If you haven’t heard, there’s a new Hunger Games movie coming out. “But how can that be?” you ask. “Didn’t the original trilogy of four movies end the story in a tidy, satisfying manner?” Eh, kinda. But this one isn’t another sequel, it’s a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, based on the prequel novel by the creator of the series, Suzanne Collins. I was a big fan of the novels, and the movies were…okay. But I haven’t yet read the prequel novel and I’m honestly not feeling a huge need to do so. As I mentioned a few weeks ago during one of my almost-weekly Star Trek discussions, pulling off a satisfying prequel is tricky as hell, and not a lot of franchises have done a good job of it. So before you line up to see Songbirds and Snakes, let’s take a little time this week to discuss what it is that makes prequels difficult and a few franchises that have overcome that inherent degree of difficulty to give us a satisfying result.
Any time you return to a successful franchise, there is a compulsion to raise the stakes. There’s no reason to go back to familiar territory, after all, if you can’t enhance the next installment – greater spectacle, more blood, a more fervent tugging on the heartstrings. It’s the reason that horror movie sequels always have a higher body count and why the first Fast and Furious movie was about illegal street racing but in the most recent one they were literally driving cars into outer space. And while we usually think about this escalation issue in terms of sequelitis, we want the same thing out of a prequel.
Even sequels don’t always pull off the escalation in a satisfying way (in truth, the list of sequels that are better than the original film is relatively small when you consider how many sequels have been made), but it’s even more difficult to do so when rolling back in time because many of the things audiences usually want to discover about the characters and the world they live in have already been established by the original. Going back to Star Trek as my example (because this is my blog, dammit), when you sit down to watch an episode of Strange New Worlds, there is never any fear in your heart that Spock might die because you know he’s still alive during the original series. Not to say that death is the only challenge a character might face, but the same logic applies to most of the unanswered questions we usually cling to. No one cares about a “will they/won’t they” romance with characters who we’ve already seen having “willed” or “won’ted.” That invasion that’s happening is kind of dull if you know from the original movie that the aliens are, indeed, successful in conquering the world. And if a character that has no children in the original film gets pregnant in the prequel, get ready for bad things to happen. Bad prequels feel like watching somebody draw a connect-the-dots picture. We watch as the story goes from point 1 to point 2 to point 3, and no matter how many numbers you have in the image, you’re never surprised by what happens next.
So how can you make a prequel work? Well, there are a few ways. One is to rely less on a story that just marches towards the original and instead try to tell a story that matches the original’s flavor in a satisfying way. You’re drawing on the same page, but you aren’t just playing connect-the-dots. This is what makes Strange New Worlds work. Yeah, I’m never worried that Spock is in mortal danger, but the truth is that we were never really worried when we watched the original series either, were we? This was a pre-Game of Thrones era, a time where series regulars didn’t get killed off randomly. It’s literally the reason that the redshirt trope came to exist: they needed to kill off SOMEBODY who wasn’t in the credits, so cannon fodder lined up in the casting office. Strange New Worlds takes the sort of episodic approach that the original series did, and while the stories are perhaps a bit more sophisticated than those that Shatner and Nimoy performed in, the tone is really spot-on perfect. That’s what makes the show so satisfying, even without the spectre of the Grim Reaper hovering over half of the cast.
Another way to make a prequel work is to use the setting of the original property, but an entirely (or almost-entirely) new cast of characters whose fates have not been determined. Star Trek has tried this approach as well. Enterprise was a series about the founding of the Federation, 200-ish years before Kirk. Even though you always felt the world we knew from the original series as the North Star that the Enterprise NX-01 was sailing towards, there was room for danger for these individual characters. They also tried this with Discovery, but this time set it only a decade pre-TOS and mingled in characters so hopelessly intertwined with Spock that it became a distraction to simply try figuring out how any of it meshed with the stories we already loved. The second season finale had a half-assed attempt at explaining why the events of Discovery had never come up in-universe before (especially Spock never mentioning an adopted sister that he was apparently quite devoted to, even when his rogue half-brother previously turned up in Star Trek V), but it just never properly landed.
Of course, no discussion of prequels would be complete without the franchise that popularized the term, and in fact includes one of the greatest prequels ever made. That franchise is Star Wars. The prequel? Rogue One.
No, not the other three. You see, another way to make a prequel work is to subvert the audience’s expectations – make them think they know what you’re going to do, but give it an unexpected twist. Since the audience knows how the story will end, you have to pull off some pretty big surprises to get there. This is both how the prequel trilogy failed and Rogue One succeeds. The trilogy is about the fall of Anakin Skywalker, the character everyone who saw the original films knows will eventually become Darth Vader. We know from the original series that Anakin was a Jedi who fell to the Dark Side of the Force and became an apprentice to the insidious Emperor Palpatine. It sounds like a story that’s ripe for tragedy. But in telling that story, George Lucas stuck painfully to the blueprints, with nothing particularly shocking or surprising about Anakin’s fall except for the sheer number of details that failed to mesh with the original series. (“Hey Leia, remember your mom?” “The one who died giving birth to me? Yeah, she was beautiful, but sad.”)
Rogue One, on the other hand, is not only the best Star Wars film of the Disney era, it’s one of the best examples ever of how to toy with an audience’s expectations. In the original Star Wars Leia delivers data to the Rebellion that will help them to defeat the Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star, with the only explanation of how it was obtained being the single sentence, “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” (EDIT: I have been reminded that the Bothans line was actually about the second Death Star from Return of the Jedi. I deeply regret this error, but it does open a window to make a Rogue Two movie about the Bothans.) Rogue One tells the full story of how this vital information was secured, and director Gareth Edwards and his screenwriting team pulled off a damn magic trick in doing so. We, the audience, already know that the mission will ultimately be successful – it’s literally how the original trilogy begins. So how can you build suspense for that? Well, first you introduce a cast of interesting and sympathetic characters, characters that fit in the Star Wars universe but don’t fall cleanly into the cookie cutter shapes of the older films, and make the audience feel for them. Then – and I’m about to spoil a movie that came out seven years ago, so stop reading if you haven’t seen it – then after we grow to love and care about the characters that are on a mission we know beyond a shadow of a doubt will be successful…
…THEY ALL DIE.
