Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte
Unlike sequels, which are straightforward continuations of possibilities that may happen after a novel ends, the prequel tries to imagine and show what happened before the novel’s story began.
A prequel attempts to provide the reader with information about what came first, what impacted the characters’ development, places where the stories occurred, the times in which they happened, and a host of other matters upon which a novel may be built not necessarily included in the story.
It may surprise many that even among classics, there are prequels. While The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, in 2017, author John Clinch released Finn, a prequel to both of Twain’s masterpiece novels. Finn is about Huck Finn’s father and the dysfunctional family relations that came before the adventures of Huck Finn began. It immerses the characters in the chaotic, murky waters of antebellum America with all its complexities, the shame of slavery, and the racial attitudes of the time that almost destroyed the nation.
In Porto Bello Gold, Arthur D. Howden Smith imagines a pirate story with Captain Flint and Murray stealing treasure and burying it as the Prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Then we have Mario Puzo’s contemporary classic, The Godfather, a gripping story of the 1940s underworld in America and Italy. Author Ed Falco wrote a prequel entitled The Family Corleone. In this prequel, Mr. Falco gives us background on many of the characters before Vito Corleone became a Don. Shortening it by at least a third would not have damaged the storyline. If a reader is very familiar with Puzo’s characters, there are few, if any, surprises or new information. Much of what came before was included in Puzo’s novel. The only new information was about Sonny, Don Vito’s first-born son. He’d witnessed his father’s criminal activities early on and decided that he would follow in his father’s footsteps. This is hardly surprising given how Puzo portrayed Sonny in the original novel. Perhaps a more interesting avenue would have been a fuller portrait of Michael, whose younger years do not prepare the reader for his change of heart after the Don is almost murdered. (For more insights and reviews of prequels written by authors other than the creators of the original stories, see the source materials below.)
So, where did the interest in prequels start and why? It should come as no surprise that the new mania started when Hollywood became obsessed in the 1970s and 80s after the 1969 success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. By 1979, Hollywood released Butch and Sundance, the Early Years, as a prequel. Another Hollywood success, Star Wars, was released in 1977, and its succession of successful movies sparked the Star Wars prequels. Still, there are mixed reviews of the values for each of the abovementioned prequels and others, which may make one ask if it’s worth reading them at all.
Before writing a story, most authors have a sense of the characters’ backgrounds, times they live in, and other essential building blocks. As the novel unfolds, critical information is included to advance the plot. However, some characters or events may be more compelling. Who were these characters before the story began? What happened to them? What factors influenced their development into their current selves? These questions create fertile ground for a prequel and give way to the next question. Should prequel materials precede a stand-alone novel or become book one in a series?
Prequels can flesh out backgrounds, locations, personalities, and what came before. The danger is that offering new angles for consideration may also ruin the impact intended because the reader may not come at the story with the same sense of anticipation, feel the intended shocks or enjoy the sense of surprise. Reading a prequel first, even for blockbuster books such as The Godfather, can also turn a reader off. If I’d read The FamilyCorleone, first, I might have passed on Puzo’s masterpiece.
Prequels then should be published judiciously. They did not create interest in a particular story. It is the story that made the prequel possible.