Sunday, November 22, 2009

Old versus New: The Prisoner

Last week, AMC premiered a six-part series, "The Prisoner", based on a 1960's series of the same name. The original series was conceived, starred, and mostly written by screen legend Patrick McGoohan ("Escape from Alcatraz", "Braveheart") and ran a total of 17 episodes.

The new series stars Jim Caviezel ("Passion of the Christ") and Sir Ian McKellen ("The Da Vinci Code", "The Lord of the Rings"). I hadn't seen the original before watching this version, though thanks to restrospectives and sci-fi specials, I've been aware of it for some time. After watching AMC's presentation, though, I went to AMC.com and watched the entire series. Frankly, I felt AMC's version to be slightly superior. There were many elements of McGoohan's series, not the least of which being his performance as the eponymous Prisoner, that outstripped AMC's version; but overall, I consider the new to be the better program. I know that position won't endear me to many fans of the original series. I'm a purist, myself, and I can't stand many of the remakes that have been produced recently (I still refuse to go see Will Ferrell's "Land of the Lost"). That doesn't mean that I can't like the new better than the old, though.

**Warning: Contains Spoilers**

First of all, in this case you can hardly compare the two together. McGoohan's "Prisoner" was about a secret agent who resigned and was abducted by persons unknown until he would reveal the "true reason" for his resignation. Caviezel worked for a company apparently engaged in researching persons who possessed access to higher states of consciousness. In both series, the Village is a place to hold the Prisoner until he is feeling cooperative, but what "they" want from the Prisoner is different in each case. The new Village isn't even a village, per se; it's apparently some sort of astral projection in which the residents all share with the help of Number Two and his wife. In short, the two stories are similar in name only.

This makes comparing the merits of the two stories vaguely like comparing Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series; some elements remain the same, some archetypes are common, but the plots, characters, and moral (the fundamentals of every story) are widely divergent. No one can doubt McGoohan's vision or creativity in what is rightly considered a masterpiece of the sci-fi/adventure genre; but his is not the only vision out there. Should the nominal aspects of McGoohan's "Prisoner" have been appropriated for the new version? Maybe, maybe not; but it certainly wouldn't be the first time a beloved series has been "updated" for a new generation (see Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, et al).

As a consequence of the new nature of the Village, some elements were necessarily eliminated or adjusted. First of all, the nature of Number Two has significantly changed. Before, Number Two was an administrator/warden tasked with extracting information from the "Villagers", including Number Six (McGoohan). To keep the focus on Number Six, every time Number Two failed to learn why Six resigned, a new Number Two was chosen to replace him. Some few Two's managed to retain their position longer than others, but all eventually failed when faced with Six's iron will.

McKellen's Number Two, though, could hardly be replaced so easily or so readily. Running a prison, even one disguised as a village, is quite a different task than controlling another plane of consciousness; especially one that is ever-expanding. When Caviezel's character proves his resilience, rather than continuing in their efforts merely to integrate him in society, it is apparently decided to annoint him as the new Number Two. McKellen's character, after all, is getting on in years, and he would need a successor eventually, anyway. This arrangement, though integral to the new storyline, places far more emphasis on Two than in the original series, even to the point of giving him a wife and son. Such an emphasis calls for the kind of acting that only a man of McKellen's caliber could deliver, which has led many to claim that Two upstages Six in this version. Apparently, though, that's how it's supposed to be.

By the way, if you've noticed me using the word "apparently" a lot in connection to AMC's "Prisoner", you're right. I'm guessing at much of what takes place in the new series. There's more mystery in the new version; still, it's left me with fewer questions than the original series. For example, when "Number One" is finally revealed in McGoohan's series, I couldn't have been more confused. They never quite reveal the real reason why Number Six resigned, nor do they even make clear during the series whether there is a "real reason" or if his captors merely think there is. And though one can hardly fault how well the writers and creators worked with what they had (i.e. a 1960's working knowledge of science), some of the episodes dealing with surveillance, medical science, and especially hypnotism were rather hard to swallow.

Finally, fans of the original series like to say there's no way anyone could live up to McGoohan's performance as Number Six. As for myself, I couldn't care less. We expect each actor to approach roles differently, even when it's the same role. Daniel Craig was a far different James Bond than Sean Connery, but that didn't make either one "superior" to the other; merely different. And this can hardly be considered the "same role". When you consider all the ways in which the stories diverge, the motivations differ, and the distance between the aims, you can't expect any of the characters to adhere to the original. Was McGoohan's performance superior to Caviezel's? Perhaps; but only in the same sense that Peter O'Toole's performance as King Henry was superior to Richard Harris' performance as King George.

- Stephen Monteith

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