Imagination Connoisseur, Jeffrey Mao, shares his thoughts as to why filmmakers face a challenge when they attempt prequels to their established entertainment franchises.

Morning Rob:

As I mentioned in a previous letter, I wanted to discuss my reasoning for why properties, particularly in the fantasy genre, that attempt to go back and tell a story from the past in a spin-off or “prequel” series face challenges. However, I thought that I would tie this idea into a theory that I have had for a while about commonalities in those same fantasy properties.

For the purposes of this letter, we’ll focus on probably the three most popular fantasy franchises, that being Lord of the Rings (LOTR), part of the larger Tolkien Imaginarium, “Game of Thrones” (GOT) adapted from the “A Song of Ice and Fire” (ASOIAF) book series, and Star Wars. In all three, when we first are introduced to the respective universes in their most well-known works, they are in decline from past prosperity and glory, and we find unrest:

LOTR: Sauron is gathering his forces, trying to find the One Ring, and all-out war looms.

GOT: Questions into the legitimacy of the King’s children and conspiracies against him soon cause the War of the Five Kings to break out.

SW: The theft of the Death Star plans and its destruction escalate the civil war to overthrow the Empire.

The situation we are in is essentially caused by multiple downfalls:

LOTR: The destruction of Numenor and the end of the line of Gondorian kings allows Sauron to stay in power through constant warfare, despite losing the One Ring.

GOT: The doom of Valyria, the disappearance of dragons, and then the end of the Targaryen dynasty.

SW: The failure to destroy the Sith completely, the corruption of the Republic and then the fall of the Jedi.

The situation now incites our protagonists to seek at minimum a dual restoration:

LOTR: The destruction of the One Ring to end Sauron’s evil and the return of the King.

GOT: The reunification of Westeros under one King (or Queen) and the return of dragons.

SW: The overthrow of the Empire (and the Sith) and the return of the Jedi.

In all three properties we see the restoration happen, though perhaps not in the exact ways that the protagonists envisioned but they happen. So, the story could be deemed essentially “complete” although we know that’s not really the case.

So now we have the problem that all of the owners of the IP or entities who license the IP face, and that is, where to go from here. Because we have a cash cow on our hands and we want to keep the cash coming in. What is the next step? Go forward in time? Problem there is that diminishes the impact and apparent complete resolution of the original. See the current Star Wars sequel trilogy for that. Go into the past? Sounds better. There’s lots of the stories to tell. But which stories? What stories will be so good, so enticing that people will want to watch or read them even though they “know how it ends”.

The best choice is cover one of the important downfall stories. I feel that you can’t present something which exceeds or surpasses the original in terms of importance. That’s because the most important story is the first one, if it’s the restoration story which it is in all three cases. Everything else has been leading up to it. In other words, you can’t make the downfall story greater than the restoration story if the downfall story comes afterwards. If the creator or author starts with the downfall, then ends with the restoration, that’s fine because we’re progressing forward in time. All three franchises have done or are going to do a downfall story as their next series after the main one. With Star Wars, we saw the “prequel” trilogy had decidedly mixed results, being in your words, great Star Wars, but bad movies.

Their quality and stature within the franchise continues to be debated to this day. For GOT and LOTR, we have only the next series in early pre-production and not much to go on in terms of what to expect. However, they have the prequel playbook to use to figure what to do right and avoid what to do wrong. With LOTR, the challenge is to produce something worthy of the name, that meaningfully adds to the original series but doesn’t overtake it and doesn’t come off as excessive filler like “The Hobbit”. The main problem that the LOTR series faces is that the histories that they’re going off of are very thinly written and much needs to be added (and padded) to make up however many episodes and seasons the series will be. It is almost inevitable that they will have to invent whole characters (like the unneeded Tauriel in “The Hobbit” and a dwarf-elf relationship that can’t go anywhere), storylines, plots and subplots and this is where the whole series could go off the rails.

GOT has the greater challenge in their newly announced “House of the Dragon” series. HBO probably feels like they “owe us one” with the end of Season 8. That does not bode well for how the series will be written out and set up because it puts the show runners in a tough spot. It’s hard enough to put together a successful new series, much less feeling like you have to redeem its predecessor. At least LOTR has the benefit that the original is almost universally loved and praised, and for the most part, people have kind of forgotten/ignored The Hobbit.

With Star Wars, everything is off the table now with the departure of Benioff and Weiss. We’ve had no word if Lucasfilm is even still sticking to the previously announced trilogy dates, but let’s say they will. I say that their next series should be a downfall story. There’s no point in it being optimistic when we know that it won’t last and there will be another downfall. Perhaps some kind of false victory where we see the old Republic fighting the Mandalorians or the Sith Empire.

Well, Rob, I hope this is something that makes sense to you and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

– Jeff M.