In light of the Netflix premiere of the Dark Crystal prequel series, and the development of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel series, the High Fantasy track launched Dragon Con 2019 with a Friday morning in Marriott L401 by exploring the format of prequels, and their lure. Alan Isom, Steve Saffel and Constance G.J. Wagner took a look at the phenomenon in films and novels. Wagner argued throughout that the key to understanding the popularity and draw of prequels was simply the desire on the part of people to know more about their favorite characters and their world. There’s an attraction, she argued, to understanding where a character comes from.
Further, this desire to know about the past of a beloved character, and the world in which that character existed, is not new. Wagner sees this in universal and mythic terms. The ancient Greek playwrights created variations of stories to achieve their dramatic purposes. Everyone in the audience knew how the play (tragedy) would end, the key was the story being told and the unfolding of the tragedy in the hero’s life. Both Wagner and Isom saw these same tendencies in the work of contemporary authors, including Michael Moorcock, but Isom also reminded everyone that a franchise obsessed Hollywood loves to invest in a “sure thing.”
Saffel, an acquisitions editor at Titan Books, pointed to the ability of prequel novels to support and enhance the experience of gaming. A well-done novel can serve as a powerful lead-in and launch a fan into the game by introducing complexities they will experience within it. What’s essential to all this, however, is the need for a good story. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its 20 plus (and growing) film catalog, has redefined what’s possible for film franchises, authors and their publishers face real challenges, especially with series fatigue. A major factor in this is the price readers are willing to spend on a title. More than one good prequel has failed due to readers unwillingness to pay for a book beyond a certain price. A real contrast, related to these publishing challenges, became clear while discussing fan fiction. Because fan fiction is free, readers will forgive more and will allow greater liberties with a character than they will when purchasing the product. Thus, the professional must work harder in a far more demanding environment.
The panel agreed that in addition to a good story, a successful prequel must leave you with questions. As such using prequel as a vehicle is very dicey and must be done carefully. One way to achieve success is to avoid using main characters in fleshing out a world. The panel argued that Rogue One worked in part out of the writer’s decision to stay clear of the main Star Wars characters. Its ending, incorporating Darth Vader and Princess Leia, provided just the emotional payoff necessary. On the subject of the Star Wars franchise, Isom asked those in attendance to consider the impact that Star Wars books, published in the wake of the original three films (episodes 4, 5 and 6), had on the reception of the Star Wars prequel films. Producing a prequel is a challenging tight rope for writers and film makers to navigate. They’ll keeping doing them though, because we want to know more, and engage more deeply with those characters we love. Thus, the prequel’s never ending “lure.”