On the Subject of Prequels: The Bad, the Good, and the Better

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Over at Amatopia, Alexander Hellene published this post on a dreaded – and occasionally dreadful – aspect of modern fiction. This is the “prequel,” the story that takes place before the original tale audiences have already come to love. In his article Alex asked whether or not a prequel can do more than take the magic out of the narrative it is ostensibly meant to enhance.

Answers to this question rest largely on the presentation of the tale. While the field is littered with the desiccated corpses of poorly written prequels, there are steps an author can take to make these good stories that retain the magic of the original piece or series. This is not a guarantee that the narrative will be perfect, of course, but it will help to make it entertaining.

To learn what differentiates a good prequel story from a poor one, let us examine the franchise that popularized the term in modern literary circles. Star Wars: A New Hope has had several written for it over the years, the most famous being the film trilogy focused on the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. But there are two other beloved Star Wars stories which are often unrecognized outside of the fandom. These are the video games titled Knights of the Old Republic and Force Unleashed.

In the chronology of the original Expanded Universe, both game stories take place before the 1977 Star Wars film, with Force Unleashed positioned between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, while Old Republic takes place four thousand years in the franchise’s past. The general reaction to each of these three tales has vacillated between outright hatred for the prequel film trilogy and admiration for Knights of the Old Republic (hereafter referred to by the acronym KOTOR) and Force Unleashed. While each of these stories has their virtues, they have unfavorable aspects as well. The mistakes made in the prequel films offer aspiring writers a particularly long list of don’ts that are worth reviewing. In the interest of time, though, we will evaluate the primary problems with these movies.

The chief issue, as David Breitenbeck pointed out here, was the storyteller’s decision to make Anakin Skywalker a child rather than a young man. Why Lucas chose to do this is unclear and beside the point; the fact is that it was done, and it contributed to the films’ other troubles. If Anakin Skywalker had been a young adult instead of a child, then his part in the movies would have been much more believable and compelling. Portraying him as a man with the same faults and virtues his son exhibits later on would have been a far better narrative choice than the one Lucas made.

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In a similar vein, Queen Amidala of Naboo would have been more convincing as a grown woman rather than a young girl. Ceding to the idea that she is a prodigy, depicting her as an elected queen at fourteen years of age is patently ridiculous.  Children this age are rarely able to govern themselves, let alone an entire regime; that is why the only time this trope works is when the child in question must inherit the throne. By removing the standard royalty cliché, Lucas hobbled the story and made it unbelievable.

Combine these two inexplicable decisions with the poor plotting, the largely cringe-worthy dialogue, the tonally dissonant story choices (such as making the Republic – the “good guy” – rely on an army of clones), and it is easy to see why the prequels are hated by so many. They focus less on the characters and established understanding of the galaxy to dive into the minutiae of its politics, which no one is interested in seeing. It also seeks to provide answers for things that do not need explaining; namely, how individuals in the galaxy touch the Force. The first films were a cut-and-dried “right vs. might” tale told in a realm of magic and science, while the prequels tried to play more to the “shades of gray” story line.

Now the plot for the prequel films, which has Palpatine manipulate Anakin and the Jedi’s fall from public and personal grace, is workable and genuinely interesting. The characters, as mentioned above, would have been more appealing if different choices had been made. The core idea for the story is not what makes these movies detrimental to Star Wars and its magic. It is the manner in which they were executed which has led audiences to despise them. Should one find a way to adapt it properly, this type of prequel will be workable, entertaining, and even magical. Thus the second Star Wars trilogy may be better viewed as a lesson and a warning rather than a strict ban on creating a prelude for one’s earlier story.

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When compared to the films, the Force Unleashed game has far fewer issues inherent in its plot, as the story ably plays with an intriguing idea put to good use in the former Expanded Universe. This is the Emperor’s decision to train Force-users as his Dark Side enforcers, assassins, and spies. The game proposes the idea that Vader followed his master’s example, raising a particularly strong Force-sensitive child to serve as his personal agent.

Thus Unleashed introduced fans to Galen Marek, a.k.a. Starkiller. Vader brought the boy back to the Empire and had him trained as his personal warrior. Given the code name Starkiller, he is eventually tasked with starting a Rebellion against the Empire in order to bring down Palpatine so Vader can take over the government. However, the plan falls apart as Galen’s mission draws him away from the Dark Side and into the light.

Force Unleashed has a somewhat involved plot due to its video game nature. Despite this, it remains a particularly strong set up. The Expanded Universe’s statement that the Sith abide by the “rule of two” – which states that there can only be one master and one apprentice – rests on the understanding that the apprentice will one day kill the master and take his place. This clearly necessitates that the apprentice find a candidate to train once he ascends to the role of mentor. Since the Emperor’s Force adepts were blatant threats to Vader’s position as the apprentice, it is only natural that he would quietly retaliate by training his own Hand.

Likewise, ordering Starkiller to start a Rebellion to distract the Emperor so Vader can kill him is a sensible move on a number of levels. Firstly, no matter how great his control of the Force, Palpatine was a withered old man. There are only so many things he can keep his eye on at once, given the terminal effects using the Dark Side had on him physically. Fighting to quell a rebellion against his rule would take a good deal of his time, attention, and energy, leaving him less conscious of Vader’s whereabouts and actions.

