Establishing Character and Plot Elements in Film: The Prisoner

A remarkable number of films absolutely botch their opening moments by introducing way too much information/needless detail or by providing essential information in a clumsy fashion. The worst ever example in the movies was David Lynch’s Dune, which had such an incoherent opening narration that when it played in the cinema, audience members were given an explanatory handout sheet with their tickets (And it didn’t help. Very disappointing given the greatness of Frank Herbert’s book).

I recommended previously a movie at the other end of the spectrum: In a Lonely Place. In less than 5 minutes you know who Bogart’s character is and what drives him, and you can’t help being pulled into the story by both lapels.

A television series that opens its story as well as any is Patrick McGoohan’s brilliant (if occasionally maddening), The Prisoner. I re-watched a number of these recently and greatly admire the creators for trusting the audience by using a 90 second opening with no dialogue. The images make clear what the series is about economically and cleverly. The next 90 seconds of the opening were substantially the same each week, but included some tailoring for the episode at hand. It’s an arresting and innovative way to begin telling a story and it has great background music as well.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “Establishing Character and Plot Elements in Film: The Prisoner”

  1. Another example: compare”Blade Runner” with and without the narration the studio made Scott dub into the pic.

    Books suffer from this too: telling vs showing.

  2. I always wondered (in that opening sequence) where all the London traffic had gone to (grin). Great late 1960s paranoia, however, even if we never find out exactly wha–or why.

  3. I think the fatal flaw in Lynch’s Dune is that he tried to make the movie of the novel, rather than concentrating on the story.

    Some novels are written in a way that the movie of the novel makes sense: Rowling’s Potter series introduces to the world gently enough because Harry has to be introduced to the world. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is also pretty much the movie of the book, but somehow it works despite the ironies involved in watching a movie made from a novel about the destruction of literature.

    1. The casting bit. The music was weird. The thought-box ray guns were inane.

      OK, there’s Verne and Wells and Clarke… but that was a while ago. To put it too crudely: What do Europeans know about science fiction?

      1. I can get past the casting, and the music wasn’t that weird. Okay, I like free jazz, so we may well differ in our tolerances for non European Common Practice music. The voice amps were stupid, but I think they were a symptom of trying to make the movie-of-the-book: the voice control thing is an important feature of the novel. For some reason Lynch thought he had to make it an external device.

        What I can’t get past is the crappy story-telling. I saw the movie knowing Herbert’s Dune universe well and I was still saying, “Huh???”

        1. I agree. What I was trying to say was: yes Lynch is an American but the movie isn’t. Emphatically. Yes the book is full of heavy-handed symbolism but still it seems to me it’s a straightforward American growing up story. You identify with Paul through thick and thin. He’s surrounded by perverts and sadists but he himself is full of true feeling. In the movie he comes across as just another weirdo. The externalization of more internal things (he voice box ray guns; the cancerous sores on Harkonnen) just seem like heavy-handed and particularly flat-footed European quasi-intellectual symbolism (playing chess with death, anyone?). Lawrence of Arabia as told by a non-English speaker.

          It really, really sucked. And the book is great.

          1. @larry birnbaum
            “What do Europeans know about science fiction?”

            Um, Ian M. Banks, Ian McDonald, Michael Moorcock, Jean-Christophe Valtat, Ken Macleod, Gwyneth Jones, Justina Robson, Hannu Rajaniemi, Diana Wynne Jones, Charles Stross, Andreas Eschbach, Ian Watson, John Meany, Paul McAuley, Stephen Hunt, Tricia Sullivan, Pat Cadigan, Lauren Beukes (a South African, but who’s counting?)…Really, what a dumb question.

          2. wufnik, well, yes. I was exercising my usual prejudice against Old World decadence and lack of future-feeling optimism, which I think I kind of indicated with the “too crudely” hedge.

            Still I’ll stand by my observation that notwithstanding being based on an American author’s work, directed by an American, and starring lots of American actors, the film doesn’t “feel” very American to me — and greatly to the movie’s detriment. By the way “Inception” (which isn’t an entirely American production of course) felt similarly over the Atlantic somewhere, but in this case I thought it worked.

            Happy 4th!

  4. Am I the only one who thinks that The Prisoner intro is a bit ham-fisted, overly long, and a little too caught up in its own silence (especially the argument where he pounds his fist on the table, uber-dramatically)?

    And I know I’m not the only one who saw that McGoohan – great actor though he is – runs like a dork.

  5. Am I the only one who thinks that The Prisoner intro is a bit ham-fisted, overly long, and a little too caught up in its own silence?

    Yes. This has been another edition of simple answers to complex questions…

  6. “Am I the only one who thinks that The Prisoner intro is a bit ham-fisted, overly long, and a little too caught up in its own silence?”

    No, there are more of us than most fanboys think.

  7. You all seem quite fascinated with the phrase, “Am I the one?” Perhaps you will get your turns being Number One, but I am not a number; I am a free man.

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