Let’s start before the beginning of the story.
When you were very little, you knew there was a monster under your bed. Your imagination seized its presence, not its past. You fantasized about how terrifying it was, what it looked like, what it was capable of. You didn’t imagine where it came from or why it wanted to eat you, did you? You didn’t care if it used to be a used car salesman in Boise who lost his monster wife in a terrible cornfield fire and now eats human flesh because it reminds it of her cooking.
Then you got older. The fairy tales got longer, but you didn’t always need to know what hospital Goldilocks was born in, or the fact that Hansel and Gretel’s Witch originally lived in a studio apartment made of gingerbread. But you were beginning to question the world – which you were right to do, since the world is often annoyingly vague – and you’d occasionally ask “Why?” or “How?” If your mom or dad or teacher or librarian or kidnapper was a good enough storyteller, they’d be prepared with a satisfying answer that made sense and the story already in progress would continue.
Then the bedtime stories were replaced by TV, movies, theater, and books (in the order of likelihood you’d actually approach them). You might have questions, and if they were good enough the story would expect them and answer them in advance.
What did John Hammond do before Jurassic Park?
Oh! That explains his showmanship and lack of big-picture perspective. Well, what did the goat do before the T-Rex ate it?
And the story would continue and you’d be fine with that… because after all, if the story of the free-range goat farm on the island was more interesting than the story of the park full of dinosaurs, you’d be watching that instead. Right?
But this catches us up to the present tale. Once upon a time, producers and editors decided that pre-existing stories could be mined for further profit and stories (in the order of priority). They began making continuations of the characters’ lives and adventures called “sequels.” But the funny thing about sequels is that they take a certain amount of thought and effort, even the bad ones, because there’s no preordained chart to the story or obvious end in sight. So someone realized that the existing stories offered stories that were even easier to tell because the course of their plots and endings are obvious: the story JUST BEFORE the pre-existing story. They called them “prequels” because “LA-Z-quels,” “easyquels,” and “effort-freequels” didn’t sound as snappy.
George Lucas, genius entrepreneur, was an early pioneer in prequelology. He showed us Indiana Jones when he was a carefree child melting Nazi faces with his magnifying glass on a summer day, and dared to reveal the events leading up to “Star Wars” in which Darth Vader was, impossibly, a younger version of himself. Whether these experiments were worth watching was beside the point; at the end of the day, the encouragement could be found in the zeros before the decimal point.
This isn’t a rant against back story! All artists depend on back stories to give depth and sense to their characters and plots, even if they’re kept secret. And not only are back stories vital, they can also be deeply personal. One character in one project can have a dozen different back stories, each one held in the mind of a collaborator to help them give life to the character in the best way possible.
This also isn’t a rant against prequels. Honestly! This is a rant in favor of imagination. Some prequels are fantastically imaginative. For as silly as moments of “X-Men: First Class” can be, it also has moments of real inspiration. Watching angsty young Magneto trek across the globe killing criminals with superpowers is clever, adventurous… the stuff of barely-concealed man-crushes.
But all too many prequels are last-ditch cash-ins that pale embarrassingly in comparison to their originals. Do you own a copy of “Silence of the Lambs?” Quite likely. If so, do you also own a copy of “Hannibal Rising?” Did you have to search online to even be reminded that “Hannibal Rising” exists, like me?
They can sometimes even do harm to the power of the original work. In John Carpenter’s original “Halloween,” you neither know nor need motivations for the homicidal Michael Myers. You fear the unknown, after all. Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” prequel is a mistake in every way, the core misjudgment being that giving Michael Myers an explanation would be scary or interesting. It’s not. Seeing a serial killer get bullied as a child in a Larry the Cable Guy routine of a family is not only unimaginative, it bankrupts the wealth of mystique and intimidation that elevated the character to begin with.
Knowing more about a villain makes it easier to have a conversation with them at a singles mixer. But does it make them more threatening? Does it make them more interesting? Does it raise the stakes effectively? Would you enjoy “Jaws” more if you knew that Bruce the Shark escaped from an abusive, redneck Sea World knock-off in Southern Florida?
A big prequel problem comes from that which makes them easy to sketch out anyway: inevitability. You read “Wicked” or sang along off-key to its Original Cast Recording in high school knowing that the Wicked Witch will wind up being evil. That knowledge makes the path to that point poignant at times… but is it suspenseful? Surprising? Instead of tension and discovery coming from “What’s going to happen?” we have to settle for, “When exactly will this thing I already know about happen?” That can be satisfying in about the same capacity as getting a cheeseburger when you ordered a cheeseburger. But the story can rarely surprise you, put you on the edge of your seat, play you like the best stories can and should.
Finally, there’s my ultimate prequel pet-peevequel: the cheap jokes. A lame ironic gag in a prequel is a form of humor lower than puns, sarcasm, farting, and even just making a declarative statement that isn’t intended to be funny at all. You know these jokes: Young Professor X says, “Someday maybe I’ll go bald!” Young Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “Someday you just might maybe kill me!” to the high school senior voted Most Likely to Be Darth Vader. The Will-Eventually-Be-Wicked Witch says, “I’ll definitely never have a house fall on me or something!”
And we, the audience, laugh accordingly because it’s just so darn fun to be ahead of that stupid, idealistic young version of a character. “Oh, you foolish grad student! You have no idea that you’re going to be paralyzed in a matter of weeks! Hysterical!” It’s lazy “comedy,” lazy dialogue, and it really just doesn’t make any sense. You don’t go about your daily business saying, “You’ll never see me with an eyepatch,” just in case you can laugh about it if your eye gets poked out by a trombone player.
Having said that… I’m a writer in Los Angeles. So in an effort to cash in on the craze, I’m sketching a proposal for a prequel (a pre-posal, if you will) to that most successful and legendary of New Hollywood triumphs, “Titanic.” It’ll have all the inevitability and ironic statements that we crave from prequels while delivering that unnecessary amount of background information we all clamor for around… um, the boat, I guess. Working title:
PRE-TANIC: YEAR ZERO.
When you come back to read it tomorrow, be prepared with a contract for me to sign. This idea is like printing money, only legal. And less exciting.