PREQUELS SUCK. I mean, right? We can all agree on that. Take Star Wars. We all know that Episodes 1–3, the Prequels, are terrible. Just the worst. Because they're prequels! The very nature of prequels means they couldn't have turned out any other way. We already knew how the characters we cared about—Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda, for example—would end up, so there were no stakes. There could be no dramatic tension! The conclusion was, as they say, foregone.
And now that Episodes 7–9 are turning A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi into prequels, those movies change from being awesome to being terrible, too.
Well, yes. Spoilers for the ten people who haven't seen The Force Awakens yet, but Han dies. Luke is in self-imposed exile, Leia is a General. Their stories are being told, and for at least two of them that we know definitively, concluding, in Episodes 7–9. That, by definition, makes episodes 4–6 prequels. And as we established, because you agreed with me, PREQUELS SUCK.
What I told you was true. From a certain point of view.
To the person born in the lean years between 4–6 and 1–3, the prequels may very well have been their first exposure to Star Wars. Millions of people didn't watch them in the order that I, and people my age and older, did. They watched the films in numerical order. One through six, and now seven and soon, eight. We called them “prequels” but to them, the Original Trilogy is very much a sequel trilogy in all but name. This knee-jerk, guttural, “Prequel bad!” reaction that a lot of people have is largely a problem with perspective, not a problem inherent to the film or the story being told.
What does the dictionary have to say about prequels?
prequel. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/prequel (accessed: September 30, 2017).
That's it. Bringing it back to Star Wars, Return of the Jedi is now absolutely a prequel to The Force Awakens because in the case of Han, Luke and Leia, it “portray[s] the same characters at a younger age”.
But Publication Order Matters!
Does it, imaginary argumentative person? Why? Why is publication order more valid than viewing or reading order?
Raise your hand if you knew Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a prequel. Maybe you did. It's not a secret, and proponents of “prequels aren't inherently bad” often use that as an example. It's true, through. The events of Temple of Doom take place before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a prequel. And while few would argue that it's better than Raiders or Last Crusade, it's still a damn good movie.
The Godfather Part II is both prequel and sequel. The prequel storyline that follows young Vito Corleone coming to America and becoming Don Vito Corleone is some of the finest cinema ever put to celluloid. The Hobbit is an interesting case. Published in 1937, Tolkien did not write it with The Lord of the Rings in mind. In fact, Tolkien went back and revised and republished The Hobbit more than once after the publication of Rings to better align the two works. Yet The Hobbit is, to many, a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. To those who aren't hardcore Tolkien fans (like me) the publication order, Tolkien's intentions, his copious notes and behind-the-scenes world building don't really matter. Certainly I read The Hobbit when I was young. But the film version—expanded to a trilogy of a length to rival Lord of the Rings—make it feel like a prequel to the Rings films. The addition of Legolas especially adds to this: remember, “portraying the same characters at a younger age”. Bilbo, Gandalf, Elrond, and now Legolas (among others also added) show up in The Hobbit trilogy.
The Temple of Doom came out after Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Godfather Part II came out after The Godfather. The Hobbit, though, in book form, predated The Lord of the Rings. All are considered prequels.
Fine. Whatever. What's Your Point?
Good question, imaginary sarcastic person. My point is that there is nothing wrong with prequels and that anyone who thinks that prequels inherently suck is wrong and should rethink their opinion.
The Hobbit was a wonderful book and a lousy prequel movie trilogy. The Star Wars Prequels… had their moments. A lot of people really liked them, I'm told! Star Wars: Rogue One was great, though, and that is set in the Star Wars “Prequel era”. The Godfather Part II was an Oscar-winning half-prequel. Incidentally, of the six Oscars that The Godfather Part II won, only one was for acting. The Best Supporting Actor award went to Robert De Niro for his prequel portrayal of young Vito Corleone. One could argue that the film won Best Picture but is only half-prequel, but the Best Supporting Actor went to the prequel performer. It also won Best Adapted Screenplay for Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola.
To be sure, many prequels are terrible. But so are many sequels. And so are many movies that are neither. The format isn't the problem. When a prequel fails, the problem is—in every single case—a poorly conceptualized and executed story. There's nothing inherently wrong with telling a story set in the past of an established character as long as that story is compelling.
Just ask Mario Puzo and Robert DeNiro.
So, In the End…
In the end, I'm less interested in what makes something a prequel and far more interested in convincing people that whatever definition they're using doesn't really matter that much. Consider a story on its own merits, I say. A story can have dramatic tension even if the viewer, or reader, knows the main character survives to the next story. That most common complaint, that there can be no stakes because we know the protagonist isn't going to die, doesn't hold water. If you think that life is the only thing a character can have at stake, you have no imagination!