In today’s cinematic landscape, very few people are unaware of what a prequel is. Whether you’re watching a new movie that’s labelled as such, or the “sequel” you’re watching actually takes place before the first film, prequels are not that uncommon in the world of entertainment. But what is a prequel exactly, and what are the elements that make one up?
What does prequel mean?
Sequels are fairly straightforward, and so are prequels, most of the time. Both function as a way to tell more about an original story in their own style. It's often difficult to follow an original hit with either a sequel or a prequel — though some of the best sequels ever eclipse the original.
Even so, a prequel is not the same as a sequel, even though some people might confuse the two. Let's get started with a prequel definition.
What is a prequel?
A prequel is a narrative work that occurs before the original story. These can often be in the form of backstory, expository, or side story. As long as the story being told is chronologically before an original or first work, it can be labelled as a prequel. Likewise, sequels continue the story after the events of the original.
Characteristics of prequel movies:
- They need to take place before the events of the first/original story.
- Often featuring returning characters in similar or different situations.
- Most focus on the backstory or revelations for previously established characters or events.
Exploring famous prequel movies
We can further define prequels by talking about unique examples of prequels in cinema. Here are some of the most iconic.
One of the more unique examples of a prequel movie, The Godfather Part II is, as its title implies, a sequel. But, as audiences discover once they start watching, it is also a prequel. Continuing the story told in Mario Puzo’s original novel, Part II tells the story of Michael Corleone’s rise as the Don of the Corleone family in the 1950s while also flashing back to Vito Corleone’s rise in the 1910s.
While mimicking the format seen in the original novel, the movie also uses this sequel/prequel approach to parallel the two lives of a father and his son. It provides audiences with the backstory of the first film’s Don while also showing how his son succeeds him after his death. Additionally, it’s a prequel that already forces newcomers to watch the original film first because it also acts as a sequel.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas followed up the acclaimed Raiders of the Lost Ark with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. While it initially appears to be a straight up sequel, it’s actually a prequel. Spielberg has mentioned that he set Temple of Doom one year prior to Raiders because he didn’t want to reuse Nazis as the villains.
As a prequel, Temple of Doom mostly just acts as another Indy adventure, showing us more of what we may come to expect from Raiders. However, it also acts as a prequel that could be enjoyed by newcomers, since the story is not directly connected to Raiders, other than involving Indy on an adventure, all without any scenes of him being a college professor.
Is there a more infamous example of a prequel movie series in contemporary cinema? The answer is “Not likely.”The Star Wars prequels, which consist of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, were released from 1999 to 2005. This trilogy serves as an example of who prequels are often sold to, since most people watching these films grew up with (or at least watched) the original trilogy.
This means they already know that the main focus of the trilogy, Anakin Skywalker, is gonna go bad at some point and become the fabled villain Darth Vader. Additionally, fans got to check out more of Obi-Wan Kenobi, as well as the original trilogy’s true villain, Emperor Palpatine.
Due to their infamy/popularity, it has sometimes been discussed which film newcomers should watch first: the prequels, which would be chronological in terms of narrative, or the originals, which would be chronological release order.
Since the prequel trilogy exists in a world where almost everyone at least knows what Star Wars is, it might make more sense to watch the originals and then prequels.
After all, a newcomer watching the prequels first will already know all about Anakin Skywalker and his connection to Luke, instead of being shocked like everyone else was back in 1980. At the same time, watching the prequels first provides a new perspective on the entire series, a unique option series newcomers have at their disposal.
After twenty consecutive films starring various actors across multiple decades, James Bond found himself back at square one with Casino Royale, effectively acting as a reboot, as far as narrative goes. It ended up working out, since it’s now one of the most acclaimed 007 films.
With a new actor as Bond (Daniel Craig), Casino Royale was based on the first ever James Bond novel while still being set in the present day. Unlike all those previous films, Bond is new to the 007 title, which means making mistakes and learning what it means to order a martini shaken and not stirred.
