With News of a Possible Remake, a Treatise on ‘The Prisoner’, its Themes and Legacy

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I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. Or remade.

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Photo courtesy of simplysyndicated.com

Remakes are inevitable in this day and age. Whether on television, at the movies, in comic shops or car lots, remakes are everywhere, and seemingly popular. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the odd remake here and there, and there have been a select few that I thought better than the original, but some just don’t translate well to a modern audience without major tweaks which begs the question: Why not just come up with something original? Many times when a remake is announced an audible UGH… can be heard riding in the wind. A general feeling of “why?’ is not uncommon on social media and around the water cooler, with theater goers questioning the mentality behind studio heads and their endless need for remakes. The truth is, they make money, and the studios love money. But some remakes are infinitely more unnecessary than others, their source material being of a cult classic status.

Which brings me to the news that Deadline is reporting about a film version of the cult classic TV series, The Prisoner. They say that Ridley Scott is in negotiations to direct the film based on Patrick McGoohan‘s philosophically profound spy thriller of the same name. This isn’t a typical “remakes are bad, mmmkay…” but my feelings on this particular remake, and why I feel it just wouldn’t work as a film in this day and age. The Prisoner is like an old relationship that ended on a good note; it was exactly what was needed at the time, but you broke up for a reason, and now you need something different while still holding onto the memories fondly.

For those who haven’t seen The Prisoner (A&E released a complete 40th Anniversary box set on DVD in 2007 and Blu-Ray in 2009), the show revolves around an agent of the British Secret Service who resigns angrily, and wakes up imprisoned in a strange place called The Village where everyone’s names are replaced by numbers. As he tries to learn about his new home and attempts escape after escape, the administrators attempt to learn the reason for his resignation. It’s the story of a man held captive and desperately trying to preserve his humanity in a place that just doesn’t make sense.

Photo courtesy of theredlist.com

Photo courtesy of theredlist.com

The original series ran 17 episodes in 1967-68 on British television, and has been hailed as “the most unusual and challenging television series ever filmed” and “television’s first masterpiece”. It wasn’t a simple spy program; it was a tripped out spy-thriller mixed with elements of science fiction, psychological drama, allegory, and philosophy. And it was very much of its time. Today’s audiences likely would not “get” it. Too much philosophizing and not enough action would kill its box-office numbers as evidenced by the abysmal showing of the 2011 remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It was critically lauded, even earning three Academy Award nominations, but it left audiences bored. The original BBC series from 1979 featured as little action and as much banter as the film, yet it captivated viewers of the time. It has been scientifically proven that people of today, esspecially teenagers and twenty-somethings, just don’t have the attention span of earlier generations.

A modern The Prisoner full of quick-cut editing and bombastic action sequences is likely what Hollywood would give us, losing the understated elegance and subtlety that make the original so… well, original. To make a film that modern theater-goers would flock to Ridley Scott, or whoever ends up directing, would have to remove many of the elements that make The Prisoner such an innovative and imaginative property in the first place. Which brings back the question: Why not make something original?

Photo courtesy of AMC

Photo courtesy of AMC

AMC tried The Prisoner as a series starring Jim Caviezel as Number 6 and Ian McKellan as the mysterious Number 2 back in 2009, and it wasn’t well received by critics or audiences. When a remake is of something as beloved as The Prisoner comparisons are also inevitable, and the 2009 series was mostly panned by critics for not being as compelling, interesting, or special as the original. It lacked the too-clever-for-its-own-good wit that made the original so endearing, and according to Entertainment Weekly was “self-absorbed to the point of incoherence.” And this was a somewhat modernized remake. A truly modernized version would most likely be unrecognizable.

Cramming 17 episodes worth of story into a two hour time slot would add to that unidentifiability (I make up words sometimes). There is truly an astounding amount of nuanced storytelling going on in The Prisoner, much of it understated and kept in the background of the main story. There is simply too much story to tell to keep it under the magic time limit that studios and audiences love. Our Film Editor points out that “Much of the series wasn’t really a connective narrative, each episode pretty much stands on its own”, and while that can be argued, to me the connective tissue was the theme of society as a prison, something that the series takes its time to express.

One of the other main complaints people had with Tinker Tailor was its run time of two hours seven minutes, which is apparently seven minutes too long. Yet these same people most likely binge-watched Daredevil the weekend it was added to Netflix. People are strange. Most don’t seem to have the attention span they used to when it comes to movies, and an attention span is required for the delicately complex tale of Number 6 and his world. If they planned it as a trilogy it might just work, but why not just binge watch the original instead?

Many remakes focus on name recognition as their bankroll, films such as Miami Vice and Total Recall are prime examples of properties sharing almost nothing in common with the source material but the name. Does The Prisoner even have that though? It’s a cult classic, sure, but other than its devoted fan base most don’t remember it if they had even seen it at all. It has been almost 50 years since it was on television after all. AMC was banking on that name recognition, and for those that do remember and love the original I think that actually hurt the series more than it helped find an audience for it.

The Prisoner shares much in common with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ superhero deconstruction meta-fictional tale Watchmen in that vein. For years, Warner Brothers was trying to get a film of the critically-acclaimed graphic novel in the can, with detractors claiming it was unfilmable. Zack Snyder proved that was untrue, but the film received mixed reviews and many of the nuances of Moore’s story were lost to the cutting room floor, giving the film a bit of a tonal shift, especially in the ending. Fans were divided with many simply enjoying the movie for coming as close as we’ll likely ever get to a true adaptation, while some disliked it because it was too literal an adaptation overshadowed by the greatness of the source material. Is that what we want from a Prisoner film?

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With the right director at the helm could it work? Maybe. Is this the right director? Also maybe. Ridley Scott is a director with a singular passion for the material, which is good, and he has tried his hand at philosophical science fiction with another cult classic, Blade Runner (Of which he is working on a sequel with Denis Villenueve signed on to direct and Harrison Ford set to return as Deckard.), but that is another film that many modern viewers find slow or boring. It also deviates quite a bit from the book it was adapted from. Here’s the thing: The original series was co-created by its star, Patrick McGoohan, and he had a say every step of the way in how the series played out. He had a vested interest, acting as the show’s guide, architect, and guardian. He also had a singular passion for the material, which I feel is much needed for the material to work, but again, it was a different time. Had McGoohan himself attempted such a unique show today I still feel it would fail for most viewers. People don’t seem to be receptive to original stories that make them think, they would prefer another Transformers entry.

And that’s the thing about The Prisoner: it makes you think. It brings you into The Village, gives you a number, and makes you one of the players. You are trying as hard as Number 6 to understand what is going on, to figure out the mysteries and puzzles and what exactly that big, white bouncing balloon thing is and why it’s out to get you. I feel that’s too much work for a modern audience. They are okay with just being a number. And me? I’m okay with re-watching the original.

Patrick McGoohan created not just a TV series, but a treatise on what it means to be human heavily inspired by the political landscape of the time, and The Prisoner has a lasting legacy that is just fine without a remake. I understand why someone would want to put their stamp on the concept, as it is a highly creative and heavily influential series unlike anything else on television then or now, but a botched remake would tarnish everything its legacy reminds us of, and may stop new viewers from discovering the brilliant series that still inspires filmmakers nearly five decades later. It was simply a product of its time, and while seemingly timeless to its fans, the vision that McGoohan captured so well most likely can’t be recreated.

 

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