This past November saw the release of “The Crimes of Grindelwald”, the second installment in the Harry Potter prequel series. After the first entry, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, performed somewhat admirably, “Grindelwald” has been panned by critics and has served up a general lackluster box office take nationally. There will always be Potterheads who will go to anything J.K. Rowling has penned, but it’s interesting to see another prequel series somewhat fail. It all begs the question: Why do prequels fail?
Let’s examine three big budget prequel series as our baseline: the “Fantastic Beasts” films as a prelude to “Harry Potter”, the “Star Wars” prequels and “The Hobbit” films as a prelude to “The Lord of the Rings.”
All of them had their fans to be sure. All still made servicable box office gains, but not as large as their predecessors (compared to inflation). But all are seen as lesser than the originals. Let’s delve into some possible theories why.
The first is rather obvious: they’re not particularly well-made movies. Perhaps the filmmakers felt they were given a pass because of their previous success and lacked that urgency to wow the audience. But the same thinking would apply to sequels as well, so why are “The Return of the King”, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince” still so good?
A more crucial point to consider is that we know how prequels will end. That critical element of suspense is missing as to who will survive, who will die, how will this turn out. In “Star Wars”, we know Anakin will turn into Darth Vader and betray the Jedi. In “Harry Potter”, we know Dumbledore will survive and Grindelwald will fall. In “The Hobbit”, Bilbo will be just fine along with Gandalf and Legolas. It’s harder to be emotionally engaged in a story where the ending is not a mystery. The only element of suspense we have is with characters we don’t know and the enjoyment of seeing how things came to be. Neither is as strong emotionally as an original story with new characters with an undetermined fate.
Perhaps it is that prequels feel the responsibility to explain everything. How did this character get that? How did this couple meet? Some things are better left unexplained. A + B shouldn’t always equal C. Anakin needn’t have had visions of his wife dying to turn to the dark side. Thranduril needn’t have told Legolas to seek out Aragorn so they could be friends. Dumbledore needn’t have made a no-duel pact with Grindelwald so they wouldn’t have a need to fight until later. Sometimes things just happen because they happen. Anakin turned to the dark side because he was seduced by power, Bilbo went on a great adventure because he wanted to and Dumbledore has many regrets in life because of his character. Motive need not apply.
Another possible reason is the audience’s ability to determine story for themselves. The human mind is incapable of not seeing a character and hypothesizing about their past. We see Darth Vader and learn that he is Luke’s father and fell from grace. For each of us as viewers, we imagine how that came to be and that becomes a part of the story for us. We imagine the rise of Lord Voldemort and the stories of James Potter, Lily Evans and Sirius Black and have our own ideas about these characters. We hear the tales about Bilbo’s past adventures and the friendship between him and Gandalf. Our ideas about the histories of these characters become ingrained in our psyches. Then when those assumptions are challenged after so long an amount of time, our reactions are negative. Wait, Anakin was a whiny brat? That’s not what I had pictured. Hold on, Dumbledore had a younger brother? That’s not what I had thought. Wait a second, Bilbo didn’t have that much to do with his story?
Our challenged assumptions decrease our enjoyment of a story. It’s something I like to call “the storyteller’s release.” Once a story is out in the public, it’s no longer the author’s or director’s anymore: it’s the audience’s. They interpret the tale for themselves and in so doing complete the narrative cycle. An author creates a story, shares it and the audience takes it and gains emotional value from it. It’s the joy of story, why we put such stock in them in the first place. Prequels undermine that pleasure by retrograding our involvement.
Similar to that, prequels often suffer when they introduce new themes or concepts that were not present in the original story. Take “Star Wars” for example. Luke’s journey is about recognizing the dark side of his nature and conquering it, redeeming his family’s history. The prequel series is about the graying of light and dark and the imbalance of the world. It illuminates inherently different themes than the original and muddles the theming. “Fantastic Beasts” carries some of the same themes from Harry Potter such as good triumphing over evil and the value of the natural world giving us inner peace, but the true theme of “Harry Potter” is that accepting death is the key to mastering life, a theme absent so far in the “Fantastic Beast” films which focus more on social concepts of accepting others. “The Hobbit” is not as guilty of this sin, but its narrative lacks punch. The world is on the brink of collapse in “The Lord of the Rings”, brought down by greed and desire, Frodo needing to resist the power of the ring to succeed. “The Hobbit” has a similar theme of greed and desire destroying hope, but that is exemplified in the character of Thorin, not Bilbo, diluting the film’s power.
This is not to say that new themes should not be introduced in prequels. Far from it. It is one of the ways that prequels can add to the story of the original. But they can not contradict the original’s themes as in “Star Wars” or be lessened as in “The Hobbit.” “Fantastic Beasts” actually seems to do a good job of illuminating new themes, a plus in its column.
But perhaps the biggest knock against prequels is their inherent need to be beholden to their source. How many asides are there in the “Star Wars” prequels to the first trilogy? You have Chewbacca showing up for no reason, the Death Star, R2-D2 and C-3PO, Boba Fett, Grand Moff Tarkin, Padme wearing white, an asteroid belt sequence, Jedis training with blast shields and on and on and on. In “The Hobbit”, the series is framed as an aside in “The Fellowship” as Bilbo writes his book. You have references to Gimli and Aragorn and Elrond and Frodo and Sauron on and on and on. “Fantastic Beasts” references Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall and Nicholas Flamel and Hogwarts and on and on and on. Nothing can stand up on its own. Everything is in service to the original, cutting the prequel’s credibility and making it instantly seem less than. The prequels become just an advertisement for the original, a retread that serves purely for nostalgia. It’s easy to see this occurring again and again as filmmakers such as George Lucas and Peter Jackson and writers like J.K. Rowling journey back and relive their glory. It’s human nature to idolize the past, and it seeps into their attempts to create new stories.
To look at a good example of a prequel, let’s actually examine a sequel: “The Godfather Part II.” While the majority of the film is a sequel to the original, it cuts back and forth with the rise of Vito Corleone, the patriarch of the first film.
“The Godfather Part II” navigates story structure to enhance the first film’s themes and characters while also standing up as its own film. We know how Vito’s story will end since we’ve seen the first film, but we don’t know how he achieved his tremendous power. Seeing that in comparison to how Michael loses his morality presents an interesting examination of family and choices, enhancing the first film’s message. Our preconceived notions of Vito are displaced because of the importance of his narrative. The storytelling is so strong, so vital, that it easily erases our previous ideas about his past.
And references to the first film are minimal. Yes, the flashbacks nod to Clemenza being fat, but there’s no “Gosh, Clemenza, you eat like a pig” line. We just see Clemenza eating constantly and getting bigger and bigger. There’s shots of Michael as a baby and lines of Vito coddling him, but they are in service to the plot, enhancing the pressure on Michael in the present, showing how his father’s love has morphed him. Every inference to the original enhances the plot rather than just serves as its own wink and nod.
Most important of all, if taken away from its predecessor, “The Godfather Part II” would still stand on its own as a great story. “Fantastic Beasts,” the “Star Wars” prequels and “The Hobbit” would not. They all have moments of ingenuity, but they are all beholden to the past.
The list of terrible prequels just keeps growing and growing. “Alien v. Predator”, “Dumb and Dumberer”, “Exorcist: The Beginning”, “The Flintstones in Viva Las Vegas”, “Hannibal Rising”, “X-Men: Apocalypse” (and to a lesser extent “X-Men: First Class”), “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”… on and on and on.
The first for any prequel should be: is this a story that needs to be told? Far too many times, that answer is no.