Book And Movie: The Prestige

Some people like books about cats that solve mysteries. Some people like books about rugged individuals wandering post-apocalyptic America. Me, I like books about magicians, escape artists, and mediums, set in eras when such professions were respectable. Thus my fondness for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Carter Beats the Devil, Girl in the Glass (and why I will presumably love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, if I can ever overcome my crippling fear of its sheer enormity and actually attempt to read it).

So picking up The Prestige was a no-brainer. Feuding magicians in the late nineteenth century, each desperate to discover the secret of his rival’s greatest illusion? What’s not to like?

After a brief introduction set in modern times, the novel is epistolary, supposedly the journals of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier, illusionists who plied their trade in turn-of-the-(last)-century London. An altercation between the two men in their youth snowballs into lifelong tit-for-tatism, each oscillating between desire to see the other ruined and remorse over how prolonged and petty the grudgematch has become. Each man has a signature trick that involves teleportation: in The New Transported Man, Bordon steps into one cabinet and instantly emerges from another across the stage; during In A Flash, Angier disappears in a surge of electricity and re-enters the theater moments later, from the back of the galley. Though the tricks are nearly identical, their central mechanism are starkly different; the crux of the book is that each man is ignorant of how the other does his version of the illusion, and is haunted by the knowledge that his opponent might have a “superior” method.

Having quite enjoyed the novel, I picked up the DVD for the 2006 film and prepared for disappointment. Surprisingly, the movie was as good as the book, as the screenwriter and director chose to adapt the story for the screen, rather than slavishly adhere to the source material. The framing device for the book (a man in contemporary time who is given the journals to read) is jettisoned entirely, and some aspects of the relationship between Borden and Angier and changed as well. I wouldn’t say that the film’s revisions were necessarily better, but they are certainly more cinematic. Thus, neither pales in comparison to the other, as both are sufficiently distinct to stand on their own.

Still, despite their difference, both the novel and the film tackle the same central question: what will a man do to be the best in his profession? In the case of Borden and Angier, it’s not only a question of what they will sacrifice to perfect their own illusions, but to what lengths they will go to destroy their rivals. Like master magicians adept in misdirection, both author Christopher Priest and director Christopher Nolan have crafted thrillers that keep you so engaged that you don’t even realize the profundity of the questions they explore, until you find yourself ruminating about the story in the days and weeks to follow.

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30 comments.

  1. *** Warning: comments may contain spoilers ***

  2. I have tried reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel a few times, but every time I’m stumped because it is boring. I guess part of it is the sheer enormity of the book, it takes very long time for anything to happen, and just when you think it will it doesn’t.

    I like the idea of the book, but in good conscience I can’t recommend it.

  3. Sorry for the off-topicness of the comment, as I haven’t read or seen The Prestige yet (but now fully intend to) – but I can heartily recommend Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel! It is slow to kick off, but once it gets rolling, it’s an absorbing story that certainly had me up until 3 at night without noticing.

    Susanna Clarke writes in a style that fits quite well with the setting, and the universe is so thoroughly constructed, you can sense the potential for so many more stories in the same world (which, indeed, is what The Ladies of Grace Adieu is)

  4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay definitely deserved its Pulitzer.

    I’m halfway through Strange & Norell right now and my only complaint is that it is so very Victorian. It’s deliberately written with an archaic tone and so much of the story is like something out of Pride and Prejudice, petty concerns over who has who’s favor and lots of hand wringing over minor points of courtly manners and interpersonal prestige. Though, so far, quite worth the reading.

    It’s radically different in subject matter than these other books but, if you get the chance, pick up City of Saints and Madmen by Bruce Van der Meer. It’s probably the best, and one of the most unique, books I’ve read in the last five years.

  5. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay definitely deserved its Pulitzer.

    I’m halfway through Strange & Norell right now and my only complaint is that it is so very Victorian. It’s deliberately written with an archaic tone and so much of the story is like something out of Pride and Prejudice, petty concerns over who has who’s favor and lots of hand wringing over minor points of courtly manners and interpersonal prestige. Though, so far, quite worth the reading.

