“The Prisoner”

| December 6, 2009

I haven’t read a lot of novelizations of movies – probably a couple in middle school for whatever my latest blockbuster favorite was – but, generally, those (and most novelizations) were just an adaptation of the original film treatment or shooting script, hacked into prose form by a hired gun. If you’d seen the movie, then reading the novel wasn’t much different than reliving the film, with only occasional forays into un-shot backstory or deleted scenes, a famous example of which is from Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the book, we learn that Indiana Jones took his long ride on the German U-Boat by using his whip to tie himself to the periscope. This was a detail probably wisely omitted from the film.
That said, at the time of its American run, the late Thomas M. Disch, hardly a hired-gun hack, wrote the novelization of Patrick McGoohan’s groundbreaking series “The Prisoner”, and the end result has been re-released as a tie-in to the recent AMC miniseries based on the same – although the differences between the three are enormous, the only common thread being that they concern the adventures of a man known only as Number 6 who wakes up as a prisoner in the Village, which is run by Number 2. Number 6 wants to escape, Number 2 wants him to convert and conform, and everything races toward the identity of the mysterious but inevitable Number 1.
Of the three, McGoohan’s original series is the keeper, a unique undertaking that will never be equaled, and certainly cannot be bettered. The AMC miniseries was, frankly, a complete mess that missed the point of McGoohan’s vision by a hundred miles. (Hint: McGoohan’s was all about individual freedom versus conformity for the sake of imaginary security. The AMC version was all about… well, let’s just say that there were way too many holes in the plot.) I’m a huge fan of “The Prisoner”, and was very excited at seeing a modern take on the concept but, despite the presence of the always fabulous Ian McKellen, perfectly cast as Number 2, I barely made it through the first AMC episode before cringing and realizing that the producers had turned diamonds into crap. It only got worse from there, and I wanted to punch the screen when the finale did not involve a showdown to the death with Number 2, a trial by Ideals and then a journey down the hall and up the spiral staircase to finally meet Number 1.
In reading Disch’s take on “The Prisoner”, I had the same misgivings in the early chapters. Our Number Six was kidnapped from London and wound up in the Village, to be sure – but it was not the famous title sequence kidnapping from the series, the Village seems the same but different, and the world seems even more alien than the tropical-isle vacation resort mess from the AMC adaptation. I was ready to give up on this version as well, and then suddenly Disch waltzed me into familiar territory as Number Six meets Number Two (at least, via video), and the feeling of the old series returns. In fact, key elements from several well-known episodes make up the main plot of the novel, and the method to Disch’s madness becomes clear to any fan about a third of the way in. The novelization is actually set in the aftermath of several episodes from the series, but are told in the way that Number 6 would perceive them, given Number Two’s penchant for brainwashing and other dirty tricks. While deviating from the TV version, Disch actually immerses us more deeply into it, and the middle section of the book feels like what we expect – defiant Number 6 out-playing the chess masters at their mind-games for his own ends.
The conclusion to the book is even more different to the series than the beginning, and you’ll just have to go with it to completely enjoy Disch’s work. If you’re married to the alternate interpretation of the dialogue from the opening of McGoohan’s “The Prisoner” – “I am Number 2.” “Who is Number 1?” “You are Number 6” – then you’ll be a bit disappointed. I have to wonder, though, whether Disch was constrained from revealing the ending of the series, since I think the book was originally published during its initial American run. And, to be fair, he does pull a sleight-of-hand that somewhat does live up to the revelations of the original finale.
Unlike most “done for the money” quickie novelizations of films and TV shows, Disch’s interpretation is real Science Fiction, and quite literary as well – a key plot device near the end involves Number 6 directing a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, in which the lies and deceits of the play echo the lies and deceits of the book’s characters, the whole thing an elaborate distraction reminiscent of The Great Escape, and one for which it does help to brush up your Shakespeare. While the whole enterprise is enormously off-canon – the equivalent, perhaps, of a Star Wars novelization in which we find out that Luke’s father is actually Uncle Owen Lars – we still get Number 6 battling the dark side, with perhaps an even greater sense of alienation than in the original series.
If you loved McGoohan’s “The Prisoner” and the AMC series, then you’ll be the most tolerant fan of the book, and it is worth a read – although the claim on the cover that this is the basis for the AMC series is pure marketing and bears no resemblance to reality. If you loved McGoohan’s “The Prisoner” and hated the AMC series, then you’ll definitely appreciate Disch’s work, since it manages to deviate from the source while still being reverent. This is more than I can say about the AMC mess. Skip that modern remake, but indulge in the original’s contemporary re-write. It’s a good read, and does manage to take you back into McGoohan’s world through the filter of a different mind – which, come to think of it, is the ultimate meta-commentary on the series.
Be seeing you.
“The Prisoner” is available from Amazon.com.

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