Thursday, April 10, 2008

From Page to Screen

The Prestige
Book: Christopher Priest 1995

Film: Christopher Nolan 2006

::Acquired Taste occasionally considers the subject of film adaptations. Writers are generally less sniffy than readers about such things—if only, perhaps, because they hope one day to luxuriate in film rights themselves.

A couple of months ago I saw Christopher Nolan’s film of The Prestige, starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as two feuding fin-de-siecle stage illusionists. It’s a cracking tale, full of intrigue, mystery and narrative reversals. I thought it was a highly accomplished film, and Christopher Priest, who wrote the book, was also favourably impressed with it. Last week I read the book to see how they compared.

While I enjoyed the book, reading it increased my admiration for the film. Priest’s novel does not naturally scream “screenplay”: there are stories within stories, narrative misdirections and concealed identity puzzles. The form is entirely suited to a story about stage magic.

Like all good adaptations, the film is faithful to the novel’s themes even where it is violating the original plot. The central obsessive rivalry of the two illusionists, Angier and Borden, each trying to fathom the mystery of the other’s signature trick, holds together both film and book. Nolan gives a different, more dramatic, reason for their rivalry, and adds poignancy to it by having them friends at the beginning. Themes of obsession, concealment, identity and rivalry run through both. What Nolan has added is the pace and narrative drive necessary to interpret a reflective novel into a commercially successful film. In bringing the novel’s themes into such melodramatic relief, he loses some of the subtlety and indirection of the material. It’s a trade-off, and to my mind a successful one.

The best thing about the film, which Nolan does retain from the book, is the moral equivalence about the main characters. Neither is particularly sympathetic: both destroy their own lives and others’ around them with the fervour of their obsession. At one stage it appears that Angier (Jackman) will be the villain and Borden (Bale) the hero. But Borden becomes so bloody-minded, so completely deranged in his pursuit of Angier that he can hardly be regarded as a ‘good’ character. In the frame story which bookends the main plot, Angier exacts a grim revenge on Borden—but when Borden turns the tables, the viewer doesn’t see it as the standard Hollywood ending. It’s much more ambiguous than that—although I don’t want to give away more about the magnificent twist ending (which Nolan, again, throws into much sharper relief than the original).

In a pitiful attempt to generate more blog hits, I must note that, as with The Other Boleyn Girl, reviewed last month, Scarlett Johannson is again present. This is good news for my blog, since the words “Scarlett Johannson” generate a significant amount of search-engine traffic; but also good news for the film, where she is excellent as the assistant/mistress to both illusionists in turn. Michael Caine no doubt contributes fewer hits as he once again hams up a supporting role, while David Bowie is convincingly eccentric as Nikola Tesla (shown here in a real-life rivalry with Thomas Edison to counterpoint Angier and Borden's rivalry).

I very much enjoyed both book and film, although for me the film was noticeably the better piece of work. With a smaller canvas on which to work, and the demands of Hollywood to satisfy, Nolan has concentrated on the salient features of the story (rather than the ‘plot’, to use Stephen Koch’s useful distinction) and thrown them into sharper relief than the novel.

The story has a concealed science-fictional premise which only pays off at the end. This irritated some reviewers, presumably those who like to know the end after the first ten minutes (I hear High School Musical IV is in production, for those of this cast of mind). But for readers and viewers who are not afraid of unpredictable narrative twists, and don’t demand a square-jawed hero to root for – The Prestige is highly recommended.

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