Back where it all began: how Hollywood became obsessed with the prequel

'Ratched' is the latest origin story to hit our screens, but do we really need to see where our fave characters come from?

Tell me about yourself: where you come from; what drives you; why you hold yourself in the way that you do; wear that particular style of clothing; why you say “grass” to rhyme with “arse” and not the proper way; why you have that nervous tick where you bounce your foot up and down whenever you’re waiting for an important email…

Now – and I can’t stress this enough – please don’t do any of this, my DMs are switched to private and NME has promised not to give out my home address (again), but the naturally enquiring human mind leans towards this type of gubbins. If an individual fascinates us, we instantly want to know more about them. If they refuse to tell us no matter how many times we call them, come to their office, or stand outside their house crying, then the inquisitive among us start to build the story ourselves – fill in the blanks of what makes that person them… after all, no two turds are exactly alike.

Combine this innate human need with the entertainment industry’s tendency to wring every ounce of money-juice out of a successful project until the writers/creators are lying on the floor – rich, sure, but creatively dehydrated – and there, ladies and gentlemen, we have the perfect breeding ground for the prequel.

Ratched
Sarah Paulson as the infamous Nurse Ratched. Credit: Netflix

I can’t really remember when I first heard the term prequel, but I will hazard a guess that it was around the time that George Lucas decided to restock his Star Wars merch store, in order to bequeath the world a whole new generation of ‘Er… I think you’ll find…’ reply guys. Of course, these were characters that millions had invested in and wondered about… just how did the Klingons build the Death Star? Was Han Solo really Spock’s father? All these questions had been left hanging, and George Lucas and his bank manager decided they needed to be answered.

Much like the trend it had set for space-based movies in its first incarnation (Moonraker, Airplane II), Star Wars looking over its own shoulder made hundreds of other writers, producers, and studios do the same. So, the prequel became a viable option to expand a franchise, giving them not only the opportunity to ruin a story in the traditional, forward facing way (ie a sequel), but also delve into the origins of beloved characters. This is not to say it hadn’t happened before – hell, of all the successful prequels which have been shoved in our eye holes in the history of entertainment, I think we can count Muppet Babies among the best – it explained why Miss Piggy uses violence instead of addressing her issues, why Fozzy Bear masks his inner pain with humour, and why Beaker is an angst-riddled wreck.

Better Call Saul
‘Better Call Saul’ took a supporting character from ‘Breaking Bad’ and gave him his own series. Credit: Netflix

Sorry – I got distracted by the Muppets. Anyway, as TV started to lightly elbow movies off the top of the podium, streaming services became hungry – and prequels began to focus on characters who’d been on the periphery in the original show. No more ‘Young this’ or ‘Such and such: the early years’, as writers began to lock on to the supporting characters who had set their minds ablaze – either suggesting a rich inner life on the page or being brought to life by the perfect casting.

Enter Better Call Saul, and a new phase for the prequel – a richly told, beautifully acted, intricately plotted piece of artistry with Bob Odenkirk at the centre, depicting a story which we as an audience hadn’t even considered, but which certainly lived up to our hopes of who we wanted Saul to be.

Rogue One
Sinister Director Orson Krennic in ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’. Credit: Alamy

But, guess what? This worked, so more prequels were given the green light – prequels about the characters who were standing just to the side of the shot in the source material, maybe a little bit out of focus. And so, we arrive at Ratched, released on Netflix last week – the origin story that no one asked for about the sadistic nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But that’s not to say it can’t be a worthwhile addition to the canon, right?

It looks stunning – it’s like a pastel-coloured nightmare, a brightly-frosted wedding cake, only when you cut into it, cockroaches crawl out. But it’s missing something, and this is the point. It’s not enough to search for a cult character, throw some weight, a big-hitting name and a budget behind it, and then depend on the success of its source material in order to draw in audiences and critical applause. The piece needs to have something to say in and of itself, or better still, enhance the original story. Sometimes – most of the time – it doesn’t work (just ask Jar Jar Binks). Maybe it’s time we looked for some new ideas, and stopped trying to eke out the old, tried and tested ones.

In the next column, how I came up with the idea for this column.

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