Second, evil is self-defeating. There is a great deal of poetic irony in the writers’ decision to make the Rebellion of the original films a brainchild of the very Sith who will stop at nothing to destroy it later on. In trying to burn one another, they inadvertently start a forest fire they cannot quench. So despite some minor errors in Force Unleashed’s scheme, the general idea is sound and fairly well-executed.

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Galen Marek, a.k.a. Starkiller

The protagonists’ strong personalities and character arcs only make the game more entertaining for fans. Galen Marek’s journey from Dark Side assassin to rebel founder and Jedi hero is truly stirring. The game designers took great care to present him well, and their errors or missteps with other parts of the story do not affect his appeal for audiences. Galen’s ensemble cast is similarly interesting and entertaining, as even his training droid has spirit – one that leads to a change of programming by the game’s finale.

So while it is imperfect, the game does succeed in maintaining the magic and appeal of the original Star Wars films. It contains the same sense of mystery, magic, and triumph of right over might that its progenitor series had. It also introduces fans to new locations and new characters that are worthy company, following a satisfactory sequence of events which do not violate the original canon. When compared to the film trilogy that preceded it, Force Unleashed is strong proof that prequels are not inherently harmful to their parent narratives. They simply have to be approached with care and an eye toward preserving the original story line.

That being said, the immediate nature of this prequel did not give the writers as much maneuvering room as some would prefer. Force Unleashed and its sequel – which suffers from several major, detrimental story decisions – take place at least a year, perhaps two, ahead of the events in Star Wars: A New Hope. Its closeness to the Battle of Yavin placed extra strain on the designers and led to some cracks in the narrative, especially in Force Unleashed II. Starkiller’s return in the second game is obviously contrived, meaning the second game does not hold up well to scrutiny. While it is not a bad tale, per se, it is weaker than its predecessor and thus a poor prequel to A New Hope.

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KOTOR, on the other hand, offered its writers far more freedom to play with and expand the universe. Set four thousand years before the 1977 film, Knights of the Old Republic cannot help but be one of the strongest prequels to the original Star Wars movies. It is, arguably, the single most compelling predecessor to the Skywalker saga in the entire Expanded Universe canon. It is set in the midst of a war between the Old Republic and the Sith Empire, which is led by a fallen Jedi named Darth Malak. Previously, the Empire was ruled by Darth Revan, another Knight who fell to the Dark Side. The former hero built up a huge war force that has decimated the Old Republic, but he was apparently killed by Malak when the Jedi raided his capital ship.

The main character in KOTOR is an amnesiac Revan. Depending on the player’s choice, he can either return to the Jedi and save the Republic, or he can become a Sith again in order to conquer the galaxy. Because of its setting, KOTOR delves more deeply into the mythical and magical aspects of Star Wars than either the prequel film trilogy or Force Unleashed. Besides its tantalizing allusions to the origins of the Republic and the first Force-wielders, the game allows the heroes to face Dark Side-spawned monsters and investigate ancient Sith temples. If the player chooses to follow the canon story line or a variation of it, he or she is able to redeem numerous Sith warriors, Republican officers, and fallen Jedi – proving once more that good triumphs over evil.

It is clear from this brief recap of the game’s plot that the idea not only has good bones, it absolutely sings with little to no extra explanation. Redemption stories are among the best tales ever told, and with good reason. They offer hope for improvement not only on the personal level, but in the grand scheme of the universe as well. One’s choices always have a ripple effect on his environment, something KOTOR demonstrates well by emphasizing how difficult Revan’s evil decisions have made life for the residents of both the Empire and the Republic.

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Left to Right: Malak and Revan as Dark Lords of the Sith

The ensemble characters’ personalities and backstories underscore the point at the same time they remain charming and authentic. A varied lot, each has been deeply scarred by Revan’s actions in some manner. Even as they struggle with these traumas, they behave in ways appropriate to their places in the game. The youngest and most street-savvy member of the crew behaves her age, showing absolutely no romantic interest in any other character present. The war veterans are believable, the droids are fun without being incompetent, and each crew member has a plausible reason for joining Revan on his quest to save the galaxy.

Of the three prequels listed here, KOTOR has the most to recommend it for authors and audiences. Set four thousand years ahead of the original film trilogy, it has plenty of time to explore the larger aspects of the mythos, since everything that happens will have little effect on those involved in the “Skywalker Saga” because it occurs so far in the past. The characters are mostly well-drawn and interesting, the story is engaging, and the worlds are fully developed.

None of this means that KOTOR’s story line is superior to the ones found in Force Unleashed or the film trilogy by default. If done well, all three plots are workable and can be entertaining for audiences. Novelists who want to write a tale immediately before or close to the story they have already created can do so. They simply have to keep in mind that the characters have to be consistent with previous stories in the established canon. The narrative cannot contradict the established history of the cosmos, and the magic – whatever it may be – must remain at the same or a similar level as that found in the original piece.

If you can do that, future authors, then writing prequels to your own tales will not harm your fictional universe(s). Not everyone in your audience will like them, perhaps, but that is a matter of taste. Chefs can only cook a good meal; they cannot create one which every customer will praise to the skies. In the same way, your job is to make the prequel to your novel(s) a good story. Anything else is a bonus, something that gives you a greater sense of accomplishment at the same time it grants you the strength to continue doing what you love.

Don’t be afraid to write prequels for your stories. If these types of tales call to you and beg to be put on paper, odds are good they are worth the added effort. Just do your best, and let God do the rest. The results might be more than you could ever hope for.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her novelette “Halcyon” is the cover story for Cirsova Magazine’s summer issue. Order it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Lulu now!

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