George Lucas has done many wonderful things for the world (Star Wars, American Graffiti, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Star Wars), but one of the most fun is his popularization of the term “prequel.” According to Wikipedia (that hub of fan information that hasn’t necessarily been vetted), the term appeared sometime in 1956, but wasn’t popularized until Lucas announced he was doing a “prequel” to his Star Wars trilogy that would give backstory of Darth Vader.
By definition, a prequel is a sequel. It comes after the original work was written. However, it’s the backstory component that leads up to how the main characters got to be who they were.
While I love George’s popularization of the prequel, I’m not that happy with one other thing he popularized: re-numbering the series to make it seem as if the prequel should be read/watched first. There are many things I loved about Star Wars: Episode I, but I’m not sure I would have sat through that much Jar Jar had I not watched the now renamed Star Wars Episodes IV, V (OMG, Darth Vader is Luke’s father!) and VI.
I was visiting an online writers forum the other day, and someone mentioned that they had a trilogy where the first book they wrote in the series (we’ll call it book 1) was perma free. The author had written a prequel to the series and was considering making the prequel perma free, because, under the author’s logic, that prequel would now be book 1.
But that’s just the thing. The prequel is not book 1. The prequel is book 4. The prequel doesn’t have the same payoff, the same inside jokes, or even the same love and adoration if you read it first. Reading the prequel first leaves readers at a disadvantage. They don’t come at it with the same reactions, or the same sense of anticipation.
With rare exception, I think all books should be labeled in the order they were published. Even if the events of the fourth book published occurred before the events of the first book published, it’s hard to get the same payoff if the book written fourth is read first. The writer knows the characters inside and out by book four and is going to make references and inside jokes based on what’s happened in previous iterations. If the author is writing it in that order, and readers of the series have experienced it in that order, why would we label it in anything but that order?
Want an example of when re-numbering a series doesn’t work? The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. When I first read these books as a youngster, I read them in the order they were published. Back then, when you bought a set of the books, they were numbered (based on publication date). I went to get the Chronicles for my children and guess what? They are now numbered chronologically, based on the events in the book.
The book that started it all, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is now book 2 in the series. Book 1 is The Magician’s Nephew (which was published 6th). The Magician’s Nephew has wonderful inside jokes for anyone who’s read the rest of the series, but all of them will fall flat if you read this book first. I truly adored those books when I first read them, but I wonder if The Magician’s Nephew would capture enough people’s fancy that they’d want to go on to Wardrobe, if they start with it. The Magician’s Nephew is not a bad book, but I don’t know that it introduces you to the magic of Narnia with the same wonder you got when Lucy tumbled through the wardrobe and onto a snowy street beneath that lamp post. (By the way, check out these Amazon reviews of The Chronicles of Narnia series. The reviews focus mostly on the order in which the books are numbered, rather than the content.)
Remember folks, a prequel is, at its core, a sequel. Just like any other sequel, its number should correspond to the order you think it should be read in. I’ve just started a prequel to my Life First series, and I know exactly what it will be numbered: Book Four.