Sunday, January 14, 2007

Everything's Already Been Said About the Movie, The Prestige Edition

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.

13 comments:

Dotan said...

Strangely, this is the first time I thought that your blog should contain a standard spoiler warning as part of the chrome.
I saw The Prestige yesterday, with two friends who had not read the book. I had to keep a stone face when asked "is it a twin?", about 15-20 minutes before the reveal.
Comparing Priest to Borden and Nolan to Angier is very clever. I thought the film was marvelous, managing to weave time frames and perspectives into a very cohesive and taut narrative. I loved how it opens and ends abruptly, leaving the audience stunned just seconds after its climatic reveal.
Priest's novel is much more ambitious, but unfortunately this makes it flaccid, having more plot then stunning reveals. In the novel, we read the two narrative strands sequentially, and this puts Borden at a clear disadvantage - Angier's story is where the reader gets all the revelations and insights into the mysteries that elude Borden. Priest also works out the implications of Tesla's invention at great length, and this lends more flab to Angier's narrative, drawing out the book further and further beyond the stunning revelation of Borden's secret, which is just as fantastic as the SFnal element. Removing the present-day frame is only the first step in the Nolans' treatment, which removes everything that isn't focused directly on the rivalry between the two magicians. Their screenplay puts Borden on a much more equal footing with Angier, making for a much stronger story.
Also, Priest's use of journals really does drain the blood from his story - Borden's story is actually visible only between his lines. I very much enjoyed watching the narrative actually being inhabited by flesh-and-blood people, and seeing how Bale's intensity manages to make those scenes believable (well, to me at least).

Iain Clark said...

I hugely enjoyed the film, having not read the book and knowing nothing of its secrets going in. (From the trailer I'd wondered if perhaps one of them was genuinely able to work magic.)

I think it's a tightly plotted, edited and paced movie, and an amazingly deft tap-dance of concealment and revelation. It's the way the story threads combine with clockwork precision that makes it so dazzling, but crucially I really do care about the characters, even as they are ruthless and unlikeable. It's a film which, like Memento, never sacrifices its characterisation to its plotting, but balances the two equally. The two lead performances are very strong.

If there's a weakness for me it's that many of the supporting characters, and particularly the women, are not well fleshed out and are often little more than ciphers. Scarlett Johansson's character fares badly, I think. But since the film is primarily a story about the two lead characters this isn't as damaging as it might be.

I have to say that I guessed Borden's secret very early in the film, and with that in mind I spotted most of the clues which are later flourished before us in the flashback sequence. Indeed, in true magician fashion the film flaunts most of the clues in full view but trusts that the audience will consistently misconstrue them.

(I don't want to sound like I'm boasting here because I'm not. I'd much rather have *not* guessed anything. I think that, knowing there's a twist, my brain just can't rest until its worked it out. I had the same problem in The Sixth Sense. Neither film has a particularly complex secret, merely one that most audiences would dismiss out of hand.)

That said, I didn't fully appreciate Angiers' secret. Even though the audience is given an inkling of its shape, it's difficult (or possibly too disturbing) to fully discern its detail. The way that the full horror gradually keeps unfolding and deepening in your mind is really very impressive.

Nonetheless, the film is just as gripping when you know what's coming, and the conclusion was no less stunning or emotionally powerful for it.

Jo said...

I went to see this with my other half a few weeks ago, him having read and enjoyed the book, me having not and knowing only that it was about stage magicians who have a rivalry.

We both absolutely loved it and Alex too thought it was better than the book. I thought the pacing was perfect - I figured out both reveals *just* before they actually happened, which is, as far as I am concerned, perfect timing for a mystery.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating review. I came at the film from the perspective of never having read the book (a skim of the first chapter in Blackwells convinced me I probably made the right choice, I have regrettably little patience for interesting ideas cloaked in pedestrian prose) and very much enjoyed it, largely because I knew none of the mysteries and twists in advance.

I did find it somewhat emotionally hollow - even though the two leads give very intense and impressive performances - perhaps because the driving emotions are always vengeance and hatred which, though powerful, are rarely enough to sustain a narrative - I guess it's why the beginning of the Count of Monte Cristo is much more compelling the end.

Also, perhaps I've missed a trick but I thought the implication - of the film - was that Angier kills himself, the original, nightly rather than the copy. It's been a few months since I've seen the film so I could be talking complete nonsense but in the scene when he first "copies" himself he puts the gun near the machine and shoots the surprised-looking man who appears on the other side of the room. Similarly, when they keep testing the machine on hats and cats, nothing appears to happen to the original and copies appear near the back of the house. The only reason I'm drivelling on about such a seemingly irrelevant detail is that, if true, if seems to make the twist even more macabre? I mean it's a pretty horrific thing to kill a copy of yourself, but to kill yourself? I think it also contributes something (irony perhaps?) to the central idea that you have to sacrifice something to perform magic. And I quite like the idea that is so eaten up by his revenge and obsessions that there is nothing left of him. I don't think it makes him less monstrous - just a different kind of monster.

