The Problem with Prequels: Revising Canon is an Exercise in Authorial Control and Navigating Fandom Politics in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
The offer to reshape history is a tempting one; it appeals to our desire to fix and explain, which is exactly what modern prequels offer their fans. Readers well-acquainted with both J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy have, over the last four years, received prequels that seek to rationalize the darkness of both fictional worlds. Both prequels, the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (FBAWTFT) and The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, written by Rowling and Collins respectively, reshape the worlds their audiences have spent over a decade reading about and watching. Both main franchises for each author have resulted in major motion picture deals along with merchandise. While their prequels vary in their content, both prequels attempt to project their purposes as a means of revelation even though what readers actually get is revision. Prequels are ostensibly meant to answer our unanswered questions, but instead they can cause problems, especially when they are written in an attempt to capture current political and social justice causes, which given the modern political climate, particularly in North America can easily fall into the realm of commodifying struggles rather than serving as a rallying cry. I will address the promises and problems with Collins and Rowling’s prequels by looking at adaptation theory and revisionist history, focusing specifically on how these works revise history within their own canon (and sometimes our own reality). I will also highlight how the release dates point for these works seek to capitalize upon a desire for escape from our fractured world, without actually making room for the reader or viewer to exert control over their experience. While I will make brief references to additional prequels, the main works I address are those of Rowling and Collins.
The premise of a prequel is to provide a reader more information, be it about characters or general worldbuilding. But, the promises of prequels are more of a problem than their basic intentions. Prequels, particularly modern ones like those written by Rowling and Collins, seem intent on providing context, but seemingly all of the wrong type of context. Each of these prequels is removed or distanced from their main franchises, with Collins’s happening 64 years before Katniss ever entered the arena and Rowling’s occurring in the early twentieth century, approximately 65 years before Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts. What is most interesting about the release of these two prequels is that they were both written after the conclusion of their main franchises (both in book and movie form). Instead of a sequel, Rowling and Collins both chose to write about a time before their characters occupied space in their fictional worlds; they chose the distance and I posit this is because they wanted a chance to stretch their creativity and embellish their canon. By declaring each work a prequel, the authors have a chance to change their canon, garner sympathy for unlikeable characters, and essentially, nudge your preconceived notions or disputations about their lore out the door because their prequels are canon now. Prequels seemingly hand back the control over characters and worlds to the authors that created them. Prequels situate themselves as ideal spaces for revision of the created spaces from a beloved and well-trafficked series. Rowling and Collins demonstrate an obvious intent to reconfigure or reinvent aspects of their canon, character backstories, and the like as their prequels unfold; these works appear to be as much for the authors as they are the fans.
While these stories and their contents do not map directly onto history as it unfolds in reality that does not mean that they are exempt from the ideas of historical revisionism. Within these works, authors rework their characters and their worlds, pushing and pulling established ideas apart in a seeming attempt to be both more palatable or relatable, and to shock and start conversations. Though the revisions of canon we see in these prequels do not fall explicitly within the boundaries of historical revisionism and the ideas of history as adaptation as presented by Laurence Raw and Defne Ersin Tutan, Tom Leitch, and Frans Weiser there is still room to discuss the act of revision in the sense of literary, not historical, canon.
The line between adaptation and revision might seem blurry, but within the scope of my discussion the latter implies overwriting past canon, whereas the former implies a shift, but not necessarily the erasure implied by the latter. Hutcheon notes that “sequels and prequels are not really adaptations” (9), which situates these types of works as removed but not wholly separated from their points of contact within the space occupied by a major series. Rowling’s decision to create the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them world within the larger scope of the Harry Potter Universe she had already established likely corresponds to the desire Marjorie Garber points out as the motivation behind the creation of sequels, which is “the desire that [works] never come to a definitive end” (74). Though Garber specifically addresses sequels, the principle of the matter remains the same with prequels. Fans and creators always want more, although perhaps by now fans should know better than to actually make that type of request of a creator who might take that call to action as an excuse for a creative power trip or hold creations hostage until they see fit to release them. I will point out here how George R.R. Martin has released two prequels to his Game of Thrones series: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms and Fire & Blood and yet the next installment of his series, Winds of Winter has yet to appear. Still, the chance to know more and spend more time within a world fans know and love is a siren call them, and any author with a successful series can probably count on at least initial support from their main series fans upon the release of any additional content, be it a film adaptation, a prequel, a sequel, or a companion piece.
