The Hobbit: What’s in a prequel?

The popularity of The Hobbit and other prequels makes us reflect upon the reasons why this film genre is so attractive.

Despite The Hobbit's lukewarm response from critics, it was a box-office hit [AP]

It is probably a human trait to enjoy storytelling. We don’t just wish to know what someone did but, more importantly, what will happen next. The enduring popularity of soap operas that keep millions of people glued to their televisions screens day after day originates precisely in the universal allure of a good story. Will the two star-crossed lovers stay together? Can the hero defeat the villain? Will love, peace and justice prevail?

Film sequels cater to our desire to find out about the follow-up to a narrative. Somehow “they lived happily ever after” is not quite enough. Surely, something must have taken place after the happy ending: perhaps a fight against a new villain, as in the sprawling James Bond series, or the arrival of a few babies, featured for instance in the last installments of Shrek.

If the draw of sequels is easy to understand, it is somewhat more difficult to pinpoint the attraction of prequels. Do we really want to learn about Bond’s most-likely problematic childhood, before he became a spy with a “license to kill”? Are we that interested in the life of Puss, before he rose to prominence as one of Shrek’s best friends? Apparently, we are. Puss in Boots (Chris Miller, 2011) was a successful movie depicting the deeds of the famous talking cat before his and Shrek’s paths converged.

Overall, prequels are on the rise in the film industry, often becoming as popular as the original movie. This was the case of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Wood, 2009), which grossed over $373 million dollars worldwide in the wake of Bryan Singer’s X-Men from 2000.

The ultimate example of prequels is perhaps the second Star Wars trilogy (The Phantom Menace, 1999; Attack of the Clones, 2002; Revenge of the Sith, 2005). Darth Vader’s unexpected revelations about Princess Leia’s father in The Return of the Jedi, just before his tragic demise, led many film buffs to speculate about a continuation to the series. But what they got more than fifteen years later was a three-episode prequel chronicling the promising beginnings and ensuing disgrace of Anakin Skywalker, aka Vader in the earlier films. The prequels were nevertheless an enormous financial success, breaking a number of box-office records.

The recently released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012) is part of a growing trend to produce prequels of blockbusters. It depicts the life-changing adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who had appeared briefly in the celebrated Lord of the Rings series as the ageing uncle of the protagonist Frodo.

Like many other prequels, The Hobbit received mixed reviews. Most critics agree that it fell short of the portentous symbolism and captivating storyline of the Lord of the Rings. A large part of the film’s 169 minutes is occupied with drawn out chase scenes, as Bilbo and his dwarf friends flee from orcs, trolls, goblins and other assorted perils.

But despite the lukewarm critical response and the somewhat anticlimactic ending – the movie is itself part of a trilogy, so more chase scenes are likely forthcoming – The Hobbit was a box-office hit, grossing more than $900 million dollars worldwide. Why was The Hobbit so successful with the general public? Or, more to the point, what’s in a prequel that makes people love it?

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Prequels have existed in literature for a long time, even though the word itself was only coined in the mid-twentieth century. The explosion in the number of film prequels starting in the late 1990s begs for a closer analysis of this recent phenomenon.

In an industry saturated by constant novelties, prequels take advantage of an established brand. They build upon the notoriety of a previous film or films, thus making publicity easier (and cheaper) for producers and distributers. Have we not all wondered about what went on in Middle Earth before the evil ring of power came to Frodo? Well, The Hobbit gives us the chance to find out about that.

Prequels nourish our curiosity and, at the same time, they give us the satisfaction to encounter something familiar. We already know some of the characters and they showed us a good time in a previous movie. This works as a guarantee that the new film will be a repeat of a satisfying past experience.

True, the brand-effect and the familiarity are also elements of sequels. So the question remains: what is unique about prequels and why are they so popular now?

At a time of increasing displacements, split identities and shattered linear histories, prequels respond to our anxiety about origins. How did a story begin? Where do the characters come from? Can their past help us better understand them?

In the aftermath of discredited religious and political grand narratives that used to give meaning to our existence and faced with increasing social and financial uncertainty, we find comfort in identifying some secure grounds in fiction and in film. If we don’t know why we are here and what our role in the universe is all about, at least Frodo and his uncle Bilbo before him seem to have their missions figured out.

Prequels offer simple answers to the age-old question of “how did it all begin”. In a world torn between religious fundamentalism and the dictates of science, such reassuring solutions have a soothing effect that the film industry capitalises upon. Still, between the drive for profit and the wish to reassure the audiences something gets lost. Could cinema, the most powerful dream-machine of our age, be curtailing our imagination, our ability to enjoy something truly new, our taste for the unexpected?

If most prequels fall under the “more of the same” rubric, this is not a necessary marker of the genre. In fact, prequels present ideal opportunities to destabilise ready-made notions about our origins. They can trigger reflection on the discontinuities between past and present and make us question our obsession with a unified, all-explaining origin.

Thus far, The Hobbit fell short of the more ambitious possibilities inherent in prequels. But – who knows? – maybe in the other two installments of the trilogy we will be in for some shattering, mind-bending surprises.

Patricia Vieira teaches at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese of Georgetown University. She is the author of Seeing Politics Otherwise: Vision in Latin American and Iberian Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011); Portuguese Film 1930-1960: The Staging of the New State Regime (Lisbon: Colibri, 2011; forthcoming with Continuum, 2013); and co-editor of Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought (New York and London: Continuum, 2011).