With FOX’s Gotham premiering next month, I’ve been thinking about prequels. Specifically, has there ever been a prequel that was a good idea?
That’s not to say that a prequel can’t be entertaining. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a fair example, though its story is so disconnected from Raiders of the Lost Ark (the only real continuous element is Dr. Jones himself) that I’m not sure it should even be considered a prequel. It’s just another installment in a series of independent adventures, where the order doesn’t really matter.
And in general, it seems that the best prequels are the ones that have the least connection to the original. The Star Wars prequels are probably the most notorious example of a screenplay that is simply over-explaining things the audience didn’t need explained. Every attempt to add background to a known character ended up making that character less intriguing.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s marvelous basic principles of creative writing is “Start as close to the end as possible.” Give the audience some credit: if you begin by showing a character in a situation, they’re able to make a pretty good guess how that character got there. Don’t waste their time by telling more than you have to.
The inherent problem with prequels is that they, by definition, break that rule. If the original was written well, it starts exactly where it needs to start. A prequel essentially adds chapters before the beginning, and now the story no longer starts where it should.
I suggest that the only way to make a good prequel is to tell a brand new story. Instead of explicitly telling a story that’s was already implicitly understood, explore parts of the background that weren’t in the original. In other words, don’t make it a prequel.
I’m cautiously looking forward to Gotham, bad reviews notwithstanding. But my enjoyment will hinge on how well the writers avoid connecting dots that the audience has already connected on our own. Give us something new. Tell us something new about Jim Gordon that stands on its own, and that doesn’t cheapen the character we already know.