Magic! Grudges! Obsession! Teleportation!
These things were enough to inspire me to do another Film Library entry, something I haven’t done in way too long. I don’t know where the time went, but I realized recently that I hadn’t done one of these since last Christmas when we talked about the incredibly unsatisfying Die Hard 2 and 58 Minutes. So, since it was high time to bring this project back, I figured I’d do something a little special. And, since around that time I just so happened to be working me way through the Blank Check Podcast’s series on the filmography of Christopher Nolan, I decided it was time to talk about one of my favorite films of all time, and check out the book that inspired it. That’s right, folks! We’re talking about The Prestige, in both of its iterations. It’s a film that I’ve loved for quite a while, but for whatever reason I’d never gotten around to reading the novel that it was based on. But, that’s been rectified, and I’m pleased to announce that it’s the exact type of adaptation that I love to talk about on here. It’s not a carbon copy, and it’s not outlandishly different. It’s that perfect middle ground where you can experience both stories and get something different from both of them.
Christopher Nolan is a director that gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so. I feel like I often get a strange desire to discredit him a bit, feeling like he gets to over-rated. But, then I revisit his work, and am consistently blown away by how great a filmmaker he really is. Yeah, the Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar don’t really work great for me, but he knows what he’s doing. He’s a fascinating filmmaker, and one of the most interesting storytellers working today. And, I really don’t know how shocking of an opinion this is, but I would consider the Prestige to be his best film. By a lot. I really like almost all of his movies. But I love the Prestige. From when I first saw the film in theaters I’ve been a little obsessed with it, and it’s probably his movie I’ve seen the most. There’s just something about the film that checks a staggering amount of my boxes. We get magicians, Nikola Tesla, turn of the century aesthetics, con-men, mysteries, and a story that’s ultimately about how obsession can destroy you. It’s a beautiful film, and it clearly meant a lot to Nolan to make.
He and his brother Jonathan learned about the novel, written by Christopher Priest, and waited years so they could option it and bring it to the screen. It was a passion project of theirs, and they spent five years working on the screenplay in between other projects, taking a novel that they loved and finding the perfect way to adapt it to the screen, crafting it in a way to best work as a film. Which, was a little difficult, since the way the novel is structured didn’t exactly lend itself to a straight-forward adaptation. And, after the success of Batman Begins, Nolan was given the allowance to bring this incredibly strange, lavish film to life. He brought along several of his usual cast-mates and crew, used sound-stages and actual old theaters to bring Victorian London to life, and set to work making this film as quickly and efficiently as possible. But then, as luck would have it, two other movies about stage magicians came out that year. The Prestige did decently, both in terms of critical response and box office results, but it ended up getting overshadowed by the oddly mediocre the Illusionist and the Woody Allen movie Scoop. And yet, the film endured. It has slowly become something of a cult classic, becoming a film that I see quite a bit of affection for in movie dork circles, but not necessarily anywhere else. Inception and the Batman movies have taken up a lot of the Prestige’s attention, which is a real shame. Because this really is one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen.
The plot of this film is incredibly hard to explain in the way that it’s portrayed. It’s a nonlinear film, told through flashbacks while two men are reading each other’s diaries, so I’m just going to try and explain the plot chronologically. Just for my own sanity.
The Prestige is the entwined stories of two men who are struggling to gain fame and fortune as stage magicians in turn of the century London. We have Robert Angier, an idealistic man who has a flair for showmanship, and Alfred Borden, a cynical and reserved magician who has a lot of technical skill, but feels a little bland at times. Their lives become inextricably linked when they work together as apprentice magicians for a more established magician, paying their dues. Unfortunately, during a performance Angier’s wife Julie drowns, potentially because Borden tied a more difficult knot than he was supposed to. Borden then heads off to create his own career, while a shattered Angier starts working with a man named Cutter to become a much bigger deal than Borden. They both struggle for quite a while, popping up in each other’s lives to try and ruin them. Angier arrives at a show of Borden’s where he’s doing a bullet-catch trick, and loads a real bullet into is, shooting off two of Borden’s fingers, and Borden breaks one of Angier’s tricks, causing him to get blackballed from several theaters. They’re both surviving, and they try to move on with their lives. Borden meets and marries a woman named Sarah and they have a daughter, and Angier starts a relationship with his new assistant Oliva. But none of their tricks are really catapulting them into super-stardom, like they had hoped.
