, ,

This is the last of my essays about film adaptation, and inevitably it is about the Nolan Brothers’s film of Christopher Priest’s novel of The Prestige.

prestige, teslaThe thing you realise, as you watch this visually stunning film, is how little you see. The rows of birdcages in Borden’s workshop extend beyond the edge of the frame, as do the rows of cells in the prison; in Tesla’s workshop, electricity sparks too vividly for us to get any clear view of his equipment, as is also the case with Angier’s device. Everyone is filmed against a setting that is too big to be taken in, but the emphasis is on the close up, the camera moves from face to face or sometimes come in even closer to see Angier’s hands making a bullet appear and disappear, or Borden endlessly rippling a coin across the backs of his fingers while embracing a lover. One classic technique of stage magic is misdirection, drawing your attention to one detail while the real trick is performed out of your view – ‘Are you watching closely?’[1] are the first words of the film – and this is the cinematic equivalent: we are not seeing the whole story.

It also serves as the cinematic equivalent of the pages torn from Angier’s diary, the editing of Borden’s notebook, in the novel. Both novel and film work by misdirection, though whether they are working to the same end is another matter.

prestige bookOne of the curious things that must be considered in any discussion of Nolan’s adaptation of The Prestige is the extent to which novel and film diverge. There are any number of minor differences: Angier is Rupert in the novel and Robert in the film, where he is made out to be American which sits oddly with the fact that he is, as in the novel, a member of the English aristocracy. But it is the major differences that stand out. In a far from exhaustive list, the major aspects of the film that do not feature in the novel include: the early acquaintance of Angier and Borden as assistants to a magician; the death of Angier’s wife; the suicide of Borden’s wife; the character of Fallon; Angier’s kidnapping of Fallon; the character of Cutter (he appears only briefly in the novel, first on page 230, and disappears again within 50 pages); the trial; all the prison scenes; the execution of Borden; the final confrontation between Borden and Angier. Equally startling is a list of the major aspects of the novel that do not appear in the film, including: all the modern-day sections of the novel; Angier’s role in séances (though much is made of spiritualism in the commentaries that accompany the film on DVD, suggesting that some reference to this may have featured in an early version of the film); the role of Angier’s wife and children; Angier’s attempt to murder Borden, and Borden’s subsequent death; the suggestion of Angier’s immortality. These lists are, inevitably, partial, but in broad terms it might be said that upwards of 50% of the novel does not appear in the film, and upwards of 50% of the film does not appear in the novel. And yet, as an evocation of the spirit, tone and style of the novel, the film is as precise and effective as it is possible to be.

Although the story follows the rivalry between two late-Victorian stage magicians, only three tricks are actually explained in both book and film. Two, Borden’s ‘The Transported Man’ and Angier’s ‘In A Flash’ (‘The Real Transported Man’ in the film), are central to the plot; the third is the most famous trick attributed to a genuine magician of the period, and is used early in the film to illustrate the difference between the two central characters. Ching Ling Foo[2] performed as a frail Chinaman in traditional costume, and at the climax of his act he would produce, as if from nowhere, a large, full and very heavy goldfish bowl with fish swimming in it. Angier and Borden watch this performance in the film and shortly afterwards see an obviously frail Ching Ling Foo being helped into a carriage by his assistants. Borden understands immediately that the frailty is itself an act to sustain the illusion, he is really a strong man who carries the full bowl between his knees throughout the performance. Angier, who cannot grasp this level of sacrifice in the cause of an illusion, a level to which Borden is already secretly committed, refuses to accept this explanation. Borden is prepared to go to any lengths for the sake of the performance, a purism that is more in evidence in the novel than in the film; Angier wants to be a star. Ironically, Angier will end up making a greater sacrifice for his own illusion (though the film omits the addictive agony of matter projection in the novel), but still fails to comprehend the degree of Borden’s commitment

prestige birdTwo further tricks are revealed in the film. The first is when we see that a canary that disappears when its cage collapses is actually crushed to death. Tricks with birds are hardly mentioned in the novel but play a symbolic part in the film. The workshop where we see Cutter performing simple tricks to amuse the little girl who turns out to be Borden’s daughter is lined with bird cages, a visual image designed to call to mind the cells where Borden is imprisoned. In the introduction to the published film script, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan note that ‘the condemned prisoners’ yard at Newgate was called the Birdcage Walk’ (viii), a haunting echo that inexplicably does not make it into the film itself. The second is when Borden reveals the working of the bullet catch, another trick that plays no part in the novel. In the film, Angier palms a real bullet and shoots two fingers off Borden’s left hand, symbolic of the way the rivalry between the two in the film escalates through violence and also, in a grisly final image, further evidence of the amount Borden will sacrifice for the sake of his trick.

