The Prestige by Christopher Priest
I was drawn to Christopher Priest’s novel after having watched and enjoyed the Nolan brothers’ film adaptation of The Prestige. Going into the reading, I knew that several plot twists would be spotted a mile away, but the film is sufficiently different from its source material that Priest’s work contains several surprises.
Journalist Andrew Westley is brought under false pretences to a Derbyshire estate to meet with a young woman who is quite desperate to get in contact with him. Andrew is an entirely ordinary man, except for one quirk: having been adopted at a young age, he is convinced that he has a twin brother somewhere in the world, despite all evidence to the contrary. However, his informant Kate Angier thinks that she can shed some light on his situation, believing that a traumatic experience she had as a child and Andrew’s own confused past all has something to do with their great-grandfathers: Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, two 19th century stage illusionists.
Their story unfolds with the discovery of two journals that recount a bitter feud between the two magicians, how it escalated over the years, and how it still affects the last surviving members of each family. This contemporary framing device is the biggest departure the Nolan brothers took in adapting from book to film, and is eerie, chilling new material for those that were introduced to the story via the film.
Priest uses the journal entries to recount the lives of Borden and Angiers, shedding more light on their backgrounds and upbringings, and recounting their shared experiences from each man’s point of view. Both live their lives shrouded in mystery and secrets, each engaged in a bitter feud with one another that has devastating consequences.
Many liberties were taken in the film (usually to good effect), and it is an intriguing exercise in contrasting and comparing the two mediums. The Nolan brothers took Priest’s premise and characters, and shaped them into something that was quite different and yet still essentially the same. The film makes more of the feud itself (which is not nearly so personal in the book; nor does it start with the same set of circumstances), and has more to say about the dangers of obsession and its detrimental affect on those that surround the protagonists. Characters, such as Olivia and Cutter are present, but modified, as is the historical personage of Nikola Tesla and his role to play. Each magician’s family life is explored in more detail, the diary entries are jettisoned, and a waiting-for-the-gallows plot is introduced — in other words, plenty of bits and pieces have been changed about.
The book on the other hand keeps the men more or less separate throughout their lifetimes, and they have little personal investment in the rivalry — in fact, neither one is quite sure *why* they partake in it. The most satisfying aspect of the novel is to see how Borden’s recollections of certain events match up with Angier’s own take on what was happening, as well as each man’s love of both magic and family and how each of these things motivated them.
It is impossible for me to say whether I would have guessed Borden’s secret without having seen the film first, but the particulars of Angier’s secret have been ever-so-slightly tweaked in the film. This means that the consequences of his secret lead to significantly different circumstances in the novel, as well as a new climax and denouement. One thing I did find interesting is that it is Angier’s narration that takes up the bulk of the novel, lending him a degree of sympathy that was not quite as apparent in the film.
Since both film and book come very highly recommended by me, the real question remains is: what does one do first — watch the film or read the book? Unless you somehow find a way to do it concurrently, one will inevitably find that foreknowledge of one will influence the reading/watching of the other in regards to the secrets that permeate each one. The clincher is that Angier gets the better story in the novel and Borden gets the better one in the film; yet the twists in Angier’s story are more likely to catch you off-guard than Borden’s easy-to-guess life secret. Naturally you won’t know which plot is worth being “spoilt” for the sake of the other until you experience them both.
My advice is to watch the film first. The Nolan brothers are somewhat more adept at handling each character’s major twist, for though the revelation of Borden’s secret comes as the climax of the movie, the novel treats it quite casually, almost as an afterthought and Borden is more or less dropped from the narrative soon afterwards. For the sake of Christian Bale’s carefully nuanced performance as Borden and the “eureka!” moment that his revelation provides, I don’t regret having seen the film before reading the book.
Each medium has its advantages and detriments, yet in both cases the intrigue and thematic soundness of the story makes for a rewarding, entertaining experience. It is the structure of each that really makes book and film worth the effort; each are as carefully plotted as an illusion, both are haunting and thought-provoking stories, and perfectly complimentary material. It’s very easy to enjoy and appreciate both.
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