There aren’t very many good prequels out there. For the most part, what George Lucas hath wrought is a wide range of direct-to-DVD prequels of films we never liked in the first place. See The Scorpion King: Rise of a Warrior starring Randy “I’m a UFC Hall of Famer and I Have Cauliflower Ear” Couture if you don’t believe me. In fact, heading over to IMBD and looking up their list of prequels sends a Paul WS Anderson chill down your spine. There aren’t very many good entries, and some of the the ones that are passable – I’m looking at you, Temple of Doom – are barely prequels at all.
So in honor of X-Men: First Class, a rare good prequel, I felt it necessary to run down a list. It’s a kind of guideline for future prequel-makers to follow – born from those who came before and succeeded. How can you craft a worthwhile prequel that doesn’t feel like it came right off the Hollywood assembly line? How can you make a story that creates interesting origin stories for characters that have already been established? Basically, how can you come up with a prequel idea that isn’t going to end up in Russell Mulcahy’s filmography? We love you, Russ. There can be only one.
Those are some good questions. Here are some possible answers.
Tip #1: Go Hybrid
The best prequels are the ones that provide something old and something new. The something borrowed and something blue are optional. The most critically lauded prequel is The Godfather Part II, but even it isn’t an out-and-out prequel. Yes, it tells the origin story of Don Corleone, shows how he came to America and how he got “connected,” but it also continues Michael Corleone’s story from the first film.
What’s even better, it connects the two.
These aren’t two supernova stories floating out in space all on their own. One story feeds off the other. One story further establishes a family and characters we’ve already met. The Godfather was the middle. The Godfather Part II provides the beginning and the end so that when – spoiler alert – Michael has Fredo killed, the moralistic implications cut even deeper.
Tip #2: Tell Us Something We Don’t Already Know
Twin Peaks was a series that ran for two seasons and told the complete story of the investigation into who killed Laura Palmer. But, as with any real-world crime, there was so much more to the story than the ensuing investigation. With Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch showed us the build-up to that very crime, crafted a story surrounding the days leading up to her death, and made the actual murder, one we all knew was coming, the disturbing crescendo and catalyst for an entire television series. But Fire Walk With Me also served to show us sides of characters we didn’t even know existed.
The same can be said for X-Men: First Class, a prequel built around setting up relationships we know are coming. We know Erik Lehnsherr and Professor Charles Xavier are going to be mortal enemies, but we also knew they were once friends. How do we get from Point A to a Point B we have already seen and keep the audience interested? Easy, you don’t just show the events we know take place.
Just like any origin story, there has to be a build involved in the characters, and more often than not that means learning things about those character we didn’t even know existed. When it works, it even shakes up the way you view those characters once we get to that inevitable Point B. The audience has to be surprised, or else they’ll lose interest from the starting gate. You can’t surprise someone by showing them something they’ve already seen or heard.
Tip #3: Introduce Old and New Characters
You know why horror prequels rarely work? Because you already know who’s going to live and who’s going to die. Let’s pile on Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning here for a bit, shall we? Coming off the 2003 remake, a movie that some of us shamelessly enjoy, The Beginning went back to show us the “origin” of Leatherface. Of course, only about 15 minutes of The Beginning involves any establishment of the Leatherface character. The rest involves the psychotic family ripping apart a group of clueless teenagers and generally giving the good state of Texas a bad name. One of the big problems involved in TCM: The Beginning is that no new members of this crazy family are introduced. Let’s see, 4 teenagers who aren’t in the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre versus 8 psychos who we know are all going to make it. That doesn’t leave much for suspense, does it?
Now, before you get on me for ripping into a modern classic like Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, let me put a little BBQ sauce on this and sift through how it could have been better.
Maybe bring in a few family members we didn’t see in the 2003 film. Maybe build up some characters who make us question who will live to see the end credits. There’s a possibility. Cousin Bob (totally made-up character) could have been visiting his cannibal family from Oklahoma, survived, then gone back home. It’s completely plausible. But let’s move on before I start getting hate mail from Oklahoma. I love your state. Your state police dish out speeding tickets with equal parts love and care.
Tip #4: Completely Shake Things Up
The J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek works. Why does it work? Because it’s a prequel that sets up its own rules. Introducing the idea of time travel and establishing characters like Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and all those red shirts opens an interesting and completely unexpected doorway to the franchise. Yes, these are the characters who grow up to look like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Nobody said the casting had to be believable. But the rules established in 2009’s Star Trek could potentially lead to any outcome. McCoy could die in Star Trek 2. This isn’t a scoop. It’s not even a rumor. It’s just a potential outcome to the established storyline, which, yes, is a prequel. A lot of people are going to argue with me on that point. To that, I can only retort in the most civil of ways by closing my ears and screaming “LALALALALALALA” until you go away.
Of course, the time travel idea probably isn’t one too many franchises can bring in. You wouldn’t want to see a Die Hard 5 where John McClane travels back to 1970s Germany to take out Hans Gruber before he can devise his masterful scheme. Wait. On second thought, that would save Ellis. Somebody get Joel Silver on the line.
What tips do you wish future prequel-makers would adhere to?