    It’s radically different in subject matter than these other books but, if you get the chance, pick up City of Saints and Madmen by Bruce Van der Meer. It’s probably the best, and one of the most unique, books I’ve read in the last five years.

  6. I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel when it first came out and, oddly enough, I’m re-reading it right now.

    I love this book.

    It isn’t a fast-paced book that propells you through and shoots you out the other end gasping. It is a quiet absorbing book. Don’t fear the sheer mass of the tome, once you get started you’ll never want it to end.

    Just read the first chapter, and you’ll know if you want to read the whole thing or not. Some here claim that the book starts out slow but I disagree. I found the first chapter wholly engrossing and very funny. This is the sort of book where I kept nudging my wife and saying “honey listen, listen to this,” so that I could subject her to the latest passage I found so entertaining that I couldn’t keep it to myself.
    If you have any of the Anlgophile in you you’ll love this book.

  7. Did not like The Prestige (the book. Refuse to see the movie because I did not like the book) but Jonathan Strange is one of my all time favorite works of fiction. Picked it up at a local library’s discard pile a month ago for my 12 year old son who is flying through it and is enjoying it as well.

  8. Oh my gosh, you love “Carter Beats the Devil”? I don’t think I’ve even met another person who’s read it–other than the people I’ve forced to read it. I LOVE that book–and also love books about magic and magicians.

    Have you read Paul Quarrington’s “The Spirit Cabinet”? Because if you like Kavalier and Klay and Carter and the like, I think you’ll love it as much as I do.

    I started Norell and Strange on a vacation once, had to put it down when I came home, and never got ’round to picking it back up. I liked what I read, though.

    I loved the movie of The Prestige (I thought it was much better than The Illusionist); I’ve never read the novel, though. Now I’ll have to check it out.

  9. I read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel (and succeeded on the first attempt). I thought it was great. it starts out a bit slow, but when I got a quarter of the way into the book I had difficulty putting it down. I’d say just get started, it’s great.

  10. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell needs a stiff edit. the footnotes are truly delightful, but the rest of the book takes the content of a Jane Austen novel and pads it out to doorstop size. the first chapter is intriguing, and then it just turns to mush. much like The Witching Hour, i read the whole thing because the concept and the world were so good, it just had to get better sometime. ugh. a major disappointment.

  11. I’m an Anglophile, a fantasy reader and a PhD student with a specialty in Victorian lit.

    that said: i couldn’t read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I tried, so hard. I liked the Victorian/archaic-ness of it, but god: where was the damn plot? I got probably a third of the way through it and then just couldn’t bring myself to care. I LOVE meandering, footnoted stories (I love love love Dickens) but this….oh gods! pain!

    Kavalier & Clay is a great book, though.

  12. 19th Century =/= Victorian, guys. Strange & Norrell takes place a bit before Victoria comes along.

    I saw the movie before I read The Prestige, and I keep wondering when I would have figured out Borden’s method if I hadn’t known it before I started. But I do agree that they’re both really good, which is not often found in book/movie adaptations.

  13. I have to side with the pro-Jonathan Strange comments here– I’ve read it several times and it’s one of my favorites. The footnotes are exquisite, for one thing; for another, you really do have to get through the whole book to appreciate the set-up. There is one line in that book that– every time I reach it– forces me to put the book down, cheer, and do a little victory dance. It’s that incredible.

  14. Loved the book of The Prestige. Haven’t seen the movie but will get round to it at some point. I’ll also weigh in in favour of “Strange & Norrell”. Apart from the fact that I don’t necessarily find a lack of plot to be a major failing if the book makes up for it in other ways, it DOES in fact have a plot, if you stick with it.

  15. I liked the Adventures of Kavalier and Clay a lot.

  16. Hadn’t realized that The Prestige was a novel – yay! I am also glad that I am not the only one who’s read Carter Beats the Devil…aren’t they making a movie of it? Or did I dream that?
    I am also of the camp that has read JS & Mr.N, and loved it, but also thought it started slow. Personally, I think you need to slog through the beginning until you actually meet Jonathan Strange…for me, that’s when things started happening. But I loved that book and it stayed with me not unlike The Prestige (which continues to blow my mind). I recommend JS & Mr.N, given that you made it farther into Moby Dick than I ever did, I think you have the stamina for it.

