Monday, October 08, 2007

The Prestige: Book and Movie [Review]

[ For both the RIP Challenge II and the Books into Movies Challenge ]

The Prestige by Christopher Priest (Tor Books (2006), Mass Market Paperback, 368 pages)

The Prestige: The Screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (
Faber & Faber (2006), Paperback, 112 pages)

This is another two-for-one style review, just as I did earlier this month with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Mary Reilly.

My husband and youngest son brought the movie to my attention and subsequently the book as well. The book, originally published in 1995, had won the World Fantasy Award and the movie, which came out in 2006, was nominated for an Oscar in two of the lesser technical categories. Both my husband and my son found the movie to be intriguing -- to the point of watching the film multiple times. The book, according to my husband, was rather "creepier" than the movie and he recommended it. One day this past summer, while folding laundry or some equally mundane task, I got caught up in watching the movie version of The Prestige on cable. The movie got my attention because I couldn't fathom quite where it was going, given the plot twists, and I became deeply engaged in working out the puzzle. Subsequently, as my husband had thought it was rather interesting, I thought I'd read the original novel for the RIP Challenge this year. (After all, creepy is one of the necessary criteria.)

You would think that, having watched the movie, reading the book would be somewhat anti-climactic. After all, the reader/viewer knows the secret of how the stage magicians pull it all off. But that is not actually the case in this instance; the original author and the film screenwriters tell the same story with some slight differences and each version is wrought so carefully that the story-telling in each produces a satisfying experience.

The introduction to the screenplay describes the difficulty of transmuting the novel into a movie. Specifically, Jonathan Nolan writes, "The first step of adapting a brilliant book is heresy -- you have to throw it all out, then watch as piece by piece, it creeps its way back in, with a smile, as if to say, 'I told you so'. The biggest challenge was the structure." Priest's novel is structured in five sections (4 individual perspectives and a final dual view of events). It has a modern day setting and a setting in the late Victorian period. We hear the voices of two men, Rupert Angier and Albert Borden, and the voices of two of their descendants. Nolan, in modifying the story for the screen, drops out the modern element. All of the focus is on the two men in the 19th century, vying with one another for the premier position in their field. In the film, the triggering event for the artists' feud which builds into obsession is different from that of the text, but the screenwriter hasn't the luxury of the slower build-up employed in the book. Both handle the growing conflict plausibly and with interest.

Class is a significant element in the story of these two men, one the son of a carpenter and the other the son of a titled lord. Film conveys the class aspect rather more subtlety (costume, set design, etc.) than the book. Angier and Borden adopt different avenues of approach in choosing how they will succeed; one chooses an elaborate creation of illusion and the other calls upon science to manufacture the surprising end of his act. (The scientific element is how the figure of Nikolai Tesla enters into the story.). The surprise, the pay-off, in both book and film is how the clues are laid before the reader. If you are clever in following the clues, can you see where this story will ultimately end? It's rare (in my experience) to feel a need to watch a movie twice as well as read the book twice in order to closely track how the craft in telling the story is managed so that the resolution is not immediately obvious.

The themes here are duality (just as in Jekyll and Hyde) and the trade-offs associated with an upward struggle (just as in Mary Reilly). Are those who appear to be dead truly dead? Or will they return to the stage, whole and unexpected? Disguise is as much a part of the illusionist's craft as diversion. The touch of the gothic makes film and book just bit darker; one isn't necessarily scared as with The Woman in Black, but there is that level of discomfort, that quality of what my husband called "creepiness". Intellectual creepiness of the sort that makes you think -- when all you thought you were getting was either a popcorn flick or a fast read.

They are wonderfully crafted and enjoyable. If you have time to read, go for the novel; if you have only two hours of leisure, pick up the DVD. If you are stuck in the house over a gloomy, rainy weekend, do both.