Unlike some other examples, Casino Royale was only a prequel in so far as setting the clock back on the character. Judi Dench was still M, and as later films demonstrate, some of the older characteristics of the films (cars, gadgets) get referenced and updated. Even outside of narrative points, Casino Royale and the later films exist in a world where some version of Bond has continued to thrive and adapt for decades on end.
When we see Bond finally shoot at the screen through a gun barrel at the beginning of Casino Royale, it’s not just a different take on a familiar hallmark, but a declaration on a new era for the character.
Ridley Scott decided to revisit the world of Alien with 2012’s Prometheus. While not directly tied to that series, the film has a group of explorers uncover the origin of humans on a different planet. Once there, though, we can see some of the similarities between it and the first Alien film, from the creatures to the ship they find.
While Prometheus was a light prequel that tried to hide its roots, Alien: Covenant embraced what it was. As a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to the greater Alien franchise, Covenant explores more of the lore while also actually having xenomorphs as villains.
Both of these films work on their own, as they focus more on the world of the franchise and less on the stories told in the preceding four films. At the same time, they serve as additional information for fans regarding the franchise, if they so desire to seek it out and accept it.
A very interesting example, The Hobbit novel was never a prequel, meaning it was the first instance of hobbits and such in literature. It was written by J. R. R. Tolkien and published in 1937; he was later asked to write a sequel, which ended up being The Lord of the Rings.
Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which means he made a film adaption of the sequel novels. Only later did he make The Hobbit trilogy, which in itself was originally only meant to be two films. The Hobbit prequel movie series, therefore, is based on the first original Middle-Earth novel but acts as a prequel to Jackson’s LOTR film trilogy.
How to make a good prequel
First question: do you need a prequel? Is there a sufficient reason to explore what happened previously? Perhaps the greatest challenge of any prequel is to justify its own existence. Here are some tips and examples of how to approach prequel movies.
Step 1: First Make an “Original”
This may seem obvious, but it’s important to understand that a genuine prequel cannot exist as the first entry in your story. If you’re making a narrative and the prequel is the first entry, then it’s not a prequel, it’s just the first entry. If you intend to have a prequel later on, that’s different, so long as a “first/original” exists.
So, if you have an idea for a long narrative about a soldier fighting in multiple wars, and eventually want to cover his life before the wars, you can save that pre-war idea for a prequel. Additionally, if you want your sequel to be set in a war prior to the one seen in the first, then that can also count as a prequel.
Step 2: Explore the Narrative
Whether you’re focusing on a character, event, or multiple worlds, a prequel should serve to further explore and flesh out the preexisting narrative. This is the aim of most prequels, since veteran fans are the ones most likely to be interested in the contents of the story, including the characters presented.
Look no further than the infamous Star Wars prequels, which had George Lucas revisit characters in new and exciting worlds, while also providing backstory for characters and events that would directly affect the original films.
Not every prequel is like this, as some focus on new characters and events, while still providing backstory for the narrative started in the original(s). Which leads us into our final step...
Step 3: Create Something Fresh
Even if you intend to reuse characters and worlds, doing something different with your prequel can be most welcomed. Changing things up can include a shift in your genre or exploring an unseen part of your established lore. Think of how Ridley Scott’s Prometheus billed itself and worked as an original story that was also tied with the Alien franchise.
One non-movie example of this is the Deus Ex video game series, which had prequels with Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. While exploring the story of the first game decades in the past, along with featuring some of the same villains and organizations, it tells a new story with a new cast of characters.
Along with a new but familiar take on the series gameplay, these prequels were accessible to both veteran and new fans. They also featured their own unique look, further differentiating them from the original game.
Secrets to great exposition
Now that you know more about prequels, definitions, and examples, you also have an idea of how vital exposition can be for your narrative. Read about how you can provide exposition in your screenplays, with examples from notable films and television shows.