For her prequel, Rowling took the route of building off of a companion piece, namely the textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is for the Care of Magical Creatures class and assigned to students at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry in their first year (Philosopher’s 53). Instead of continuing to build within the world she had already created, she jumped with respect to time and location (the first film in the franchise takes place in New York City, although the subsequent films will and do feature various other locations in Europe and South America) (D’Alessandro). Rowling was apparently not finished with playing in the magical world and she used FBAWTFT to keep creating. Initially, this decision makes sense, both from a financial gain standpoint and from a creative perspective. If we believe Garber’s idea that subsequent installments of a series are what feed a fanbase by giving them a less than “definitive end” (Garber 74) then a new film and screenplay, plus the promise of a new franchise sounds like a solid idea.
The promise of FBAWTFT was that it would be more mature, meaning it would hopefully resonate with the children who had grown up with the Harry Potter books and movies. It would grant those children, now turned teenagers and adults, a space more suited to their age group to indulge in their adoration for the Wizarding World. As Rowling began creating and writing for FBAWTFT she also began providing context that fans had never had access to before, which was wonderful in theory, until some of her context began to resonate negatively amongst fans, for good reason. On March 8th, 2016 Rowling published a brief history lesson about magic within America (“Fourteenth Century – Seventeenth Century”) on Pottermore, now known as the Wizarding World. On June 28th, 2016, a video (Pottermore) and the written origins of a new wizarding school based in the United States named Ilvermorny (“Ilvermorny School”) also appeared. Rowling’s handling of brand new information for a part of her universe, that until that point, she had rarely mentioned, caused an uproar with regards to her cherry picking of traditional stories and lore from Indigenous People in the United States (for responses to Rowling see: Baldy, Keene, Lee, Lough, Reese). Her appropriations earned her ire from fans and scholars before the first FBAWTFT film even premiered. In an extremely half-hearted and under-researched attempt to balance out the lore of her new works by mentioning and appropriating mythologies, she crossed a line. Before and after this incident, Rowling showed herself to not be an ally to any member of the human race who does not conform to her standards of identity. What Rowling seemingly tried, and failed, to do was create or adapt, but instead she appropriated in the name of creativity and in the pattern of colonialism. In the wake of the justifiable outrage over her cultural appropriation, and her lack of response to or acknowledgment of the situation with her newly cemented lore, to took a few days for fans to notice that Rowling had also revealed a new term – ‘No-Maj’ as part of American wizarding society (“Fourteenth Century – Seventeenth Century”). The term itself makes semantic sense and is literal in a way that ‘Muggle,’ the Britishism for non-magic folk is not (Philosopher’s Stone 43).
In the screenplay, and on screen in the film, the audience’s introduction to the term ‘No-Maj’ comes in the form of an confrontation between Newt Scamander, the author of the Fantastic Beasts textbook and Tina Goldstein, a demoted government servant for Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). Newt, a British wizard on a mission in New York City, has just inadvertently revealed magic to Jacob Kowalski, the main No-Maj character in the franchise, and unfortunately, also let him escape without modifying the man’s memory. Tina reprimands Newt for his handling of the situation and uses the term for the first time (Original Screenplay 33)Then, later on, after they locate Jacob together, Newt makes a speech about the absurdity of the American attitude toward non-magic people: “I do know a few things actually. I know you have rather backwards laws about relations with non-magic people. That you’re not meant to befriend them, that you can’t marry them, which is mildly absurd” (Original Screenplay 64). This exchange between Newt and Tina positions British wizards, who fans are likely most familiar with, as somewhat more accepting and less prejudiced, although the original Harry Potter series would beg to differ on that point. Rowling’s choice to highlight and emphasize this particular cultural difference speaks to a stereotypical assessment of the American mentality about anyone other than Americans (or, in this case, American wizards and witches). Is Rowling’s focus on the prejudices of her American Wizarding Society meant to deflect from the classism and eugenic leanings of her British characters? Though she might not be explicitly erasing canon here, because canon for Wizarding America did not exist prior to the release of the screenplay and the film apart from her smaller-scale stories, she is likely trying to lay the groundwork for the following films that circle around the Hilter-esque rise to power of the franchise’s main villain, Grindelwald. As the plots unfold in the films, as of 2020 only two have been released – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018), it becomes clear that the fights between wizards are the ones that matter most on a global scale and the No-Majes are simply collateral damage. Within the space of these prequels, Rowling attempts to make her work more relatable by interjecting diversity (but without the research foundation or knowledge to back up her purported attempts at inclusivity) and by borrowing from history, then reshaping it to fit into the confines of her fictional world and attempting to explain it all away. As if the flick of a wand will or could solve the world’s problems. I posit that Rowling’s direction with the screenplay found motive in her desire to rewrite history; she wanted tragedy, terror, and horror – fantastic beasts and the exploration of her new magical world was never the goal with this franchise. She wanted to create something topical that fans could use to try and explain away the unbelievable times they have been living through over at least the past four years.
