Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men First Class. Photo: Kobal/Shutterstock

    The rise of the prequel: from X-men to Hannibal

    14 August 2020

    There is often something essentially redundant about the prequel. As the high-profile failure of Solo a couple of years indicated, audiences can be uninterested in exploring the backstories of their favourite characters, especially if they are told with excessive amounts of irrelevant detail. Yet there are also films and TV series that have managed to overcome the intrinsic difficulties of building up to a narrative with which viewers are already familiar by offering new and unexpected twists on their origin stories.

    As Netflix readies a new series, Ratched, which will explore the events that turned Nurse Ratched, the antagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, into the terrifying and tyrannical presence as depicted in the famous film, here are some of the instances in which prequels have managed to deepen and strengthen the existing stories, as well as being fine pieces of work in their own right.

    The Godfather part II

    Debate has raged ever since Francis Ford Coppola followed his Oscar-winning 1972 film The Godfather with this simultaneous prequel and sequel; is it that rare continuation that surpasses the original? Whatever one’s opinion – and as far as I am concerned, it is impossible to improve on Marlon Brando as the embodiment of the Mafia boss Don Vito Corleone – there can be little doubt that some of the most successful material in the second film revolves around its depiction of the young Vito Corleone, and his rise to prominence in early 20th century New York.

    As played by an Oscar-winning Robert de Niro, Vito is charming, charismatic and extremely dangerous indeed, ensuring that everyone who comes into contact with him will, at some stage, be made an offer that they can’t – and shouldn’t – refuse.

    X-Men: First Class

    The X-Men franchise seems to have been buried with the failure of the recent Dark Phoenix film, but Matthew Vaughn’s lively and hugely enjoyable 2011 prequel managed the simultaneous task of revitalising the series with a new and hugely talented cast and creating a richly interesting world for them to inhabit. His masterstroke was to fill the enormous shoes of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (who played Professor X and Magneto, respectively) with the equally excellent James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

    The latter, especially, was just beginning to emerge as an actor to be reckoned with, and his brutally charismatic performance here, as he hunts the Nazi who murdered his mother in the death camps to provoke him into demonstrating his psychic powers, far transcends the usual superhero fluff in favour of something much more raw and elemental.

    Bates Motel

    Anyone who saw Alfred Hitchcock’s black comic horror masterpiece Psycho might have wondered the same question: what happened to Mrs Bates, and why? Over five seasons between 2013 and 2017, the American TV series Bates Motel followed the uneasy and interdependent relationship between the psychotic Norman Bates (played by Freddie Highmore, hitherto best known as Charlie from Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and his dominant mother Norma (Vera Farmiga).

    As created by Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin and Anthony Cipriano, it offers plenty of knowing nods to the original, especially by the time that guest star Rihanna is stepping into the shower as a reimagined Marion Crane, but also manages to succeed as its own, fascinating narrative.


    Anthony Hopkins has long been synonymous with the character of Hannibal Lecter, but this does two fine actors a disservice: Brian Cox, who proved in Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter that he was terrifying long before he became Logan Roy in Succession, and Mads Mikkelsen, who memorably portrayed Lecter over the course of three seasons of Bryan Fuller’s prequel series Hannibal between 2013 and 2015, exploring the events that led up to, and included, Red Dragon.

    Although Mikkelsen takes the character in a wholly different direction to Hopkins and Cox, interpreting him as an aesthete and epicurean for whom cannibalism is just another pleasure amongst many, it is a striking and (no pun intended) delicious performance, even as actors of the calibre of Hugh Dancy, Laurence Fishburne, Richard Armitage and, especially, Gillian Anderson match him scene for scene. We can only hope that one day Fuller manages to make his fourth series and takes the action into Silence of the Lambs territory.

    Casino Royale

    Daniel Craig’s first film as James Bond saw the series deliver its first ever prequel, basing the action on the only Ian Fleming novel that had never been used as material for the franchise before. Craig delivers what is probably still his best performance as 007, making some considerable mistakes and missteps along the way to becoming the suave superspy of legend, and director Martin Campbell mixes the usual scenic locations with surprising outbursts of gritty violence.

    The black and white prologue, showing Bond committing one of his two kills needed to obtain OO status, is one of the best-realised scenes of hand-to-hand combat in the entire series. When Craig finally delivers the famous ‘Bond, James Bond’ line at the film’s conclusion, there is a sense that it has been hard-earned, and hard-won.

    The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

    Technically, Sergio Leone’s final instalment in the ‘Dollars’ trilogy is only a prequel because it is set around a decade before the action of the other two, A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More, rather than because it offers any great insights into the character played by Clint Eastwood, usually called either ‘Blondie’ or ‘The Man With No Name’.

    Yet what it lacks in incisive psychological nuance is more than made up for by its combination of spectacle, black humour (courtesy of Eli Wallach’s bandit Tuco, aka ‘The Ugly’) and action scenes, all of which make this one of the greatest westerns ever made and a highlight in Leone’s filmography. It also features one of the late Ennio Morricone’s greatest ever scores, and a couple of highlights from it – ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ and ‘The Trio’ – were required listening in the light of Morricone’s recent death.