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.