'Hunger Games' and the Pitfalls of a Prequel

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Hollywood has mined 'Star Wars,' 'Harry Potter' and 'Lord of the Rings' for more early stories, but there's not always a compelling reason to do so.

The announcement of a Hunger Games prequel Monday didn’t exactly come as a surprise. Ever since the Jennifer Lawrence-led film series, adapted from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, concluded with its fourth installment The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (2015), Lionsgate has discussed the possibility of spin-offs or prequels.

Despite the last installment falling short of box office expectations, a symptom of the unnecessary decision to split the final book into two films, the franchise grossed $2.970 billion worldwide. Although neither the books nor films seem to have held the lasting appeal of YA phenomena like Harry Potter, Collins will likely still find a significant fanbase when her yet untitled prequel novel hits shelves in May 2020. With the new novel comes Lionsgate’s plans to adapt that work by collaborating with Collins. But entering the prequel game is no easy feat, as George Lucas, Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, and J.K. Rowling can all attest. Prequels are becoming almost as hot a commodity as sequels of late, but their road to validate their own existence is a rough one.

The word prequel within a film franchise is often treated as a bad word, something met with collective groans, audience wariness, or an overall lack of acknowledgement. Can we really sit through another Scorpion King? Another American Pie Presents: Band Camp? Film history has always been punctuated by prequels, The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920), The Seventh Victim (1943), particularly those within the horror genre – an often successful venture we’re still seeing the results of today. But for the most part, prequels, no doubt influenced by the literary works of the previous centuries and Shakespeare’s cycle of historical plays, came few and far between, especially when compared to sequels which by nature held a greater promise of the unknown.

While historically based installments like Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979) and Zulu Dawn (1979) made some sense, even if they were poorly received, there was a sense, based on what went into production, that prequels were a lesser storytelling medium. There are outliers of course, like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), whose status as prequels can still be used as a piece of movie trivia and catch viewers off-guard. But more often than not, outside of the horror genre and television, prequels have struggled to find favor unless they include a clever hook or a stealthy existence that provides something old alongside something new, like the B-movie delights that were Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), or Francis Ford Coppola’s best picture winner The Godfather Part II (1974).

Hollywood’s consideration of prequels changed with George Lucas’ Star Wars films The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005). Despite how divisive those films proved to be among fans and critics, they gave a new legitimacy to prequels, not only as narratives but as money-makers. In the wake of the Star Wars prequels we saw television properties Smallville, Star Trek: Enterprise, and films Red Dragon (2002), Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003), Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004), and Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power (2005), emerge on a consistent basis. While most of the projects, except for Smallville, were ill-fated, they laid the groundwork for studios to prequelize their bigger properties. The prequel phenomena following Star Wars may have taken longer than it would have in today’s climate, but the resulting films in The Hobbit Trilogy, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, and Fantastic Beasts can be traced back to the Star Wars prequels. Even Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) was initially labeled a prequel until the word "reboot" caught on and our understanding of franchise continuity changed. While reboots that share prequel elements like Star Trek (2009), X-Men: First Class (2011), and Bumblebee (2018), and prequels that began as sequels like The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) were qualified by their modern marketing angles, most of these big franchise prequels failed to gain the love of the original properties.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies made almost $1 billion, but it is nowhere near as discussed as Jackson’s earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy. Alien: Covenant was considered a box office disappointment at $240.9 million. Despite Covenant and Prometheus (2012) being fascinating extensions of Scott’s original Alien (1979), audiences are still hankering for a reboot/sequel (requel) that falls closer to Aliens (1986). Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) became the first financial disappointment for the Star Wars franchise with $392.9 million worldwide. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) underwhelmed with $653.7 million, a concerning box office result for a proposed five-part series that might be one of diminishing returns. And just weeks ago, we had Dark Phoenix. If we want to even consider that film a prequel .... well, it was crash and burn. There’s certainly money to be made in the prequel business, but the high costs of these big-budget movies don’t always mitigate the risk. While studios banking on cost-efficient horror have thrived on prequels like Final Destination 5 (2011), Paranormal Activity 3 (2011), Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), and The Nun (2018), and have been able to easily wash their hands of the ones that didn’t find an audience, The Thing (2011), Leatherface (2017), prequels without a built-in level of comfort and trust in the promise of something new have stood on shaky ground.

For a prequel to work, it usually has to provide new information or make the audience view the sequels in new ways that recontextualize the story and characters. There has to be an enticing element that makes viewers tune in for a story that they already know the ending to. The more expansive the world, the greater chance there is for a property to achieve this, but when something as expansive as Star Wars can fail with Solo then nothing is a guarantee. The announcement of a Hunger Games prequel comes in the aftermath of the announcements of a Game of Thrones prequel series and that Black Widow will be a prequel. Based on trends like the reaction to Fantastic Beasts, the final season of Game of Thrones, and Avengers: Endgame, only the latter one seems like a safe-bet for success.

The Hunger Games prequel will have a benefit that Fantastic Beasts doesn’t, in that it will have a novel as source material and will presumably have already gathered fans by the time the film releases. But for those who haven’t invested in the novel, there’s nothing about the world of Panem that doesn’t seem thoroughly covered in Collins’ three books and the four Hunger Games movies. A prequel set 64 years before The Hunger Games doesn’t exactly set itself up for encounters with familiar faces in the way Star Wars and Fantastic Beasts does, or the Game of Thrones and Black Widow prequels presumably will do. So what’s the surprising angle of Collins’ prequel? That politicians are corrupt? That people will turn on each other? That war is cyclical but there’s always hope? These are all things that have already been explored, and short of a radical narrative twist, there seems very little to entice moviegoers to show up for a franchise already going on five years dormant, and even less to make it a pop culture phenomenon. Lionsgate is certainly banking that audiences will feel differently when the time comes, but for now, looking at the history of prequels, well…may the odds be ever in their favor.