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Very different from the film...good, but harder work and darker
on 23 December 2013
When I watched The Prestige film, I thought it was brilliant - beautifully produced and very clever. It had me gripped from beginning to end, and I spent the next few days unpicking the clues to the denouement that I'd missed, and the ways in which the production itself echoed the story. I'm usually a book-before-film girl, but I only realised afterwards that this was based on a novel. I downloaded it and started reading immediately.
It's hard to say too much about the story of The Prestige without giving away the plot. Essentially, this is the story of two stage magicians (Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier) in Victorian London, who fall out and become life-long enemies. They find ever more imaginative ways to sabotage each other's shows and they become obsessed with learning one another's secrets. This feud escalates over the years, hurting those around them whilst simultaneously spurring them both on in pursuit of the ultimate illusion.
To be honest, that's where the similarities between film and book finish. It became clear to me very quickly that Christopher Nolan's film, good as it is, is not particularly faithful to Christopher Priest's novel, and I struggled to keep the two separate in my mind.
The most significant differences between the book and the film include: the way Borden and Angier first meet; the cause of their feud; their families and personal lives; the workings of Angier's version of the illusion at the heart of the novel; and the way both characters' stories end. The murder trial, for example, is a creation of Nolan's specifically for the film. I found it hard to keep track of what I'd read in earlier chapters and what I was remembering from the film.
This confusion was heightened by the epistolary structure of the novel and the nature of parts of the narrative. The middle two sections of the novel take the form of Borden's diary, followed by Angier's diary. Borden's diary is necessarily and deliberately bewildering, even for someone who (having seen the film) knows the secret behind it. It's hard to know at what point a reader would figure out that secret if they hadn't seen the film, but that prior knowledge didn't particularly lessen my enjoyment. What did become frustrating, though, was the fact that the two diaries (covering broadly the same time period) are printed consecutively rather than in parallel. Had I been reading this in paperback, I don't think this would have been an issue, but on a Kindle it's very difficult to flick back and forwards to match up dates and events, to compare the two different perspectives on the same incident and so on.
Framing these two diaries is a present-day narrative that is completely absent in Christopher Nolan's film. The Prestige, the novel, begins in the 1990s with Andrew Westley and Kate Angier - the descendents of the two magicians. In what is a rather long and drawn-out opening section, it is established that the mystery that's plagued Andrew since childhood seems in some way connected to the story of the magicians. Kate has pieced together what she can through reading old papers of Angier's, and presents Andrew with the two diaries so that he might draw his own conclusions. The narrative returns to the present day at the end of Angier's diary for the final few chapters, which reveal the true extent of the impact of the magicians' feud.
The present-day framing does add an interesting dimension, highlighting as it does the far-reaching repercussions of the feud on future generations. But I found the first few chapters very slow, and had I not been so fascinated by the film I'm not sure I would have stuck with it. There's a lot about Andrew's work, his parents and his girlfriend that is just padding, really, and didn't add anything to his character or the story that I could see. The end section is more satisfying, faster-moving and more dramatic - but ends rather abruptly. It all feels a little unresolved...but after my initial surprise that I'd reached the final page, I came round to thinking that that unresolved feeling is probably quite fitting for the novel as a whole.
In some respects, this is a story that lends itself more to the screen than the page: reading lengthy and necessarily vague descriptions of stage illusions packs much less of a punch than seeing those illusions on screen. But on the other hand, the book allows for much greater exploration of the psychology and motivations of these two complex and flawed characters, as well as a more vivid picture of turn-of-the-century London and stage magic in general. There is much more space to flesh out the characters and add layers of complexity to their relationships - to each other, to their families and to their craft.
The Prestige is not an easy read, and it's not a quick read: it took me almost two weeks to read, compared to an average of three or four days per book usually. It's also hard to categorise: I wouldn't have labelled the film science fiction, but I think the second half of the novel definitely moves into that genre. And I can't decide whether I'd recommend seeing the film first or reading the book first. What I will say is that The Prestige is worth a read, I think, as long as you're prepared for something quite different - darker, more confusing and harder work - from the film, but intriguing and surprising nonetheless.