The Book was Better (or was it): The Prestige

Book cover: The Prestige - Christopher Priest (a dapper man stares at his reflection - unlike him it is wearing a top hat. Nice trick eh)

I realised with glee after my fun revisiting Jurassic Park that I have lots of overlap between my bookshelves and my DVD rack. You know what this means… This month, I’m revisiting an epic tale of feuding Victorian illusionists – but which Christopher did it better? Almost spoiler-free.

Like Jurassic ParkThe Prestige has the unfair advantage that I saw – and loved – the film long before I found a copy of the book. Worse, if I’d never seen the film, I might not have picked up the book at all as it doesn’t immediately sound like my sort of thing. Add to this that Christopher Nolan is one of my favourite directors, and it’s fair to start feeling Christopher Priest is playing with loaded dice. Besides, Nolan brought his friends:

It’s a pretty unfair advantage

So I started the book with some trepidation. I was immediately pleased to discover that it’s significantly but not completely different (thankfully, it also gripped me from the first entry in Borden’s diary). In fact, the transformation of The Prestige from page to screen is one of the more impressive I’ve seen. Because if I’d read the book first, I’d have been tempted to say it was unfilmable.

Both versions of The Prestige tell the dark and intricate story of two feuding illusionists, Alfred Borden and Rupert (in the film: Robert) Angier at the turn of the twentieth century. Both story and protagonists are caught between a past of superstition and craft, and a future of technology and showmanship. As illusionists, they thrive on one and take advantage of the other – and the biggest threat to their show is a rival who can reveal their secrets.

The source and bitterness of their rivalry differs from page to screen: the book is less personal, more ego-driven, which means it’s harder to like either of them from the start. The film is more tragic, driven by bitterness and revenge, which arguably makes it more accessible – but in the end it too explores how success and ego corrupt. This isn’t a cosy book about nice magicians; it’s about two men who throw their lives away on a destructive obsession (I’ll leave you to judge whether I mean their magic or their vendetta).

All is fair in magic and war – they disrupt one another’s performances, interfere (if not always intentionally) with love lives and ultimately threaten each other’s lives. With asides on the cost of living a life of lies, what is considered an acceptable sacrifice for your art, and magic as both illusion and as science we haven’t discovered yet, this is heady stuff, told with Gothic glee. I’m not particularly interested in stage magic; it really didn’t matter – I was hooked by the flawed humanity.

There are key differences between book and film – starting with a modern-day wrapper that tops and tails the book – but there’s also enough added depth and variation in the Victorian passages that I soon felt that I couldn’t be ‘spoilt’ (and given that this is a story that hinges on its spoilers, that’s saying something). While I knew the nature of the Prestiges, I had no idea how the book would turn out (and indeed the climax and the fates of almost all the key characters were changed on-screen). I was on the edge of my seat. Those who hate an epistolary novel may remain unconvinced, but I thought it was brilliant.

I like that the book returns to its superstitious roots for its final act – with the haunting consequences of the magicians’ acts echoing down subsequent generations, and the intensely Gothic final scenes (and their implications. Eeeesh). The film stays more focused on the technological and plays for a big emotional response to finish its rollercoaster of manipulated loyalties. Cinematic showmanship – make sure the punters are wrung out by the credits.

I suspect this means that those who read and loved the book first probably hate the film for being faithless and (at times) sentimental; whereas those (like me) who come at it the other way round can delight in both versions. Because it is a great film: every shot is beautifully lit and framed; the detail of set design and costuming is thrilling; and it has a mouth-watering cast who get a solid script to work with (although I’ll admit I’m not a fan of Scarlett Johansson’s dubious accent). The deviation from the book works on its own terms.

I had hope the book would put to bed my one discomfort with the film: the way in which it treats its female characters. Sadly, it doesn’t. As I’m contorting and constraining myself to avoid spoilers, let’s just say that our magicians have no time for full and happy family lives. While the film breaks my heart, at least it brings its women to life more fully than the novel, where Sarah Borden in particular is almost invisible. The book is narrated by Borden and Angier, of course; while they may admit to the occasional regret, it requires the objective eye of a camera to show the full consequences of their actions.

Either way, this is a story set strictly in a world in which peripheral, poorly-treated women play third fiddle to the true focus of the magicians’ lives: their career and each other. At least Priest SPOILER doesn’t stoop to fridging, I suppose, if you can call it fridging given how little effect it has on Borden, at least.

So, my one bone picked, can I now pick a favourite? I don’t think I can. I admire them both enormously. However, I definitely don’t declare the book to be better: one of my acid tests for this is whether I’ll reinvest the hours to reread, or just rewatch the film. So well done, Mr Nolan. I know what I want to do tonight.


For the avoidance of doubt: I consider both the film and the book merit a full 5 stars. They are staggeringly good. But I would recommend you watch the film first. Just in case the other way round leads to disappointment.