I confess, in spite of the praise heaped on Christopher Nolan's The Prestige from almost all quarters, I was somewhat reluctant to go see it. Similar praise, after all, had been heaped on the Christopher Priest novel of the same name, of which the film is an adaptation, and it was and still remains one of the most unimpressive pieces of fiction it has ever been my misfortune to read (admittedly, the soporific experience of reading The Prestige takes on an almost rosy glow when compared to the one I had reading Priest's Clarke-winning The Separation, a very strong contender for the worst novel of my reading life). To my relief and delight, Nolan's version of the story is truly as fine as its fans would have had me believe--a clever, cleverly-made film, at the same time suspenseful and thoughtful, and full to the brim of observations about stage magic, showmanship, and the sacrifices that both entail.
Most interesting to me, as one of the half-dozen people on the planet who didn't adore Priest's novel, was observing the ways in which Nolan, and fellow screenwriter and brother Jonathan, improves on the original. Right off the bat he gets rid of the story's two greatest impediments--Priest's limp, underperforming prose, and the modern-day framing device which brings the descendants of the story's two magician protagonists, Borden and Angier, together to discover their ancestors' secrets, and which ultimately serves no narrative purpose--unlike the readers, the modern-day characters never learn Borden and Angier's secrets, their personalities are never explored, and their situations at the end of the novel are roughly the same as they were at its beginning, and not very likely to change as a result of the novel's events. The Nolans' plot construction is also a great deal more sophisticated than Priest's--I can't remember whether the novel actually switches back and forth between Borden and Angier's narratives, or whether it presents them one after the other (my inability to recall the novel's structure might have something to do with the fact that, in spite of their wildly differing personalities and social backgrounds, Borden and Angier speak in the same voice), but Priest certainly achieves nothing as clever or as challenging as the Nolans' three looping and alternating plotlines, which demand the viewers' undivided attention and reward it with a tightly controlled story.
The Nolans also up the ante considerably in their descriptions of the ever-escalating rivalry between the two magicians--which begins when Angier's wife dies in an accident for which Borden may or may not be responsible (in the book, Borden accidentally knocks Angier's wife to the ground and causes her to miscarry a pregnancy), and goes on to involve maiming, kidnapping, and one of the men framing the other for his murder. In his review of the film at Locus Online, Gary Westfahl takes the Nolans to task for jettisoning the novel's subtlety and replacing it with sensationalism. He is obviously right--when they turn the consequences of Angier's teleportation machine, which in the novel creates a lifeless copy of the thing it transports, and in the film creates a live one, from something distasteful into something monstrous, the Nolans turn the character himself--who, each night, murders the copy created as a side effect of his magic act--into a monster, whereas in the novel the two men, although far from perfect, are in the grand scheme of things both blameless. For my part, however, I found Priest's novel not so much subtle as bloodless--the revelation of the price Angier had to pay to perform a trick no one could unravel fell rather flat, whereas in the film it has an undeniably visceral effect. When one considers that the Nolans are careful to also paint Borden as morally ambiguous--he may not be a mass-murderer like Angier, but he could easily have prevented the death of his wife and instead chose to value his secret over her sanity--it seems petty to complain about their willingness to cater, however reservedly, to Hollywood's appetite for spectacle. In fact, it seems to me that Priest's novel would have benefited from a bit of spectacle itself.
The Prestige makes much of the fact that the audiences of magic shows are inevitably disappointed when they learn the secrets of magic tricks, as these secrets are usually too simple to be any fun, and often quite gruesome to boot. Borden in particular is driven by this knowledge, perhaps because the secret to his teleportation illusion is precisely as simple, and as gruesome--at the beginning of the film he very seriously exhorts a young boy never to reveal the secret of a magic trick to his friends, no matter how much they beg him, because 'once they know the secret, they won't care about you any more'; later on, his frightened wife forces him to reveal the secret of a bullet-catching trick, and Borden is so annoyed by her dismissive attitude once she learns the secret that he hastens to terrify her again by telling her that men have died performing it. The rules are different, however, when it comes to mysteries--which is what The Prestige, as a story, is. In a mystery, the audience demands to know the secret, and they want that secret to offer a satisfactory answer to the question that has been plaguing them. In order to be a satisfying resolution to the mystery, however, that secret needs to be just as fantastic as the question it answers.
A comparison of the ways in which Priest and the Nolans pull the curtain back on Borden's secret reveals a great deal about their respective strengths as storytellers, as well as acting as a meta-level to the film's discussion of the importance of both technical skill and showmanship. Borden, we are told, is the superior magician, but it isn't until his act is supplemented by the kind of theatricality Angier specializes in that it takes off. Similarly, Priest may have come up with the clever idea at the story's core--that Borden is in fact two brothers pretending, at every moment, to be one man--but he fumbles its revelation just as thoroughly as Borden fumbles the final act of his teleportation illusion, unveiling it as the secret to a trick, not the solution to a mystery. It takes the Nolans' storytelling skills to sell the revelation in a way that makes the audience feel as if the tops of their heads have come off. As the film approached its ending and the revelation of Borden's secret, I was actually quite sorry that I had come into it with prior knowledge of the book--it seemed to me that watching the film cold would have been quite an experience--but in the end it didn't seem to matter. A good magician can sell a trick even if the audience knows how it's done.
It's a cliché that bad books make good movies, but it precisely the fact that Christopher Nolan has made such a good and interesting film out of Christopher Priest's novel that makes me wonder whether there might not have been something more to the book than what I saw in it, buried deep beneath the author's complete lack of technical skills. Perhaps novel-writing should work a little more like movie-making--one person brings the ideas, another the dialogue, a third the plotting. And perhaps it doesn't matter--if you've got the chops to make something good out of your own good idea, it'll stand on its own as a piece of fiction. If you don't, eventually someone will come along, rummage through your trash for the hidden heart of gold, and make something better out of it. Either way, the audience wins.