Until Borden comes up with a fantastic new trick. With the help of a quiet man called Fallon, he brings a new trick that he calls the Transported Man. The trick appears that Borden goes into one cabinet, and immediately comes out of a second cabinet. The trick blows Angier’s mind, and he becomes obsessed with it. Cutter insists that Borden is just using a double, but Angier cannot accept that. But, with no other way to accomplish the trick, Angier decides to find himself a double and rip off Borden’s trick. Cutter and Oliva then find a drunken actor named Root who they are able to clean up enough to become Angier, and he’s able to bring his version of the Transported Man to life, earning even more ire from Borden. Borden then tries to sabotage Angier’s trick, turning Root against him, until things escalate to the point that Angier breaks his leg during one of Borden’s pranks. Angier then decides he needs to escalate things, and tells Olivia to become a spy, joining Borden’s organization to steal the secret. Which backfires! She falls in love with Borden and abandons Angier, but she does give him Borden’s diary, which points to the true secret of his trick. A man named Nikola Tesla.
Angier then flies out to Colorado Springs, where the eccentric inventor is currently living and working on his experiments with electricity. He’s pretty confused about why Angier is visiting him, but he agrees to give it a shot. He thinks he’ll actually be able to create a device that can teleport a human being, and begins working on it, leaving Angier to just wallow in Colorado Springs for quite some time. Back in London, things aren’t going great for Borden. He’s getting increasingly erratic, and his wife thinks that his shifts in mood are too extreme, pushing her to the point of suicide, and leaving Borden a pretty broken person. And things don’t get better when Angier returns to London. Tesla had to flee from America when Thomas Edison’s men came to find him, but he finished Angier’s machine, making it actually do what it’s supposed to. He then starts a new show, using his peculiar machine to send himself through the ether and appear in extraordinary places. And, eventually, Borden takes the bait and comes to watch one of the shows before sneaking behind the scenes to see how he does it. And, when he goes below the stage he finds Angier fall into a tank of water and drown, right as Cutter arrives with the police. Borden is then arrested for Angier’s death, and sentenced to death. While in prison he’s approached by a man representing Lord Caldlow, a rich eccentric who loves magic, and offers to take care of Borden’s daughter in exchange for his secrets. Borden ends up agreeing to this, and is shocked to find that Lord Caldlow is Angier. It turns out that his teleportation machine is actually some sort of cloning machine, and each night it made two Angiers, one of whom who is killed. Borden is then hung at the neck, and Angier prepares to hide in obscurity, since he faked his death, and goes to destroy his machine and the dead clones. But, in doing so he comes across another Borden, who kills him. Because the secret to Borden’s trick this whole time is that he had an identical twin, and the two shared one life, and kind of the life of Fallon, and lived their act. So, with both Borden and Angier technically dead, the final Borden goes to take his daughter and live his life away from magic.
This film truly is something special. It really and truly is my favorite Nolan film of his entire filmography. And it’s really for so many reasons. Yeah, I love the aesthetic of turn of the century magicians, and this is the film that I feel has best used that aesthetic. The acting is great across the board, reaching the point where it may be my favorite performance that both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have ever given. The way that Nolan blurs the timelines, so that it matches up with the three steps of the magic trick, thus making the two twists actual magic tricks is incredibly impressive. We all give Inception such praise for its intricately built plot, but in some ways I think that this film is more impressive. Everyone is firing on all cylinders, and it’s just a terrific film.
