In 'Prisoner,' Twisted Whimsy Flirts With New Fears

Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellan in AMC's 'The Prisoner' i i

hide captionJim Caviezel (left) says working with The Prisoner co-star Ian McKellan is like a fencing match.

Keith Bernstein/AMC
Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellan in AMC's 'The Prisoner'

Jim Caviezel (left) says working with The Prisoner co-star Ian McKellan is like a fencing match.

Keith Bernstein/AMC

At the height of the Cold War, British actor Patrick McGoohan conceived a television series that was so subversive and enigmatic, it lasted just 17 episodes.

The program was called The Prisoner.

For decades, filmmakers and actors including Mel Gibson have wanted to remake the series. AMC has finally done it, but if you're expecting a faithful re-creation of the British series, actor Jim Caviezel says you'll be disappointed.

In the original series, McGoohan played a British intelligence officer who mysteriously resigned on principle — we never find out why. The opening credits take a full two minutes and set up the series' premise. They start with McGoohan racing through the streets of London before stalking angrily into the office of the head (presumably) of MI6, Britain's external intelligence agency.

Shortly after, McGoohan is exposed to vapors that send him into a deep sleep. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a pastel-colored compound of cheery houses and landscaped gardens.

He has arrived in the "Village," a place where maverick intelligence operatives from all sides of the Iron Curtain are held. McGoohan is handed a new identity, "Number Six." His main captor is an ever-changing character known as the "New Number Two."

Over the original 17 episodes, we never find out why Number Six was sent away or much about any of the other captives in the Village. But as the series unfolds, it becomes clear that The Prisoner is an allegorical tale. It's about individualism versus collectivism, freedom versus controlled democracy, and principle versus cynicism.

"I am not a number," McGoohan's character shouts. "I am a free man."

The 2009 version of The Prisoner is a reinvention, not a remake, according to Caviezel, who plays the new Number Six.

"It's an allegorical piece to our times," he tells All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "We couldn't go and make a 1967 Prisoner." The overarching threat in this version is not the possibility of nuclear annihilation, but rather "people losing their homes, their jobs," Caviezel says.

Caviezel is best known for his roles in The Thin Red Line and The Passion of the Christ but calls his portrayal of Number Six among his most challenging.

His co-star Ian McKellan is Number Two. Unlike the original, Number 2 remains the same person throughout the six-part miniseries.

Working with McKellan is like a fencing match, Caviezel says. "If you're off-balance, one moment off-balance, he's gonna take you and throw you down."

The new series pays homage to the original in small ways. The large and terrifying spheres called "rovers" patrol the village to keep anyone from escaping. Instead of "goodbye," the brainwashed villagers' preferred valediction is "be seeing you." And one of the characters wears a black blazer fringed in white — the same style of jacket Patrick McGoohan wore in the original.

The result is something Caviezel describes as a "six-hour film with two intermissions" — a version of George Orwell's 1984, he says, "mixed in there with Disneyland."

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