Why The Prisoner Would Be a Perfect Next Film for Christopher Nolan

The cult classic 1960s TV series is a surreal mix of sci-fi and spy thriller – in other words, it sounds like a Christopher Nolan movie.

Patrick McGoohan as Number Six in The Prisoner
Photo: Bettmann/Getty

As Christopher Nolan basks in the afterglow of Oppenheimer’s dominant performance at the 96th annual Academy Awards – including a best picture win for the film and a long-overdue best director nod for Nolan himself – speculation is growing about what the British filmmaker will tackle next for his 13th feature. Nolan is typically reticent to speak about future projects; with the director working on a more or less three-year cycle for his last several films, he might not even officially say anything about his new movie until later in 2024 or early in 2025.

But according to rumors that have surfaced online in the past week, Nolan may tackle as his next film a big-screen version of the cult classic TV series The Prisoner, which was broadcast in the UK in 1967 and the US in 1968. The show, which ran for a single season consisting of 17 episodes, was created by Irish actor/writer Patrick McGoohan, who also starred as Number Six, a former intelligence agent who resigns abruptly from his job and finds himself incarcerated in a coastal resort known only as The Village.

Like Number Six, no one in the Village uses their names, but instead are referred to by numbers. Many seem content to live there, although it’s clear that everyone is under constant surveillance and escape is impossible; among the Village’s security measures is a large white balloon known as Rover that is seemingly sentient and can incapacitate or even kill the inhabitants. For nearly every episode, a different person known as Number Two would attempt to break down Number Six and obtain information about why he resigned, only to meet with failure and be replaced the following week.

The Lure of The Prisoner

The Prisoner was and is quite unlike anything else of its kind ever presented on television, and despite its short run and cult status, its influence on many succeeding series is vast. Atmospheric and surreal, spinning its tales with a mix of jauntiness and dread, The Prisoner became famous for what it didn’t reveal: Number Six’s name and origin, his reason for resigning, the exact location and purpose of the Village, and many other mysteries. The series finale, “Fall Out,” in which Number Six finally gets to meet Number One, is a hallucinatory mind-fuck that even some of today’s boldest shows might not muster.

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It’s easy to see why The Prisoner might appeal to Nolan. Its themes of the individual vs. an imposing bureaucracy, life in a surveillance state, physical and temporal dislocation, and the loss of identity are all ideas that the director has touched on in previous works, ranging from Memento (2000) to the Dark Knight trilogy to Inception (2010) to Tenet (2020). The show’s surreal mix of dystopian science fiction, existential mystery, and spy drama – one popular fan theory suggests that Number Six is actually secret agent John Drake, the protagonist of McGoohan’s earlier series, Danger Man – are all right in the filmmaker’s wheelhouse, albeit in a combination that he hasn’t yet created in his work to date.

Interestingly, The Prisoner was on Nolan’s radar once before: in 2009, between the release of The Dark Knight the year before and Inception in 2010, it was widely reported that the filmmaker was working on a big-screen remake. He allegedly abandoned it after news surfaced that a six-part AMC miniseries was in the works (that version, starring Jim Caviezel as Number Six and Ian McKellen as Number Two, aired in November 2009 and was a tedious, incoherent disaster). Typically, Nolan has said little about his own attempt to tackle The Prisoner, only telling Variety in 2023 that he “couldn’t quite crack” the adaptation.

Could Remaking The Prisoner Be a Trap?

With its themes of individual liberty and anti-establishment resistance, not to mention its English holiday resort setting and colorful, even psychedelic imagery, The Prisoner was very much a product of its time – the late ‘60s – and might be tough to adapt in a modern version for that very reason. The 2009 remake traded all that, even the production design, for a more bland, sterilized look at identity politics that, as typical these days, offered up lame “mystery box” answers for its many initial enigmas.

Yet the elements that make The Prisoner so unique and retro-futuristic are also the aspects that Nolan could manipulate to his own advantage. It was formally experimental for its time, and anyone who has seen most of Nolan’s filmography, especially films like Inception, Dunkirk, and Oppenheimer, knows he has no problem with that, nor with surrealism. And while his movies have to date largely worked within a more muted visual palate, adapting the colorful, kaleidoscopic mise en scène of The Prisoner to a modern blockbuster could be the kind of challenge that this filmmaker likes to set for himself.

At this point, The Prisoner has kind of faded in the public zeitgeist, as newer generations have never seen the original and perhaps only fleetingly heard of it. That also gives Nolan the opportunity to stretch the premise and material in whatever direction he sees fit, without having to worry about alienating vast hordes of fans ready to pounce on social media if he gets the cut of Number Six’s jacket wrong. Yet at the same time, the basic scenario is so strong and so bizarre that Nolan might hesitate to lose sight of what made the original show so compelling. But seeing that its themes and mix of genres are so prevalent in his work already, we imagine that he’s perhaps the one director who could pull this off.

With the enormous, unprecedented success of Oppenheimer giving Nolan more creative freedom than perhaps ever before for a mainstream, big-budget filmmaker, should Nolan remake a semi-forgotten, 60-year-old TV show – or dive headfirst into the James Bond franchise, another long-rumored possibility – or use the leverage he’s got now to make something completely new and original? In the corporate echelons of Hollywood, Nolan is now perhaps the only director who can shout Number Six’s most famous line – “I am not a number, I am a free man!” – and mean it.

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The Prisoner can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video, Pluto TV, and Tubi.