The Prisoner – Original vs. Remake

Looking at the modern remake of the seminal 1960’s existential-horror series, The Prisoner.

I grew up watching the re-runs of The Prisoner when I was a teenager, and it fucked with my head. I’m not exaggerating, it utterly messed me up – I would have Kafka-like nightmares of being trapped by normality, go into school and rant about a television programme no-one else had even heard of, never mind watched. A dangerous thing for a teenager to do – be different. Much like the series. And wait a minute, if no-one else had seen it, is it all in my head, like the programme?
I had, like many people, NEVER encountered anything so simultaneously dynamic and intelligent in equal measure. It spanned the evolution of one character, from hapless victim into a powerful figure turning the tables on Authority. The Final Episode was an explosive finale of truly metaphysical proportions.
It has easily become my gold standard of existential horror.

What was it about? Well, it appeared to be about a spy who resigns, is captured and brought to The Village, a surreal environment with hints of European hinterlands, where names are replaced with numbers and our hero is assigned the number 6, and where week after week he is repeatedly subjected to torturous psychological tests to find out why he resigned, while he does everything in his power to escape or survive.

What was it really about? Human society and the pressure to conform, the nature of identity, religion, the nature of growing older and more resilient in your beliefs in a world that seeks to prove you wrong – much of the appeal is it never explains itself, and in the 1960’s, that was unusual.
That it was remade recently with the same intent – not to explain itself, is still very unusual, especially in a day of easy-going blockbusters, and simple television series. That it was not made by HBO, the major television risk-taker in the world is rarer still.

The Prisoner (1968)

The Original 60’s ‘Prisoner’ series:

Patrick McGoohan, the main actor, was then an incredibly popular face in the Spy series Danger Man, but wanted to jump ship before it declined, and was driven by personal creativity, and a reputed ego, into imagining The Prisoner. As the central creator of the series, conjuring the main idea, and core episodes, he often wrote and directed under pseudonyms, and was always in overall control.

Recent documentaries have old crew members recalling that they were filming early episodes with NO IDEA of what it meant, with NO scripts for later episodes. It caused fights, which led to the other main writer, who preferred the satirical element, to walk away before the end, leaving the existential and sociological elements to become so central and exaggerated that they developed into a new form of horror.

The Pris6ner (2009)

The new 2009 ‘Pris6ner’ series:

The handsome actor James Caviezel (Outlander) is as equally charismatic as Patrick McGoohan was then, and adds to the religious element of the story (having been Jesus in The Passion Of The Christ). His physicality adds to the action-packed moments, and as a love interest he is believable, with each episode presenting a different facet of the relationship – moving from suspicion towards trust, from attraction to love, then from love he is propelled into betrayal.
Love is a new theme, but central to the remake – two love interests, one major, adds enormously to the series, becoming a new form of torture and drama in its own right, rather than just an element added for the sake of modernisation.

Original versus New.

I expected the remake to fall flat. I am so glad I was wrong. Some disagree, so I’ll mention their concerns.

Fans can have a field-day with the various references to the original that crop up in the remake, both visual (black jackets lined with white, the penny-farthing cycle), verbal (Be Seeing You), and thematic, which the new series used without appearing odd, out of place, or distracting from a thoroughly modern story.

While the new series is only 6 episodes in comparison to the original’s 17, I don’t view this as either a bad thing, or indeed cost-cutting. Patrick McGoohan is on record as having said he only wanted seven episodes, but was forced into expanding it to seventeen to be able to sell it to American networks. While I love the original, it shows on a few occasions, where an idea is stretched for a whole episode, rather than used appropriately as part of a more complex single episode.
So, the brevity of the modern series is actually a bonus – it allows the money not to be spread too thin, keeping the show slick and well-honed, while maximising the impact of the central ideas, and changes in shift of approach, keeping you off-balance – even my savviest media friends were perplexed by the series intent, which is as it should be.

On the other side, some feel the modern brevity is badly done – they dislike the editing style, where many cuts elided a little time. They think it was supposed to make things feel disorientating, so it annoys their visual appreciation as it was taken too far. Every time they cut to a new angle it’d jump forwards in the scene by fractions of a second. One critical friend said – It made it feel breathless and somewhat brainless too. That the 180 degree rule was possibly being broken as a stylistic choice to disorientate was also a distasteful thing. Let me counter with, I watch a lot of films and TV, and I neither noticed nor care now that I know, but suspect certain entrenched filmic golden-rules reared their ugly head in that stance.

