Years ago I was in a novel-writing workshop in which the professor counseled us to follow our characters to their natural destinations instead of writing to a predetermined ending. When you let the characters lead, he said, the possibilities open up—and he spread his hands apart as he moved them forward. But when you write toward a fixed point, you narrow the possibilities—and he converged his left and right hands.
I did have an ending in mind for my novel in progress, but his point stuck with me. In fact, when my writing was bogging down in the later chapters, I skipped ahead to write the final chapter and then went back to where I’d left off. By the time I wrote my way up to that last chapter, the story had taken me to a place where the threads no longer connected, and I had to rewrite the ending after all.
This difficulty of writing to a fixed point may be at the heart of the problem with prequels. With most stories you’re wondering where the characters and plot will end up. With prequels you’re wondering how the characters will get to their already-known destinations.
George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels took three movies to turn Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, and you knew that’s where this trilogy was going. The question was whether, after all that effort and time, it would get there in a way that was dramatically satisfying. It did not.
Many prequels offer up the backstories of indelible characters, never mind that what usually makes these characters compelling can’t be reduced to simple explanations. The worst parts of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) were the flashbacks showing how Willy Wonka’s (Johnny Depp) estrangement with his father directed his life path. Gene Wilder didn’t have to schlep around such baggage in Mel Stuart’s initial Roald Dahl adaptation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). He was just menacingly magical.
Now Timothée Chalemet has been enlisted to play Willy Wonka in an origin movie. Who’s hungering for that?
Likewise, Joker. Ugh. The character was more gripping in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight when his past remained slippery, and Heath Ledger could infuse him with a can’t-look-away brand of crazy.
The estimable talents of the Emmas Stone and Thompson aside, did we need to know how the One Hundred and One Dalmatians villain came to be so bad? What’s next, a Fatal Attraction prequel in which young Alex Forrest boils a teenager’s hamster?
All sorts of bad prequels are out there, not that I felt compelled to see Butch and Sundance: The Early Years. One of the worst movies I ever reviewed was a prequel: Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003). If you’re curious, take my Dumb and Dumberer quiz.
There are successful counterexamples. The series Better Call Saul has carved out a distinct identity from Breaking Bad. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me took his series’ backstory to very dark, Lynchian places well beyond the boundaries of the network series. Many resisted, but it sure was something.
The Godfather Part II manages to be both a prequel and a sequel as it serves up the origin story of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro in the younger-man version of Marlon Brando’s Godfather don) while pushing forward the story of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) consolidating his empire and losing his soul. The way Francis Ford Coppola weighs the present against the past deepens the story’s drama and resonance.
Now comes the latest organized crime prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, David Chase’s spinoff to The Sopranos set in 1967 and 1971. The main character is someone not seen in the six seasons and 86 episodes of the HBO series: Dickie Moltisanti (Alessando Nivola), father to Sopranos hothead Christopher (Michael Imperioli, who provides narration here). Leslie Odom, Jr. plays Dickie's foil, Harold McBrayer, a Black gunman who breaks from and challenges the racist Italian mob. With the 1967 Newark riots serving as a backdrop for the first section, there’s enough here for a movie even discounting any connection to Tony Soprano.
But, wait, the movie’s tagline is “Who made Tony Soprano,” so this is an origin story after all. We meet future mob boss Tony Soprano as a boy (William Ludwig) and teenager (Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini,with the sweet, dark-lidded presence of a fuller-faced John Cusack) and seek clues to how this mild-manned young man will turn into a killer.
Yet if you’ve watched the series, seen Tony’s interactions with his sociopathic mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand—Vera Farmiga offers a nifty spin on the younger version in the new movie) and listened to his therapy sessions, you already know all you need to know about what makes him tick. The idea of traveling back in time to provide a more concrete explanation feels reductive. There’s no “A-ha!” to Tony Soprano. And if father figure Dickie Moltisanti played such a pivotal role in Tony’s evolution, why didn’t that come up during the series?
I enjoyed immersing myself in these two time periods in Newark and was amused by the younger versions of such characters as Silvio, Paulie and Uncle Junior. But if you're purporting to show the makings of an iconic character, you must stick the landing. This feels like my novel-writing experience where you write to a preconceived ending only to find that the pieces don’t quite connect.
At least there’s no Jar Jar Binks.
Which prequels have worked best for you?