Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

[I started writing my long overdue February reading post and it blew up. So it'll come in dribs and drabs over the next few weeks, along with March's books.]


 Prestige The I watched the film version of The Prestige (directed by Christoper Nolan and starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) when it came out in cinemas in 2006. I also watched The Illusionist (starring Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti) when that came out a few months later on DVD. What can I say, I like stuff about magicians. At the time I greatly preferred The Presitge, but didn't put much thought into why.

Book vs Film vs Film

The PrestigeIn February I listened to the auidobook version of Christopher Guest's novel, The Prestige, upon which Christopher Nolan based his film. I haven't rewatched the film since, but I have rewatched The Illusionist (which was based on a short story by Stephen Millhauser) and my conclusion is the same: The Prestige is the superior story.

Now, the film and the book do differ signficantly in terms of both structure and plot. The novel has a framing story set in the modern day involving decendents of the two magicians (Angier and Borden), whereas the film frames the magicians fued by having Alfred Borden on trial for the murder of Rupert Angier (not in the novel). But the great thing about both versions is the fact the two protagonists give up so much to achieve success (in magic and in besting their rivals). It's almost like that formula in hard-boiled crime fiction where the detective can only come to knowledge through suffering, except here you can replace "knowledge" with "magic". (And what is magic but the individual's knowledge of the possiblle presented to the crowd as the impossible?).

This is symbolised in both the novel and the film by the magician Ching Ling Foo who walks around with gimpy his whole life to disguise the fact he keeps a fishbowl full of water clamped between his thighs (and beneath his flowing oriental robes) to produce 'from thin air' in the finale of his show.

Both Borden and Angier have their metaphorical fishbowls to bear in order to produce their big effects: the 'New Transported Man' and 'In A Flash' respectively.

The Illusionist This suffering to succeed idea is also present in the Illusionist, but the magic is secondary. In essence, The Illusionist is a love story. Eisenheim loves the prince's girlfriend, she loves him, but they can't be together. So they devise an intricate rouse using his skills as a magician so that they can be together. Yawn.

Where Priest's novel trumps Nolan's film is the degree to which magic is inextricable from the story. The diary of Alfred Borden is built upon the concept of "the pledge" - the idea that the magician shows you what is up his sleeve, and you are willing to believe there's nothing, and that when something is produced hence, it is magic. So too, the writing of the diary exists on two levels: there's the prima facie truth and the between-the-lines truth.

I also loved the excursion (both in the novel and the film) to the US to visit Nikoli Tesla (played by David Bowie in the film). Unlike my aversion to famous people popping up in historical tales for no effect other than to include famous people (aka The Shanghai Knights effect), the development of electrical technologies at the time of Borden and Angier is another kind of magic - it makes perfect sense for the worlds of stage magic and electrical science to come together. Angier's pilgrimmage to Colorado Springs and Tesla takes the novel off into science fiction, and even when it becomes a kind of ghost story, I still felt grounded by a sense of plausibility and the solidity of the characters.

Great stuff.

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