There are other improvements I believe. The remake begins with Number 6 just waking up in the desert, not knowing how he got there. It adds intrigue after intrigue episode by episode as to how he was brought/came to The Village. In the original, this whole idea is dealt with in a few brief minutes, and is used as the introductory sequence for later episodes. I’m glad to see they expanded a good idea into a great one.

The Pris6ner (2009)

The remake has a larger ensemble cast. I suspect this is partly a shift in audience expectations (‘or maybe because there isn’t an egomaniac writer-director-producer-lead actor’ some feel), as many modern viewers would find it hard to swallow only one constant character week-to-week, and also partly a desire to expand upon certain ideas by growing other characters from within the ideas-framework. Trust me, they are KEY to the new series, not merely tacked on, and chime beautifully with the core concepts of the original, and ultimately create new moments of drama in the crescendo series finale.

Oddly, one of the major strengths of the original – the constant changing of the actor of the nefarious Number 2, who seeks each week by any means to find out why Number 6 quit, thus keeping a fresh, almost desperate battle, with a nebulous opponent (‘Who is Number One?!’), is not used in the new series. When I heard in advance of this, I was hugely sceptical. I suspected that a central, joyous interplay of forces shown through characters was gone – father-son, authority-rebel, guardian-seeker. The original penultimate episode was solely this interplay, constantly shifting due to ‘storyline’ but really to show off two of the best actors of their generation, McGoohan as No.6 and Leo McKern as No.2 – an episode SO intense that McKern had to be taken away because the crew thought he was in danger of having a heart-attack. So, looking at the remake, the new, constant Number 2, may be the great actor Sir Ian McKellen, I thought, but surely that won’t work, or have the same appeal of changing stimuli. And I was wrong – they integrate Number 2 so deeply into the storyline, that he becomes indispensable, adding elements, of doubt, pathos and fear, that never existed in the original – Number Two’s family is it’s own, new, theme, bringing rich emotional landscapes, and a surprise in the final episode, that prove you can alter major elements of a classic, if you do the new thing BETTER. To balance my out-and-out joy, I should mention others felt McKellen didn’t have enough to do. I agree occasionally they pull him out in the same manner the Ring was used in Lord of the Rings – to inspire an emotion, but I feel the ending twist and overall elements of familial drama redeem the role.

Dare I reveal too much? Is there where I post the dreaded SPOILER word? Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to read how it ends.

The Village becomes a place of the Mind, rather than a physical location, adding to the originals idea and expanding it fully into a central idea.
The end is different. In the original Number 6 tries to escape but is perceived to have failed. In the modern version, well, let’s just say it’s doubly dark…I won’t give everything away.

There are ghostly twin tower skyscrapers that are never reached until the end, there is a constant switch back to the moments after he resigned, to hint at how he was captured, which add confusion as well as heavily suggested meaning. These apparent flashbacks to a normal world, possibly not flashbacks at all, may be flashes into a different level of consciousness.

Lastly, a film-note:

Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight) WAS scheduled to do a film of The Prisoner in 2012. The script was by David and Janet Peoples who wrote Twelve Monkeys.

“If the series was wildly popular that might affect us. The screenplay (we’ve got) is such a re-imagination of the series…”
(from: http://www.contactmusic.com/news.nsf/story/nolan-drops-the-prisoner_1113280)

But Nolan stepped out, supposedly due to the third Batman film. However the recent ‘Inception’ is so close in style and content that either it IS The Prisoner re-written (by Nolan himself) to remove the shackles of fans associations, or he’s into a certain vein. A potentially cool but humourless film Liam thinks, and while that’s likely I would forgive much bleakness and lack of balancing levity if it dirtily fingered with my brain, and left it’s stinky linen lying around my frontal lobes for a few months.

[And anyone that doesn’t think The Village could ever exist, that it’s all a step too far into Metaphor – just look at American retirement villages: http://www.thevillages.com/]

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