Stanford Prison Experiment: The Movie

According to Wikipedia (my source for all possibly-dubious-but-fun information), Maverick Films is mounting a movie about the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971. One of the most controversial and sensational chapters in the field of modern experimental psychology, the experiment has previously served as an inspiration for writers including Ursula Le Guin and Gene Wolfe (not to mention an episode of Veronica Mars).

The film, which is apparently being co-written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, doesn’t seem to have reached pre-production yet but is slated for release in 2009. An array of young actors including Ryan Phillippe, Paul Dano, Giovanni Ribisi, and Kieran Culkin are said to be attached to the project. As far as track records go, McQuarrie earned a well-deserved Oscar (as well as an Edgar) for his screenplay for The Usual Suspects; on the other hand, he also wrote and directed the The Way of The Gun, a film which unfortunately never really lives up to it’s notorious opening scene.

In the case of this project, one hopes he’ll be able to deal with the deeper complexities of the story without taking the low road, engaging in cheap sensationalism or, even worse, the sort of hideous nostalgia that too often creeps into American representations of the sixties and seventies. The last thing I need to see is an intellectually-bankrupt, big-budget tribute to Sadism and The Darkness of the Human Soul filtered through the same fatuously sentimental lens as The Wonder Years, Forrest Gump, or even Swingtown. McQuarrie should be less concerned about capturing the political and cultural zeitgeist of the early seventies than with the continued applicability of the powerful lessons gleaned from Zimbardo’s work to our current political climate and contemporary attitudes toward power and authority.

In theory, the concept of a film version of the Stanford experiment is rife with possibility; the events in question certainly provide enough raw material to fuel an almost infinite number of moral questions and ethical speculations. The basic facts are these: in an effort to gain insight into the psychological make-up and personality traits of prisoners and guards involved in institutional abuse, Zimbardo recruited twenty-four young male volunteers (mostly white, middle-class students) and divided them into two groups. The “prisoners” were processed by actual police officers, strip-searched, assigned numbers, dressed in standard prison garb, chained at the feet and placed in a simulated jail in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building. The “guards” were given khaki uniforms, mirrored sunglasses (to prevent eye contact), and wooden batons, then instructed by Zimbardo in his role as “Prison Superintendent” not to physically harm their charges but to engage instead in various methods of depersonalization and deindividuation.

The prison simulation was originally scheduled to last two weeks; however, due to the level of violent, cruel, and sadistic behavior on the part of the “guards” and the obviously severe emotional damage being endured by the “prisoners,” as well as rioting and a decline in sanitary conditions and general order, the experiment was called off after only six days. Zimbardo has attributed the seemingly unfathomable behavior and intense absorption of himself and the other participants into their adopted personas over the short span of time to the psychological internalization of ideological roles and power structures and the apparent human tendency to privilege obedience to authority over individual personality traits, judgment, or personal beliefs.

The potential implications of the film (if done well) are enough to make me wish it were coming out sooner. Just as Zimbardo was perhaps the ideal person to analyze the Abu Ghraib scandal, which he did in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil in 2007, his work and the work of other social psychologists like Stanley Milgram continue to inform our understanding of the way power and fear operate at every level of our culture, from education to social structures to politics. In 1971, in a video made during the orientation session at which Zimbardo instructed his “guards” on how to behave toward the “prisoners” in their charge, he tells them:

You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy… We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.

If that strategy sounds familiar, it probably should. The philosophical and moral ramifications of the Stanford experiment have resonated in thought, in literature, in every aspect of culture for almost four decades now, inspiring individuals to question the roles they are being asked to play in their own lives and in the life of this country, to think about where power really lies and who put it there. Perhaps now more than ever, there is a need for a greater awareness of the complex underpinnings and legitimizing strategies which hold authority in place. If this film manages to illuminate these issues even in small part, it will be worth the wait.

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