Which brings us to the fundamental difference between book and film: the moral dimension. In the novel, the rivalry begins when Borden disrupts a séance conducted by Angier, and in so doing accidentally injures Angier’s wife causing her to lose the child she is carrying. The two men are at the beginnings of their careers, they know of each other but have never met. Borden, the purist, is annoyed at the way Angier is, as he sees it, sullying the art of magic; Angier is overcome by a need for revenge following the loss of his child (though Borden never knows about this). The moral burden for the rivalry that begins at that moment is therefore shared between the two men, though it escalates into violence only at the very end.

prestige filmIn the film, Angier and Borden are colleagues working for another magician. They pretend to be members of the public who come on stage to tie up the magician’s assistant, Angier’s wife, who is then immersed in a tank of water from which she escapes. Borden is warned that the knot he ties may not come undone easily under water, but at the next performance he ties the knot anyway and the woman drowns. Since at this stage we do not know that Borden is really identical twins, his insistence that he does not know which knot he tied is puzzling. But what it means is that the guilt for the rivalry is shared between the two Bordens, not between Borden and Angier. This makes a major difference to the moral dimension of the story.

Though it has to be said that in the escalating rivalry, it is Angier who draws blood by sabotaging the bullet catch, it is Angier who kidnaps Fallon and buries him alive, and Angier who manipulates events so that Borden is accused, tried and executed for a murder that never actually happened. Indeed, Angier’s awesome variant on the Transported Man is set up purely as an instrument of this final revenge on Borden, rather than as a bid for immortality as a stage magician. In the novel, that would be out of character; in the film, where Angier’s obsession with revenge is established as a parallel to Borden’s obsession with the craft of magic, it is perfectly in keeping. But in contrast, Borden’s acts of sabotage against Angier’s performances, though they do, on one occasion, result in Angier breaking his leg, are mild in comparison. They are far closer to the acts of sabotage described in the novel: tricks are disrupted; Root, the drunken actor employed in Angier’s first attempt to replicate the Transported Man, is subverted; and Borden wittily uses the disruption of Angier’s performance as an advertisement for his own act.

Such wit is more common in the novel than in the film. Though both works explore the cost of obsession, in the film there is more emphasis on the burden on other people, not just the two principles. Borden’s wife, Sarah, a far more significant character than she is in the novel, is shown to be first puzzled then driven to suicide by the inexplicable changes in the character of her husband (something that simply plays no part in the novel). One of the signifiers of Sarah’s increasing distrust of her husband is the arrival of Olivia. Olivia was Angier’s assistant and lover who leaves him to become Borden’s assistant and lover. In the novel she has become distanced from Angier, and suggests that she go and spy on Borden for him; in the film, it is Angier who makes this proposition[3]. In either case, she immediately becomes the lover of one of the Bordens, helps smarten up his stage act, and is instrumental in sending Angier on what is supposed to be a wild goose chase after Tesla. But in the film her primary role seems to be to exacerbate Sarah’s increasing alienation from her husband. Thus, while she passes Borden’s notebook to Angier (as in the novel), it is Borden himself who gives Angier the key word Tesla to rescue the kidnapped Fallon. Moreover, once Sarah commits suicide, Olivia effectively disappears from the film, though she continues to play a part to the very end of the novel. Both Borden and Angier pay for their rivalry and their obsession with their lives, but while the novel illustrates the damage continuing on through further generations of the two families, the film cannot do that because it does not move out of the timeframe; instead, it shows the damage affecting those around the magicians, notably their wives, Olivia, and Cutter.

One of the things we see in this, of course, is the way the film uses echoes, parallels and doublings as a way of making visible the secret that is revealed only at the very end. A close, careful reading of the novel will disclose the fact that Borden is a pair of twins very early on: ‘Already,’ he says, early in his notebook, ‘without once writing a falsehood, I have started the deception that is my life. The lie is contained in these words, even in the very first of them.’[4] The very first word of his notebook is ‘I’. Without ever being made explicit, this reading underlines everything else that follows; and Priest complements it with a sequence of doublings that recur through the novel, most obviously in the pairing of Borden’s notebook with Angier’s diary. But in the film, the secret that Borden is a twin, and the parallel secret that Angier’s trick creates another living being one of which must be killed, are both withheld until the very last minutes of the film. This means that the parallels and doublings serve a very different purpose, actually setting the scene for the final revelations. Thus echoes and doublings are a very important part of the aesthetic structure of the film, and there is barely a single important scene or character that doesn’t have a parallel elsewhere in the film. The birdcages in Borden’s workshop echo the cells in the prison; the electric sparks through which Tesla first appears are the same as those employed in Angier’s performance; both Borden and his wife die by hanging; both Angier and his wife die in a tank of water. We read these constant visual clues as readily as we read the oblique hints in Priest’s text, which is why, though the two take very different routes, they feel so much as if they are telling the same story.

[1] Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, The Prestige, Faber and Faber, 2006, p3.

[2] The film renames him Chung Ling Soo, muddling him up with another rival magician, see Christopher Priest, The Magic: The Story of a Film, GrimGrin Studio, 2008, p129.

[3] Priest convincingly argues that this change undermines the psychological plausibility of the film, see The Magic pp100-103.

[4] Christopher Priest, The Prestige, Touchstone, 1995, p38.