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What is a Prequel?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sometimes when a movie, play, concept album or novel becomes exceptionally successful, the creator of that work will create a follow-up work known as a sequel. A sequel generally picks up where the original work ended, as in the case of the blockbuster sci-fi movie The Empire Strikes Back or the novel Scarlett, a sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind. Some authors, however, choose to create a new work which begins before the setting of the original movie, play or novel. A work which explores the early lives of established characters is called a prequel. An example of a prequel would be the 2008 movie Star Trek, which explores the early history of the original characters from the television series Star Trek. The prequel Batman Begins also predates the successful Batman movie franchise released years earlier.

A prequel can be a single work created to explain the back story of popular characters, or it may become the first in a new series of prequels. The new Batman film franchise, for example, may spawn several sequels according to its own story arc, but they will all be considered prequels to the original series which featured Batman as an adult. Sometimes an author will create a prequel after taking the original storyline to its logical conclusion. Author JK Rowling, for example, may choose to write a prequel to her Harry Potter series instead of taking the original characters into adulthood. A prequel would either explore the early lives of the main characters, or else be set a generation or two earlier and use characters only mentioned briefly in the original series.

The term prequel is considered to be a portmanteau, or new word, much like splashdown or cyberspace. Until recently, few authors or scriptwriters produced prequels as part of a series of works. Quite often, an original work would prove so popular that publishers or movie studio executives would commission sequels from either the original creators or a new set of writers for hire. These sequels may or may not be based on original source materials, but they would incorporate the characters and general setting of the original movie or novel. Such sequels may succeed or fail based on their faithfulness to the original work or other factors. A prequel, however, often demands that the commissioned writer have a solid understanding of the mythology surrounding the original work, as well the ability to create realistic younger versions of established characters.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By ahain — On Sep 04, 2011

@hanley79 - I think with prequels about characters that eventually die, the marketing people play up the sentimental aspects to get people to want to watch. Say your favorite character died in the original movie.

To market it in a way you would still be curious about, the trailer might hint that you'll get more scenes of the character you loved doing what makes you love them, and also that you might learn something new about their pasts. Now there's something to guess about again, and since it's a favorite character, you care enough to pursue it!

By hanley79 — On Sep 04, 2011

@malmal - I don't know if knowing whether everybody's going to live or die is such a great thing from a sales perspective, no matter what your personal opinion is. I mean, one of the big selling points of a new movie is that it offers excitement by keeping the viewer guessing. Knowing who lives and dies doesn't leave a whole lot of guessing, you know?

Now, prequels that have a whole different cast but use the same world are neat to me. Those are cases where the world-building was too good to leave in just one movie. In horror movies' cases, conveniently, the monster tends to come back even if they killed it in the end of the last film. Doesn't make much sense, but it does make for good-selling prequels!

By malmal — On Sep 03, 2011

@SailorJerry - Prequels about characters that eventually die are the ones I love the most! You know why? Because the original story was the only part of these people's lives you ever got to see, and now you get a whole new plot with them.

Not only that, if if they die in the original story, it's assured that they won't die in the prequel. This might take away suspense for some people, but for me, knowing a beloved favorite character won't die is nice because it was heartbreaking enough the first time they died in the original.

Of course, in horror movies like the prequel to Exorcist, that means there need to be some new people just so somebody can die.

Luckily in the case of horror movies, usually the writers can get away with whole new casts. That lets them use the same monster or scary concept to terrorize a whole new crowd of people who will react in new and unpredictable ways -- even after the monster was eventually vanquished in the original movie. A fun use of prequels, I think!

By seHiro — On Sep 03, 2011

@rugbygirl - Agreed, the "Star Trek" 2008 movie feels less like a prequel and more like a reboot. I think it's clever how they did the time travel plotlines to maneuver the canon beginning of the plot so that it was considered acceptable to the fans without canceling out the original canon beginning storyline. Amazingly, they managed to make everybody happy.

Now the Starwars prequel movies, those were textbook examples of prequels. They had young versions of the characters, showed how the plot got to the point it was at in the original Star Wars: A New Hope film, and in general presented lots of neat "old" style technology.

I once read a book about Star Wars: Episode I that explained that the ships on Naboo were designed to look like classic hotrods, so they added lots of chrome and such. That was a cool way to look at giving the new technology designs people had never seen before an old feel like they actually came before the Star Wars: a New Hope ships despite having better special effects to show the "old" ones with.

By SailorJerry — On Sep 03, 2011

@rugbygirl - I don't know - sometimes with a prequel it's nice to see where characters came from. With the Star Wars ones, for instance, you got to see how Luke wound up on the desert planet, why the Storm Troopers all look the same, etc. I liked them a lot, but I could have done without Jar Jar. He was a mistake!

But I couldn't get interested in Caprica, the prequel to Battlestar Galactica. I mean, you knew they were all going to die! And with none (as far as I know) of the characters I had enjoyed, I just didn't see the point.

By rugbygirl — On Sep 02, 2011

I don't usually care for prequels, because you already know where the story is going. The Star Wars prequels, for instance - well, I don't think I'm the only one who was disappointed by those. (I did like the end of the third movie, when Annakin Skywalker awakens from his horrible burns inside the Darth Vader suit and howls his emotional agony.

But I did like the Star Trek movie, which wasn't exactly a prequel if you think about it. I kept seeing it described as a "reboot" of the franchise. With all the timeline-messing-up going on, they really wound up being free to do whatever they wanted with the movie. And with sequels to that movie, which now won't be Star Trek prequels at all, but a whole new storyline (as I understand it).

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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