The year of 2020 is not one wherein we should be playing host to fictional dictators and authoritarian leaders. Actually, I think we would do well to extend this sentiment back four years, to the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America in 2016. But 2020 is the year that Suzanne Collins released her prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. The actual Hunger Games themselves are an attempt to revise history within the world of Panem, because they are supposed to be what protects the Capitol’s citizens from encountering war ever again (Collins 14). Except, it doesn’t work, because people rebel and then a new world order comes to be in The Hunger Games trilogy. But, before all of that happens, Collins decided readers needed to have an inside look at one of the main trilogy side characters; apparently, she felt that the character who deserved more than a “definitive end” (Garber 74) is Coriolanus Snow, the villain of the later trilogy and a dictator in his own right. But why now? This novel seemingly sets out to prove to its readers that sympathy is due even to the most corrupt of characters. It’s true, we had little knowledge of Snow except for what Collins revealed in relation to Katniss and her participation in the Games or the rebellion. But why do we need to know more? And why now, when a man who believes his own lies and overinflates his self-importance occupies the Oval Office? We do not need Snow’s backstory; we’ve seen what the real-life Snow is doing to the United States, its enemies, and its allies.
While the book is already signed on for film rights (Liptak), I find it an unnecessary addition to the franchise as a whole. It seeks to unnecessarily humanize a villain. It also attempts to garner sympathy for the creators of the Games – many of whom are pitched as pawns caught up in the pageantry, the duty, and the loyalty affiliated with the Games, rather than people who take pleasure in the death matches they orchestrate amongst their fellow human beings. Collins’s particular example of this put-upon, resigned attitude of being a pawn in a game larger than oneself is Dean Casca Highbottom, an administrator at the Academy Snow attends in the Capitol, who is credited with the creation of the Hunger Games (Collins 20). Highbottom admits in the final pages of the book that he never meant for his drunken outline of the Hunger Games to reach anyone’s ears except for his and his best friend’s, Crassus Snow, Coriolanus’s father: “The Hunger Games. The evilest impulse, cleverly packaged as a sporting event. An entertainment…The next morning, I awoke, horrified by what I’d made, meaning to rip it to shreds, but it was too late” (514). While Snow encounters moral and ethical dilemmas throughout this book, from his decision to help Lucy Gray survive by cheating in the Hunger Games (Collins 324-325) to his work as a Peacekeeper and eventual Capitol snitch (Collins 446-447), his actions, even when helpful to others are motivated by self-interest rather than a desire to do or be good. So, what exactly is Collins trying to fix with this prequel? apparently our perception and judgment of President Snow. It seems like Snow deserves more attention, even though he is exactly the type of main character we’re (not) crying out to better understand right now – as he is a white, educated, male, born into wealth (although his situation does rapidly turn into one of near absolute poverty). The assessment of the Games, from an insider perspective is intriguing to some extent but the single-mindedness of Snow’s character focuses more on himself than absolutely anything else.
The world of the Hunger Games is not unlike our own, much like the Wizarding World, although we have yet to commence with government orchestrated battle royales and, to my knowledge, magic does not exist, so we are not subject to divisions between those that wield it and those that do not. However, we do have protests meant to protect the vulnerable and the oppressed that turn into battles for survival and we are subject to divisions of race, class, and religion that wear away at the fabric of our world on a daily basis. Humanity does not have the chance to rewrite its history; we do not have the luxury of a prequel, which means we must confront our past and then move forward – for better or for worse. If only Rowling and Collins had understood this about human nature too, perhaps their prequels, though still flawed, would have fit better into the worlds they wrote.
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