  17. yeah, but CATS! That solve CRIMES! C’mon!

  18. Reading and watching “Children of Men” made me understand for the first time the award for “Best Adapted Screenplay.” There are some books (The Terror by Dan Simmons – AMAZING book BTW) that as I read them I can cast the movie and clearly see the scenes play out on the big screen. Children of Men is not one of those books, and yet the movie was brilliant.

  19. Carter Beats the Devil is my absolute favorite book of all time. Not sure how I feel about a movie adaptation.

    Really enjoyed The Prestige. I felt like the book was a better story, but the movie was so well cast that I didn’t mind the changes.

    Currently reading The Terror (mistakenly purchased for my commute reading) and pleasantly surprised at how good it is, despite the inevitable back problems from lugging it to and fro.

  20. Good to know! Thanks! I usually don’t bother watching the movies that I know were originally books, just because….yughkk. Every once in a while though….

    Kavalier and Clay was brilliant! I’ll have to check out the other books you recommended.

  21. Good to know! Thanks! I usually don’t bother watching the movies that I know were originally books, just because….yughkk. Every once in a while though….

    Kavalier and Clay was brilliant! I’ll have to check out the other books you recommended.

  22. I really enjoyed watching The Prestige. I may decide to pick up the book at some point, but I really enjoyed the movie.

  23. Color me stupid, but have I read a book about a cat that solves crimes and forgotten about it? What book is this?

  24. Thanks for the reviw of The Prestige – I’ve been looking at it do anything about it yet.

    Try Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on audiobook (Audible’s good), read by Simon Prebble. Fantastic. Best book I’ve read in years, a complete WOW experience and the narration made it even better (and less intimidating)

  25. I have to second Lene on the audiobook version of JS & MN. My husband and I listened to it while getting through the first 6 weeks of a colicky baby. I’ve gone back and listened to it twice since. I tend to reach for audio books when I read reviews that a book is “slow” because its much easier to let someone else read aloud to me while I putter around the kitchen, or crochet or something.

    That said… my husband and I spent MANY nights struggling to stay awake so we could hear just 5 more minutes of the book. I adored it.

    As for The Prestige. We both read the book. And I had faith that Chris Nolan would do a decent adaptation, so I rented the movie. My husband refused to watch it because he said he’d already read the book. I’m gonna have him read your review just to go, “nyah nyah.. told ya so!”

  26. (Very tiny whisper here. A note passed under the table. You have pressed one of my hot buttons. “Enormity” does not mean “enormousness”.)

  27. If the novel consists of two people’s journals, then it’s not epistolary: an epistolary novel consists of letters supposedly exchanged between the characters.

    Since you’re a word guy, I thought you’d want to know.

    Took me a long time to get through Strange & Norrell. A little tedious. But based on your recommendation, I’m going to pick up some of the others you mention.

  28. Wish I’d read these comments before reading Strange & Norrell. I liked the ending; but it was a long hard slog to get there. Dry, dry dry, reminded me of eating paper mache and paste. You could read 4 or 5 others in the same time and have lots more fun. Do try the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, 1992, no magicians; however, it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for good reason.

  29. Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrel is the best book I read all year. I guess I like dry, and dry it is. However, I lived in this book for a week or two, and now do not quite remember my 19th century English history correctly. I tried to get a reading group to discuss it, and of the 10 members of my group, only 2 read it at all. I guess it takes a certain quirk to appreciate.

    I agree that Kavalier and Clay was amazing.

  30. Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrel is the best book I read all year. I guess I like dry, and dry it is. However, I lived in this book for a week or two, and now do not quite remember my 19th century English history correctly. I tried to get a reading group to discuss it, and of the 10 members of my group, only 2 read it at all. I guess it takes a certain quirk to appreciate.

    I agree that Kavalier and Clay was amazing.