The Power of Prequel

Prequels sometimes get a bad rap. It’s not hard to see why, especially for someone in my generation, who may have waited in line for the epic first episode in a beloved series, only to be disappointed. They are often suffused with a sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink narrative twitch, where everything is a set up or an Easter Egg for a future event. Often, it’s hard not to roll your eyes.   Even worse than this is when the ‘before’ story ends up bearing no resemblance to what you imagined, and somehow ends up tainting the rest of the books, or the series, or the movies, as well.

BUT, but when it’s done right, a story that’s a prequel can be a thing of beauty.   I got thinking about this when watching t.v. the other night, and an episode of Endeavour came on. It’s a series about the young Inspector Morse, yet to become the irascible John Thaw iteration, and is excellent on its own, and as a prelude. And when a prequel achieves that, being its own story while being in conversation with the inevitable future, the moments that evoke that future stop seeming so cheesy and jarring. Instead, when the closing credits turn out to be the same Barrington Pheloung theme as the original Morse, it’s a moment that’s both evocative and earned.

The inevitable future is a constant counterpoint in a prequel. If the future is a glittering one, it can make a grim story brighter and more bearable.   If the main character goes on to fame (or infamy), you can recognize the beats bringing them there, even if the details are unfamiliar. I’ll admit, though, to a fondness for prequels where the destination is not so rosy, where choices with the best of intentions start things colliding in a way that can’t be avoided. I know I’m truly invested when I find myself hoping if maybe it’ll turn out differently, maybe this time the thing won’t happen, despite the certainty of it.

If prequels are also your cup of tea, and you’re a Garth Nix fan, then I’d highly recommend Clariel, coming out this fall. It takes place a few hundred years before Sabriel, and it is thrilling and melancholy in equal measure.

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