They succeed in transmitting the information, but every character we’ve come to love dies in the attempt. This kind of ending, where every major character dies and which TV Tropes calls a “Bolivian Army Ending” after the finale of Bonnie and Clyde, is dangerous for a writer. There’s a real risk of being accused of trying for shock value, upsetting the audience in a visceral way that may not be truly satisfying. Rogue One nails it, though. The characters die heroically, succeeding in their mission at the cost of their own lives, and even as the audience is left weeping for them we’re also left with the knowledge that their sacrifice was not in vain. The movie ends just seconds before the beginning of the original Star Wars movie, and even though they were made nearly 40 years apart, watching them together gives the original an added context and an added weight that actually makes it better.
That’s what a great prequel does, by the way. It recontextualizes the original property in such a fashion that you look at it differently. Let’s talk about Better Call Saul, the spin-off of AMC’s drama Breaking Bad. It’s not often that somebody creates what is perhaps the greatest dramatic TV series of all time, but somehow, Vince Gilligan managed to do it twice. The fact that the second time was a prequel is the TV equivalent of walking a tightrope blindfolded and then doing it again backwards.
Breaking Bad was a series about a high school chemistry teacher who winds up falling into the world of drugs and organized crime. Bryan Cranston’s Walter White starts off as a deeply sympathetic and wonderfully human character – beaten down by a life that didn’t go the way he expected, a marriage that has grown stale, struggling to connect with his son…and if that wasn’t enough, in the first episode he learns he has cancer. It begins in desperation, cooking methamphetamines in order to make money to take care of his wife and children after his death. Over the course of five seasons, though, we watch this man transform from a quiet, relatable antihero into a cold-blooded crime lord, somebody who is terrifying to watch, but the writing and performances are so compelling that you just can’t look away.
One of the characters who gets pulled into Walter White’s web is Saul Goodman, a shyster lawyer whose services are provided to the criminal element of Albuquerque when they’re in a tight jam. Bob Odenkirk’s performance as Saul was an instant hit, providing comic relief at necessary moments while still having the emotional gravity that the show demanded. When Breaking Bad finished its run, Gilligan and Peter Gould spun off the Saul character into his own series that began some years earlier. On paper it doesn’t sound like a great idea – who cares how a shyster lawyer became a shyster? It turns out, everybody.
Better Call Saul premiered with Bob Odenkirk playing…well, not Saul Goodman, but Jimmy McGill, an attorney trying to get out of the shadow of his brother and struggling to make ends meet. Like Walter White, he makes an early decision out of desperation that pulls him into the criminal underworld of New Mexico, and from there, the story is about how Jimmy McGill transforms into Saul Goodman.
Aside from – again – the excellent writing and phenomenal performances of the cast, the thing that makes Better Call Saul so compelling is the way it acts as a PARALLEL to Breaking Bad. We know where Saul Goodman ends up, but like Walter White, we watch in impotent terror as he falls deeper and deeper into the chaos that surrounds him. Like Walter, sometimes he makes terrible choices. Like Walter, sometimes he is compelled to make these decisions by forces beyond his control. There’s a lovely contrast here, too. Walter begins doing bad things with the intent of helping his loved ones, but is eventually intoxicated by the criminal lifestyle. Jimmy/Saul, on the other hand, is a con artist who’s trying to stay on the straight and narrow but just keeps slipping until he surrenders entirely.
Both shows are about someone who begins as a basically decent man becoming something much darker and losing himself in the process – Walter becomes the criminal kingpin “Heisenberg,” while Jimmy McGill becomes smooth-talkin’ Saul Goodman. When watching Breaking Bad the characters of White and Goodman couldn’t be further apart from one another. Watching Better Call Saul makes you realize maybe they aren’t that different after all.
Beyond just Odenkirk’s character, though, Better Call Saul features frequent appearances by other characters from the earlier series, and knowing that these characters are safe from death doesn’t hurt the show at all. Nowhere is this more evident than with Jonathan Banks’s character Mike Ehrmantraut, who was a major supporting player on Breaking Bad, but is so vital to the prequel that they almost could have titled it Better Call Mike. Mike is a rough character, a former cop turned criminal who is willing to and capable of doing very bad things in pursuit of his goals, and when we first see him in Better Call Saul he doesn’t seem very different than he does in the other show. Then we see his relationship with his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, a story that we knew from the previous series, but not in its entirety, and much like Saul Goodman and Walter White, he becomes more sympathetic. Mike, Saul, and Walter all do terrible things for the purpose of helping people they care about, and as an audience member, they force us to question how far we would go for the people we love. In the case of Saul and Mike, the knowledge that they’re eventually going to fail gives the show the air of a Shakespearean tragedy. Their fall is as guaranteed as that of Anakin Skywalker, but is far more compelling.
Going backwards in the timeline can be dangerous, and the truth is there are far more examples of franchises that have made the attempt and fallen flat. But as these few examples show, it is possible to make a prequel work.
What I’m getting at is that my Decepticon Babies pitch is NOT any stupider than anything you let Michael Bay put on screen, Paramount, so dammit, return my calls.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. There are probably some people who thought he was joking about the “cars in outer space” crack. Heh. Just watch F9, guys.