ARTS FEATURE: PREQUELS|
The prequel is the new sequel
By Dan Brown, CBC News Online | December 17, 2004
When Batman Begins lands in theatres next June, moviegoers will see the latest motion picture featuring the much-adapted comic-book hero. They will also see the earliest Batman film. This is because Batman Begins doesn't pick up where 1997's Batman Forever left off – instead, it tells the story of how Bruce Wayne came to be the Dark Knight in the first place.
You guessed it – Batman Begins is a prequel. And it won't be the last.
Christian Bale plays the title role in the prequel ‘Batman Begins,’ which will be released next summer (Courtesy Warner Bros.)
Prequels aren't anything new, of course. But they have never been more abundant. This year saw the release of such movies as Exorcist: The Beginning and Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning, which followed in the footsteps of Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd and Red Dragon – all of which explored the origins of established characters.
Next year will also see the release of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the latest installment in the Star Wars saga and the final chapter in the first-ever trilogy made up entirely of prequels.
And the mania for prequels has even spread to the small screen, spawning shows like Enterprise and Smallville. Here in Canada, the CBC is preparing to air a prequel to its Trudeau miniseries.
So if a property is successful enough to warrant a follow-up, the logical question is no longer "What's next?" but "What came before?"
Paul Dergarabedian – the president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a Los Angeles firm that tracks box-office numbers – points out that some prequels, like Dumb and Dumberer, are made because the stars of the original movie would not agree to do a second film. New Line decided the best way to make a sequel without Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels was to revisit their idiot alter egos at an earlier age.
"It sort of opens up a creative avenue that otherwise would not be accepted," Dergarabedian says of the decision to go back, not forward, in time.
Eric Christian Olson and Derek Richardson played the younger versions of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in ‘Dumb and Dumberer’ (AP photo)
Dergarabedian also notes that prequels are often used as a way to breathe life into a moribund franchise, a view shared by Jonah Weiland, executive producer for the website Comic Book Resources.
"I think it kind of just makes sense, especially with Enterprise – because after Voyager, their options were very limited," he says from Toluca Lake, Calif.
Weiland thinks the same thinking is behind Batman Begins: "They're just telling the best Batman story that's available – his origin story. And it kind of makes sense because once again, that franchise was destroyed, so you had to go back to basics. And you can't get any more basic than going back to the origin."
This does not mean, however, that fans of Batman or Star Trek were necessarily demanding prequels.
"I don't know that there are fans banging on the tables for Batman's youth as opposed to just Batman. They want Batman in any form. They're interested in his birth, his death. They want to see him go to the bathroom," Scott Chernoff, the former managing editor of Star Wars Insider magazine, says from Los Angeles.
But even though prequels feature characters and situations with which the public is already familiar, they aren't guaranteed winners at the box office. A prequel is just as likely to fail as a traditional sequel, Dergarabedian says: "I think audiences interpret them as basically the same thing."
"People are pretty smart about sensing what's just thrown up there to make money versus what's up there because it's going to be a really cool story," echoes Chernoff.
Prequels weren't always used to jump-start languishing properties. Many mistakenly believe that 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was the first prequel, but the term has been around at least since the early 1970s.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was applied first to books (among those who claim to have coined the word is J.R.R. Tolkien), then was adopted by moviemakers. The OED also says that the first motion picture it was applied to was Butch and Sundance: The Early Days; however, the idea stretches as far back as Shakespeare – his Henry IV plays were staged after the Henry VI cycle.
Part of the reason for the current explosion may be that Hollywood is now using a technique that has been standard practice in the comic-book industry for some time: telling an origin story once a character has already become popular. Batman Begins, for example, was inspired by Batman: Year One, a series written by Frank Miller in 1986 that explored the character's early adventures.
"Comic books have been doing this for years," says Chernoff, who points to the example of Superboy, a character introduced decades after the advent of Superman.
To comic creators, it's not news that prequels have their own special pitfalls. Chief among these is that it may be difficult for directors and producers to come up with a new story that is actually old, i.e. one that conforms to an established timeline. When Enterprise first came on the air in 2001, for instance, it was greeted with antipathy by some Star Trek enthusiasts because it violated that universe's canon in a number of ways.
Scott Bakula stars as Captain Jonathan Archer in the ‘Star Trek’ prequel series ‘Enterprise’ (AP photo)
"Continuity is key," Chernoff says, adding that one of the main audiences for any prequel is hardcore fans, and hardcore fans are the most likely to catch continuity errors. Such breaches have to be avoided since they distract viewers, who try to reconcile in their minds the different versions of the story. This has been one of the main complaints directed at The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.
"If the portrayals in the prequel don't make sense, then the movie doesn't work," Dergarabedian says.
"I think maybe that is the differentiation between a prequel and a sequel. Doing a prequel, I think it's even more imperative that they do it right."
According to Chernoff, fans enjoy it when a prequel incorporates a pre-existing story element in a clever way, since they are rewarded for their knowledge. If a prequel messes with continuity, the fan base is alienated – something that has to be avoided at all costs in the age of the internet.
The other major danger is the proliferation of bad prequels, which could threaten to taint the genre as a whole. Even now, some people see prequels as a sign of laziness and creative bankruptcy.
"I think Hollywood is always looking for a new device to avoid original thought, and for a long time that was the sequel. But then I think the sequel got kind of strip-mined and depleted, so now we're into the prequel," says humourist Andy Borowitz, a member of CNN's 90 Second Pop panel, from New York.
"So it's just another way of avoiding ever thinking of anything new, which is the ultimate goal of the Hollywood hit machine."