And I think the primary reason for that is because this is Christopher Nolan’s obsession film. There’s a certain echelon of director, usually ones who get the somewhat absurd title of “auteur,” who hold a massive amount of sway on their films. They’re controlling, precise, and demanding filmmakers who have specific visions, and will stop at nothing to bring that vision to life. And Nolan is one such director. And, oddly enough, directors who fit in that mold often eventually make a film that is more or less about their own concerns regarding their own obsession. Because that’s really all this movie is about. Both of these men, but Angier in particular, moves the heavens and the earth to make his art the way he wants it to be. All he wants to do is prove that he’s better than Borden, and that he can devise a way to best his trick. And that obsession leads him to become a completely broken person. He falls into the pit of obsession, letting it completely dominate his life. There’s a point in the film when Olivia says to Angier that replicating the trick won’t bring back his wife, and he offhandedly says that he doesn’t even care about the wife anymore, it’s all about the trick. He’s forgotten the most important thing that has ever happened to him, and instead has become a slave to his obsession. And, in a way, it’s Nolan reminding himself that he can’t go this far. He’s allowed to be mildly obsessive, but if he fully gives in, if he goes full-Angier, his life will fall apart. Directors seem fascinated with the siren call of obsession, and those who are more obsessed than others are able to take that fascination and create truly fascinating art from it. Because there but for the grace of God could go Nolan. He’s one of the few directors who could pull this script off, because it’s all about a man falling into the self-destructive pit of obsession, and who better to tell that story than a man who finds himself on the brink of that pit all the time.
And yet, despite the love I have for this film, I’d never actually read the book that it was based upon. And, embarrassingly enough, I think the main reason for that was that it was just mildly inconvenient. I didn’t realize it was based on a book for several years, and when I finally learned that it was kind of hard to find, or at the very least expensive. And, for the longest time there wasn’t a version of the book you could read on your Kindle, which I switched to pretty early in order to save space. But, after thinking about the movie when I heard the Blank Check Podcast talk about Nolan’s filmography, and the Prestige in particular, I decided to finally try again, and gave the book a shot. And it’s great. And, most importantly, the film isn’t a direct adaptation. So many of the books that I’ve decided to highlight in this series have been near-identical to the films that were adapted from them, and it get a little odd to talk about, since I’m just completely reiterating myself. But not this time! There’s certainly a lot of similarities, but this book actually has quite a few differences, both minor and large that makes reading this book a completely different experience from watching Nolan’s film.
To start things off, the book opens up in the then present of the mid-nineties with a man named Andrew Westley getting invited to interview members of a strange cult in the English countryside. Andrew gets to a large mansion and finds that he’s been tricked, and he actually isn’t there to meet with a cult, he’s there to meet with a woman named Kate Angier. She’s the great-granddaughter of a famous magician named Rupert Angier who was a contemporary and rival of Andrew’s grandfather Alfred Borden. Kate wants to talk to Andrew specifically about a strange event that happened when they were children, which could explain why Andrew feels a strange connection to a twin brother he’s never actually had. Kate then begins sharing two diaries with Andrew, one written by Angier and one written by Borden. The rest of the novel is then split between the two different diaries, giving us each man’s view of their life.
From Borden’s perspective, things aren’t much different than the film. He and Angier never worked together, and Borden in no way was responsible for the death of Angier’s wife though. Borden was just a hard-working stage magician who took his craft incredibly seriously, and led a quiet life. Until he started hearing about a popular spiritualist called Angier who was using stage magic to trick people into thinking he was communicating with the dead. Borden reveals Angier’s true intentions, and earns himself a life-long enemy. The two then continue to grow as magicians, and Borden attempts to just ignore Angier, eventually coming up with his masterpiece trick. The New Transported Man is what makes him famous, making it seem like he’s able to teleport across the stage, utilizing trickery and special effects that seem to point to the source of the trick being scientific. And, eventually, Angier shows up with his own version of the trick. It’s much flashier, and Borden can’t figure out how Angier is replicating his style. He attempts to investigate, and ends up getting below the stage during a performance, finding an overloading electrical conduit, which he turns off, fearing a fire. But, this doesn’t seem to have any real effect, and Borden just lives out the rest of his life, finally moving past his feud with Borden.
