do this because I was one day planning on writing a whole franchise worth of books, prequels included, but because I just wanted the story to be tight and know where everything fit. But because of that, I was able to pen several short stories that took place before the first novel. Rarely were the main characters and plot lines from that novel the focus of these stories, but they did serve as a solid backdrop which helped to advance things.
But don’t take my word on that, consider Lucas himself. He thought up the entire plot for Star Wars trilogy before making the first movie in the franchise, thus he knew exactly what he wanted to do ahead of time. Sure, he made changes and was forced to adapt along the way, but the end result benefited from this foresight. However, when it came to the prequels, he had only the bare bones to work with, and began writing each movie independently of shooting it. And it certainly showed, didn’t it? Rather than feeling like an ongoing story, each movie was a self-contained tale that was full of duty and contrivances. Nuff said? Plan ahead!
Last, but not least, remember that a story, ANY story, needs to tell its own tale. It cannot be written for the sake of filling in another. Its a bit of a vague point, I know, but a writer’s mentality is important when it comes to the creative process. At no point can you be thinking, “this needs to be explained, that needs to be explained”. It needs to be, “this is a story that needs to be told”. Every character has an interesting back story, and stories are living, organic things. They change over time, grow, and eventually die. Showing how they got to where they were going needs to be interesting and told with sincerity. So forget the duty, focus on the events and what made them interesting. If in the end its not a story that you yourself would enjoy, then don’t tell it! Simple as that…