Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Prisoner

I just watched the AMC remake of The Prisoner and I feel bad for the people who made it. They really tried, but they had everything stacked against them.

It's impossible to do a remake and not invite comparison. In this case, the comparison is not really fair because, starting about ten minutes in, the story of the remake bears only superficial resemblances to the original. (That wasn't really obvious for several hours, though.) The similarities were limited to incidentals (mostly homage pieces, like the presence of a lava lamp) and setting (the isolated village, people going by numbers, etc.) and a few elements of tone (surrealism and paranoia), but the story itself was entirely different.

Comparison is very difficult because the original is such a milestone of television history. Much has been written about it and I won't try to go over all the reasons it's such a pioneering and enduring work. I'll just note that they're not always obvious, which shouldn't be surprising. Writers working on stories about subtle psychological manipulation naturally will end up using lots of subtle psychological manipulation in making the show work.

For all that, you can't help, when looking at it, groaning at some of the clunky things, particularly production value, odd props, even clunky dialogue. Some of it feels dated. And surely in the decades since it was made, we can add something new about surveillance techniques, and the cooperation/conflict between anonymity and privacy. The temptation to update it with a better budget and clean up some of those things is strong. But that's not what they did; they did a new story in a similar-feeling setting.

Thus, the new story should be judged for itself, not for its comparison to the original, but it will inevitably be judged in comparison, which is unfair. That's a heck of a standard to try to live up to.

That's why it's almost a relief that it just sucked. Had it been good, but only on its own terms, defending it would be challenging. But it just wasn't. I can see how they tried hard to make it good, and I can see why they chose the things they chose, and I can even see why I might have made similar decisions (though I hope I would have done some of them better). But it just didn't work.

They chose to have an ending that tried to explain what was really going on, which the original didn't really do. Some people really like stories only if they explain themselves and hate unresolved mysteries. But this demonstrates why an unresolved mystery, when it's intentionally unresolved and for good reasons, can be far better than a bad resolution. This explanation didn't work, in both senses: it didn't work as a conclusion to the story and summation of its thematic elements, and it didn't work as a logical explanation of what was really going on all along. It just threw the lack of answer into sharp relief and changed it from a design choice into a problem.

The road leading to that conclusion also forced a few changes on the story which sucked the point out of it, even the bits that echoed specific episodes of the original. The protagonist, Six, only reacts; he isn't clever, he's not a worthy adversary, there's never any hope that he might turn the tables on Two, or any question who's jerking whom around. The original Number Six might have lost most of the struggles, but he got to smirk with minor victories from time to time, and even when he lost, you believed there was a reason he required such efforts and had so far avoided losing the war.

But in the remake, the struggle itself is gone. Two doesn't even seem to want anything from Six. The conflict is baseless, rooted only in ambiguity, and while that seems consistent with the original show's thematic elements (Ambiguity! Yay!) it just doesn't work. Six becomes a blandly sympathetic everyman instead of a hero. And we barely even care why he resigned. (Good thing, too, because the first time someone asks, he tells them. The first, and only, time.)

There are a few subtle pyschological ploys that compare to the original village's queer turns of phrase, constantly disorienting landscape, and habitual deception, but very few. One of the few good ones: all food is served in the form of wraps, and when asked if they have anything that's not a wrap, the villagers seem not to understand the question. (Gratuitously, though, there's one character who makes a cake, which is built up as an important clue, then ignored.) But mostly the village is bland and obvious. The "undercovers" are given a token exposition (anyone could be one! they could be spying on one another! maybe everyone's an undercover!) and then treated with the subtlety of a thrown brick: a far cry from the many layers of motivations and manipulations by which Number Two pitted various members of the village against one another, including times when Number Six was his tool, not his object.

Even if you avoid the comparison, this village was just unsubtle, uncompelling, and not even scary or eerie. It was Disney's The Village. And the story went nowhere. Ultimately, this one benefits from the comparison because at least you can talk about where the story could have gone, what elements it didn't quite have but at least reminded you of. Taken for itself, though, it's just a story that never quite does anything, except head towards an explanation that doesn't make sense and a resolution that is entirely unsatisfying.

It does make me itch for the original, again. Conveniently (as if it's a coincidence!) the original is now available on Blu-Ray, and I've read that this remaster restores the color and richness of the original that was missing from previous DVD versions. Will have to get those eventually.

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