Niall said...

I thought the implication - of the film - was that Angier kills himself, the original, nightly rather than the copy.

Yes. And no. :)

I think the point is that it's both -- after the machine has been used, both Angiers have a continuity of identity with the one who existed before the machine has been used. So one of them is going to remember activating the machine and drowning, one of them is going to remember activating the machine and appearing on the other side of the theatre. I think there's even a line about how terrible it is to never know whether you'll be the man in the box.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, thank you Naill - looks like my brain failed to make the final connective leap. Having a lot of friends still suffering the after-effects of having studied philosophy at university and liable to sit around until 4 in the morning theorising about whether if you were to clone yourself in just such a way would it still be you, I am overly inclined to think in concretes :)

Ted said...

I think there's even a line about how terrible it is to never know whether you'll be the man in the box.

I remember that line, and disliked it. It implied that Angier thought the original was different from the copy; fortunately it had always been the original (him) who wound up on the balcony, but there was always the risk it could go the other way. It seemed like Angier was denying the reality that he himself was drowning during every performance; he can't admit that he in fact is the man in the box every night.

Iain Clark said...

It implied that Angier thought the original was different from the copy

I didn't take any implication that they were different from what Angier said.

As Niall pointed out, both versions were identical, and of course going in to the trick he feared that he'd be the one to experience drowning. I reality it makes no real difference. Since both *are* identical, one will always drown, and that one will still remember worrying about it.

By definition the one who appears on the balcony is the one who didn't drown, so he'll always be the version of himself - whether original or copy - who remembers worrying about it but successfully playing the odds.

Niall said...

It seemed like Angier was denying the reality that he himself was drowning during every performance; he can't admit that he in fact is the man in the box every night.

I agree, but I think that's arguably a feature, not a bug.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think that's arguably a feature, not a bug.

I'll say. It's yet another way of contrasting Borden and Angier's diametrically opposed approaches to life. Borden embraces the opportunity to share his life with another, to wear away at his individuality, but when Angier perceives a threat to his uniquness, he attacks it. Which, of course, ties into their reasons for performing magic. For Borden, the rush is found in being able to perform a trick that no one will be able to unravel - for that pleasure, he's willing to live half a life, and in the end it doesn't matter to him whether he gets applause for his work. Angier cares only about the applause, so any threat to his chance of getting them - another him who might have an equal claim to his fame - has to be eliminated.

There's also, I suspect, a tie to the two men's socioeconomic background. I remember the book making much of the fact that Angier came from money whereas Borden was working or middle class. It might be argued that Angier's unwillingness to share his life, or face up to the consequences of his actions, has to do with a sense of entitlement.

Ted said...

I interpret Angier's statement of worry as saying that he had a 50% chance of being the one who drowns. In fact, there is a 100% certainty that he will be the one who drowns, and a 100% certainty that he will survive. (Obviously only one will live to tell the tale, but as far as that one is concerned, there's no risk at all.) To the extent that Angier doesn't understand this -- to the extent that he thinks there's just one of him who may or may not end up drowning -- it's an indicator that he doesn't acknowledge the truly horrific consequences of his decision.

I see the movie as depicting Angier as ultimately aware that he's doing something horrible, so I would have preferred it if his final speech had omitted that particular line. It's true that the movie supports an interpretation that Angier is in (even greater) denial, but I don't subscribe to that interpretation.

Dotan said...

Abigail has pretty much said it, but reading through the discussion compels me to spell it out:
The way Angier differentiates between the "real" performer and the "double" is this: The real performer is the one that receives the applause. The scenes where he uses an impersonator make this abundantly clear, and this obsession of his explains how he is willing to go to such depths of self-deception.
I agree with Iain that "Scarlett Johansson's character fares badly". While the mistress' role sounds like the big female part on paper - i.e from a synopsis or even from reading the book, on screen it comes out as almost superfluous, or at most just something that serves the plot. Johansson's part ends up being mostly about looking nice in period undergarments, while it's Rebecca Hall (as Borden's wife) that gets to say "you mean it today". If that line doesn't punch you the first time, it will the second time.

Carl V. said...

Great thoughts on a fantastic film. I saw it when it first came out over here in the US and cannot wait until it is released on DVD.

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