Book vs Movie – The Prestige
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: When it comes to The Prestige written by Christopher Priest versus The Prestige directed by Christopher Nolan, I’m a bigger fan of the movie. It was a much tenser experience with far more compelling motivations to drive the characters forward. Nevertheless, much like the magic trick at the centre of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, the original book is more inventive for having been the first and all the more enjoyable for not having technology as an aid to bolster the haunting tale. Of course, if you’ve not seen the movie or read the book that all probably sounds a bit vague. In which case, I’m here to give you a spoiler-free rundown of what they’re about and what makes their relationship with one another so interesting.
The Prestige by Christopher Priest is about two young stage magicians in 1878 who become bitter rivals when they clash over the course of a fraudulent séance. For the most part, the book tracks this rivalry over the course of their careers and charts their rise to both fame and infamy as they’re spurred on to constantly one-up one another. To be honest, it’s been a few years since I read the book, so I don’t have a clear memory of the personalities involved other than the bitterness and exasperation of the more defeated of the pair. Don’t take this as a fault of the story though, because it did leave a number of other lasting impressions on me. For starters, Christopher Priest injected the story with an absurd tone that often oscillated between humour and horror. On one level it’s just really entertaining to see these two masters of their craft obsessed with coming out on top. But it’s also pretty ridiculous that something like a magic act could become so important to them and eventually outright disturbing as to the lengths they’ll go, not so much to be the best, but just to crush their respective foes. Priest himself also pulled off a bit of a feat in writing the book, which takes place across a span of decades and leaves you guessing as to the mysteries right up to the very end.
Meanwhile, over in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation, the characters have the benefit of having some famous faces attached to them, but to be honest, I think the main reason they stand out in memory is because the actual screenplay helped to better define their iconic personality types.
Hugh Jackman plays the extroverted, charming showman who doesn’t quite have the talent to match, while Christian Bales plays an intense artistic type, who cares more about the techniques of performing stunning magic than he does about seducing his audience. The structure of the film itself, as constructed by Nolan’s brother who wrote the screenplay, weaves an admittedly more impressive spell than that of the book: its plot mirrors the structure of a magic trick as outlined by a magician at the start of the story. Nevertheless, when I think about the Hollywood version of the tale, I can’t help but feel that it took something really unique and turned it into more of a commercial crowd-pleaser. You know, that absurd tone that Christopher Priest managed to conjure up isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but given how rare it is to find a book that can pull it off I have to credit him for making me chuckle and feel my stomach churn at the same time. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a more commercial oriented product. In point of fact, it can be just as difficult to make a creative crowd pleaser as it is to write something more personal and profound. In that regard, Christopher Nolan does seem to be Hollywood’s current master. His version of The Prestige, as it happens is my favourite of his filmography. It’s not overly bloated, the pretensions are kept to a minimum, the performances are compelling and the score is the perfect accompaniment for his brother’s more thriller oriented sense of pacing style.
As to which you should tackle first? The story in both versions is dependent on a lot of twists and turns, so whichever you decide to start with will probably be the more pure experience. For my part, I think it would have been nice to read the book without knowing what the heck was going on, but then I’m mostly glad to have had that sense of wonder while I watched the film. These days the motion picture adaptation has undoubtedly overshadowed its source material in popular culture, which I’m sure is much to the frustration of some of the book’s fans. But given that the story is about a pair of competing masters and their neverending feud, it’s fitting to say they’re both worthy of being called The Prestige. If you’ve seen and read each of the versions, let me know which doppelganger you preferred in the comments below. If you’ve only watched the film and never read the book, make sure you get around to it someday. Christopher Priests is more than able to stand on its own, a unique experience that you might not have gotten anywhere before. And if you’d like to compare another book to its Hollywood counterpart then check out my video on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.