Angier’s side of the story though, is much different. When we start reading his diary we learn that the beginning of Angier and Borden’s feud is much darker, because when Borden revealed Angier’s fake spiritualism he ended up pushing down Angier’s visitant, who was his pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry. This pushes Angier down a very dark path, personally obsessing over Borden’s fame and fortune while struggling to provide for his family. He leads a tumultuous life, dealing with his problematic and powerful family, an affair with an American woman named Olive who he ends up forcing to spy on Borden, and a completely disintegrating life. But, when he first sees Borden’s New Transported Man trick, he finds a new life’s purpose. He first attempts to use a double, but that proves untenable, and he eventually heads to America to meet with Nikola Tesla, the inventor who presumably created Borden’s trick. He lives in Colorado for quite a while, and ends up getting his machine. Unfortunately, his machine is able to teleport him across a room, but at the expense of creating a strange, dead double that gets left behind, which he calls his “prestige materials.” Angier then becomes a world-famous magician with his Transported Man trick, eventually becoming addicted to the rejuvenating feeling he gets from being teleported. However, during one show Borden shuts off the power mid-teleportation, which causes a disaster. There’s nothing immediately apparent, but we end up learning that it actually split Angier in two, leaving a weakened and corporal Angier on the stage, and a shadowy ghost-like Angier hidden in the wings. The corporeal Angier ends up faking his death, becoming Lord Colderdale and living out a quiet life of rapidly declining health. The wraith-Angier though leads a terrible life, unable to be a real person. He briefly tries to kill Alfred Borden, before learning that Borden was actually identical twins who shared a life, one of whom has recently passed away, ending their act. This realization makes wraith-Angier stop himself from killing Borden, and instead deciding to go live with his corporal self. The two Angiers befriend each other, and after the corporal-Angier dies it turns out that the wraith-Angier is functionally immortal. It then lives in the manor for the rest of the twentieth century, meeting up with the frame story.
Because it turns out that when Andrew and Kate were children, Andrew and his father visited the Colderdale estate to discuss the family feud, and in the process Andrew was put through the machine, creating a dead duplicate of himself, explaining Andrew’s strange feelings. And, after venturing down into the cellar where all of Angier’s preserved “prestige materials” are kept, they find the wraith-Angier still alive.
This book is very interesting. Obviously, since I watched the film first, I spent most of the book comparing the two, and picking up on all of the differences between the two. And, there actually are some. Primarily near the end, when things get really weird with the multiple Angiers. The book also has a very different structure from the film, splitting the novel into two halves, each telling the same rough story, just from the two men’s different perspective instead of blending all of that together in Nolan’s trademark nonlinear fashion. And, I think that this design ends up working out really well. It’s a wonderfully intricate novel, which ends up getting to use four different writing styles depending on whose point of view we were following, and it’s all used to tackle a really relateable issue, despite all of the strange aspects of the plot.
Because this really is a story about grudges, and different points of view. The novel’s version of Angier and Borden don’t really interact with each other that much. There’s still some terrible things that they do to each other, but for the most part they’re just peaking over the fence at each other, silently seething at the other’s perceived successes. Both go through peaks and valleys, and despite periods where they can try to move past their grudge, it always comes back to bite them in the ass. Neither of these men ever just sit down and talk to each other, which could almost certainly fix things. There’s things that each of them don’t realize about their grudge, but they just can’t stand each other, and let that grudge completely define and eventually destroy their lives. Because while they’re similarly obsessed as their cinematic counterparts, they’re primarily just stubborn and unable to just hash things out with each other.
This is one of those great instances on this project where I can wholeheartedly recommend both of these stories. Because this is the best way to adapt a story, at least in my opinion. It’s not a carbon-copy, and it’s also not a completely off-the-wall take on the story that ends up sharing little but the name. It’s in that sweet spot where the Nolan’s clearly loved this book, and decided to translate the story to the screen in the broad strokes, telling their own story while keeping the elements that make the novel work. The basic elements of the stories are the same. The magic, the feud, the twins, the use of Nikola Tesla. But they also deviate in ways that become really interesting to experience. These are two stories that you could easily experience back to back, and not feel like you’re just treading over worn ground. They’re they’re own stories, and they are attempting to tackle different things. And they’re both huge successes. I adored both of these stories, and I honestly feel that you couldn’t go wrong with whichever you decide to try out. There’s just something inherently satisfying about feuding magicians, while both landing on very important ideas. One looks at the danger of obsession while another focuses on the danger of stubborn grudges. And they’re both about men being stupid. The most universal type of story.
The Prestige was written by Christopher Priest and published by Simon & Schuster, 1995
The Prestige was written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, directed by Christopher Nolan, and released by Buena Vista Pictures, 2006.
Categories: Film Library