Out of Line: Release Order vs. Chronology

Novel and film prequels are a bone of contention, and in most cases I advise reading/watching them in release order rather than chronological. Prequels build on foundations as much as sequels do, and they usually aren’t designed to be jumping-on points. They flesh out mysteries and can easily spoil those mysteries when taken out of turn.

Publishers are clueless

narniaThe Chronicles of Narnia are exhibit-A. In recent years the seven books have been published as a single volume which favors their chronological order — The Magician’s Nephew placed first instead of sixth, and The Horse and His Boy third instead of fifth. That reordering slaughters the reading experience. The Lion, the Witch, and Wardrobe has to be the first book, because it allows you to take in the wonder of Narnia as first seen through the eyes of young Lucy. Reading The Magician’s Nephew beforehand not only spoils where the wardrobe came from, it gives you a more esoteric introduction to Narnia (the creation of the world). It also rather kills the enigma of the Professor to know everything about Digory’s backstory in advance.

Repositioning The Horse and His Boy is even worse. To read it right after Lion and before Caspian disrupts the unity of the first four books — Lion, Caspian, Voyage, and Chair — which are portal fantasies focusing on the trials of kids from our world. The Horse and His Boy is about natives of Aslan’s world, set during the epilogue-era of Lion, granted, but in which Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are entirely incidental characters. The story of Shasta and Aravis stands apart — and with a more “realistic” and cultural feel — from the portal fantasies of the first four books.

The question of reading order has been debated for other series, like Anne McCaffrey’s. Many fans take the sensible view that Dragonflight (1968), Dragonquest (1971), and The White Dragon (1978) are proper stepping stones into Pern. Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983) is a prequel set in the time of a plague mentioned in the original trilogy, and Dragonsdawn (1988) goes back to the earliest days when the planet was first colonized. All the Weyrs of Pern (1991) then returns to the present, right after the time of the original trilogy. There are those who swear by reading Dragonsdawn and Moreta first, but the problems are equivalent to those of The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy.

The film industry is no better

godfatherAnd to think I almost purchased this: The Godfather trilogy in a repackaged format (called the Coppola Restoration) in which the first two films are pieced together chronologically. The incompetence of such a re-edit is staggering. The flashback scenes of the second film (with Robert DeNiro as the young Vito Corleone) carry the force they do precisely on the strength of what has been seen in the first film. Without exposure to Marlon Barndo’s performance as Don Corleone, DeNiro’s younger version is barely interesting. On top of that, when stripped of its flashbacks, the second film loses its intended contrasts between the father and son who is now on his own rise to power in the cutthroat scandals of Nevada.

Then there is Star Wars, which I admit is a problematic example. The prequels are so bad that they arguably shouldn’t be watched at all. But there are fans, and George Lucas himself, who insist those prequels should be watched first. Advice doesn’t get any worse, and I’m not just talking about the spoiler that Vader is Luke’s father. As I said, Episodes I-III are so shitty that if you watch them first, you may have no desire to even get to the good trilogy. But even on the generous assumption of redeeming value, Episodes I-III are a poor entry point. They were designed to show the tragic backstory of Darth Vader and how the Republic fell. We care about Anakin’s younger self only because we know what he will become; the dynamics of the Republic are interesting since we’ve already felt the boot of the coming empire.

The rare exception

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and in the next post, I’ll explain why Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga should not be read in publication order, but rather in the chronological order I’ve just finished criticizing.

4 thoughts on “Out of Line: Release Order vs. Chronology

  1. Yes and I almost added it as a caveat to this post. The order I recommended in that post — eps 3, 4, 5 (and ignore eps 1, 2, and 6) makes an effective dark trilogy (Vader rises, the rebels strike back, the empire wins, end of story) which finishes strong and tragically. Ep 6 is simply not a good film, and ep 3 is the best of the bad prequels, and so on some days I think 3-4-5 is a good way to watch the franchise. Other days I say 4-5-6, and if you really must watch any of the prequels, watch 3 alone afterwards.

    • I have thought of another order that you might like that makes an even darker saga that goes II-III-V-VII and ignores episodes I, IV, and VI, I call it the grimdark order.

  2. I fully agree with EVERYTHING you said about Star Wars. It’s hard for me to understand how people can think the prequels are good movies in any sense. RotS is the only passable one and even that could have used a whole lot of polishing, particularly in dialogue.

    The Narnia series has always been one of my favorites. It’s worth noting that C.S. Lewis himself said that they should be read chronologically. However, you make excellent points, and even though I think all the Narnia books are good, the problems with doing so are very similar to the problems with watching Star Wars chronologically. But the books are never numbered in publication order, so virtually no one is going to read them that way anymore. When my daughter was 10 I started reading them to her, but she wasn’t getting into it. I think I even started with Wardrobe but I’m not sure. But then we listened to the fantastic audio drama (in chronological order) and she loved all of those.

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