A book written to spec around an existing television franchise, the only reason for its existence is that the writer satisfies its television-watching readers' prior expectations. Having paid the ticket, the reader already has a map and a list of sights he wants to see. The question becomes one not so much of how satisfying the novel is as a self-contained work but rather how well it rates in comparison to, reduplicates the experience of The Prisoner television series? The readership (formerly audience) presumably knows what it's after: a conformity, neither better nor worse. Where can the author find allowance for his authorial aesthetic? Where now his flights of technique, gambols of fancy, ripening fitness of themes?
This time around, oh, the reader is in luck. In its treatment of incarceration, social coercion, and the constituted, provisional nature of personal identity The Prisoner television series accords with Disch's perennial themes and the attitude of his youth with which he expressed them. Independent of its television begetter the book emerges as a hybrid of Camp Concentration and "The Asian Shore": the survivalist ethos that sustains the characters in his earlier work in this instance underpins the related but more vexed issues of self-definition and the means by which one can find personal surety and self-knowledge that inform his later short fiction. Differing from the television Prisoner Disch does not identify or comment on pressing current ideologies or propose an agenda of action for undermining societal constraint, yet the idea of the creative individual conflicting with an oppressive bureaucratic society (so often the theme of Dystopic sf, cf. M.Keith Booker. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Greenwood Press, 1994) is one that finds consonance with many young minds, and Disch is no exception, though his treatment is usually more subtle, demonstrating processes of self-implication in social strictures, than he allows room for here. In this respect Disch does his readers and fans of the TV series a disservice. He does not deign to the gesturing at grand themes and showy social messages that impelled and characterised the television stories - his is just an elegant adventure story of disoriented intelligence agents trying to escape from blandly surreal brainwashing opponents. All of the play with double identities, betrayals and startling revelations accords with Disch's own taste for ambivalence and delight in narrative surprises, but Disch's own approach to the confrontationalism that gave the program much of its impact is to eschew its brute schocks, violence, noise and kinaesthetics for a style of drawing room drama with verbal sallies more akin to Coward and Rattigan. Like any Disch novel The Prisoner comes abetted by an armature of fine culture, heightening the dialogue (the major apparatus of the book) and conferring a lavish, cultivated purview to fascinate and offset the often unembellished property, since Disch lacks the televisual preference for gimmickry such as human chessboards and impressive techno-setpieces like speed-reading devices, mind-transference machines and supercomputers. Instead, Disch's narrative arrives at such a non-sf plot device as a performance of "Measure for Measure" ripe with metaphor and metonymy as the actions of Disch's fictional characters blur within the attraction of Shakespeare's plot. In terms of a conclusion, the novel has much of the open-endedness of the TV series, though it is easy to see that its apparent anticlimactic lack of direct resolution may owe to commercial franchise dictates, and also a possible distaste on Disch's part for the cliched grand revelations of spy thrillers - indeed while earlier sections have more than satisfied this ostentatious impulse, the ending is more of a coda. Aside from this possible fault, the book itself is an admirable opportunity for Disch to exercise what was a then refined talent for obliquity and frequently unresolved unease expressed with a clarity of style and effort in the employ of a settled plot - the impression created being rather one of Andre Gide supervising John LeCarre. While it cannot be accounted one of Disch's major works, it advances certain fundamental themes in an unexpected arena with much to offer in the way of light reading pleasure.
"The Prisoner was somewhat more seriously intended (than The House That Fear Built). I put my own name to it, that's a clue. I thought it was fun. I'd never written a James Bond type novel and I was offered it and I needed the money. You don't write tie-ins for any other reason. I hadn't seen any of the T.V. programs when I agreed to do it and then I managed to sit on two or three of them that were being broadcast at the time. I thought the set decorations were lovely and so I used the visual sense of the program, but I made up my own plot for it given the basic paranoid premise of the series. It was just my jeu d'esprit on paranoid themes. And sometimes you can have more fun. You don't feel responsible towards your material. You can play around with it. It's certainly a fast way to write, because you don't feel responsibility for the ultimate product. So I think that there's a lot of graceful invention in the thing, but I think of it as a soufflé at best".
"An Interview with Thomas M. Disch", Scott Edelman, Last Wave #5, Winter 1986
"Concerning The Prisoner, I did it for a flat fee - a small flat fee - and have resented the book's every reprinting. My advice to intending novelizationists is only do it if your agent can secure a decent royalty rate. What you stand to learn from doing a novelization should be your top words per week velocity. There was not a lot of difference, for me, between doing The Prisoner and a novel of my own of the same length. A movie novelization that hues close to the script is another matter. Since a professional should find it just as easy to plot his or her own novel, why bother writing someone else's? What I learned from the process? Never again to be so broke I have to sell my blood for a living".
"Novelizing (Ugh!)", Thomas M. Disch, Bulletin of the SFWA Summer 1990
Did you know that in an interview (oh, from long ago!) Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner) mentions that an author sent him a book (or manuscript, I forget which he said) suggesting he use it to make a movie of the Prisoner? This turned out to be Mr. Disch. I know I'm not being helpful when I say I can't remember if McGoohan said his name or if I just deduced it from the conversation.
- Cathy Frumerman, 28 Dec 2000
As to The Prisoner, I would not have sent a copy to McGoohan, but I know he'd seen one, and even phoned once while passing through NYC to give me a pat on the back. He certainly would not have wanted to base a movie on my novelization of the series, since it was his property and he would not have volunteered to offer someone a slice of the pie. Indeed, the contract with Ace would probably have allowed him the right to take anything in the book for his own use.
- Thomas M. Disch, 31 Jan 2001