She said, “I don’t feel like going out. Let’s just stay
in and watch some Netflix. What do you want to watch?”
“What do they have?” I asked. I had never actually seen a Netflix account in action before. (I do own two VCRs and a laserdisc player, however.) I don’t like to talk over something I’m watching for the first time, so in the interest of being sociable I suggested some movies I’d seen before. Half of them Netflix didn’t offer, but The Prestige had come up in conversation not long before, and that one was available. I’d remembered it as one of my favorite movies of the ’00s, but I’d only seen it the once, so I wondered whether I’d like it as much the second time around. As it turned out, not only did I like it as much or more, but it got me curious enough about the novel that I put my other reading on hold and plowed through that as well. What follows is a comparison of the novel and its cinematic adaptation. Spoilers abound, so mind the sled.
I preferred the movie. I will mostly be talking about the ways it improved upon the book. But I don’t want to give the impression that I disliked the book, so let me say up front that it is a compelling read. I ended up staying up one night and plowing through page after page, which is something I virtually never do. I tend to read in little snippets of time here and there, in restaurants waiting for my food to arrive or in my car when I’ve arrived early for a tutoring appointment. So the fact that I was up late going “I gotta know what happens next!!”, when I had already seen the movie, says something about what a page‐turner Priest (UK) has crafted. The novel also does contain the chief plot twist that makes The Prestige awesome—and here’s where the spoilers start, because I can’t talk about either version of the story in any depth without revealing the twist. Here’s what I said about it eleven years ago, lightly edited so that it applies to both the movie and the book:
The Prestige is about a rivalry between two stage magicians named Alfred Borden and Robert (or, in the novel, Rupert) Angier. The feud begins when Borden unintentionally but recklessly inflicts a horrible tragedy upon Angier; Angier retaliates, and soon they are sabotaging each other’s shows. Both achieve a measure of fame, but then Borden premieres a new trick that Angier can’t figure out: he enters one box and immediately appears in another on the other side of the stage. Angier is able to duplicate the feat by using trap doors and a lookalike, but that leaves him under the stage while the lookalike receives the applause. And he’s sure Borden isn’t doing it that way. Angier’s obsession with learning the secret makes him such an easy target, so desperate for an answer, that Borden manages to convince him that the illusion is real. And Angier is so deranged that he goes halfway around the world to the recently closed American frontier, where Nikola Tesla has set up shop in the Colorado mountains, to get the world‐famous inventor to build him a machine like the one he built for Borden that actually teleports him.
This is a wild goose chase, of course. Tesla never built such a machine for Borden. He’s never heard of Borden.
But he builds one for Angier anyway.
Eleven years later, I still can’t get over how brilliant that twist is. Borden cackles to himself about how he actually managed to convince that idiot Angier that Nikola Tesla had invented teleportation, only for Angier to go to Colorado and successfully convince Tesla to invent teleportation. Like I wrote in my ’07 article, that shift from the fake to the real resonates with history: the example that sprang to my mind was that the 18th‑century “chess machine” that beat Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin did so by hiding a human player in a compartment behind the fake clockwork, but by the late 20th century, the chess computers that beat world champions did so by actually being chess computers. And by presenting us with a machine capable of miracles, The Prestige lets us experience at least a hint of how someone in 1899 might view all the equally miraculous devices surrounding us that we take for granted. All that thematic depth was in the book long before it was adapted into a film, so full credit to the author for that.
The most obvious advantage the movie has over the book is that the story is about stage magicians, and it benefits the story immeasurably when we can actually see their magic tricks. The novel only has language to work with, and it is largely an exercise in using language to pull off a couple of tricks of its own. Consider the second major twist in both versions of The Prestige: “Alfred Borden”, it turns out, is actually a pair of twins. The way his “Transported Man” works is simple: one twin enters the cabinet on the left, and the other immediately emerges from the cabinet on the right. That’s not much of a trick. The trick is for two people to spend every moment of their lives, public and private, acting as a single person, with no one else in on the secret—not even the wife they share—so that no one can guess how Alfred Borden can have moved from one cabinet to the other in an instant. The movie reveals the secret at the very end, after sprinkling clues throughout the film—conversations in which Borden has to be reminded what he said the day before, wounds that bleed for longer than they should (because when one twin gets a couple of fingers blown off, the other has to chop off a couple of his so that they still match). This is skillfully done: knowing the secret, I could see that the movie was giving viewers every chance to figure it out for themselves, but the first time around, not only did I not put together the clues, I didn’t even recognize that they were clues. But the book doesn’t give us seemingly innocuous conversations to eavesdrop on; instead, we’re reading Borden’s diary. He starts off talking about his childhood and about how he became interested in stage magic, but then sentences like this start to crop up: “I said nothing of this to me!” “I apologize if I think I was deceiving me, and meant no harm. I have read through it several times, & I think I understand what I am driving at.” “Under the Pact, if I once make a statement, even something ill‐advised or uttered in an unguarded moment, I always assume responsibility for it as if I had spoken the words myself.” I can’t really know what I would initially have made of this had I not gone in already knowing the secret—maybe I would have assumed that Borden was a multiple personality. But I do know that making readers parse sentences that don’t on the surface make sense is one of my least favorite literary gimmicks. (See Pattern 30.) Normally I like knowing nothing about a story I’m about to dive into, but in this case having already watched the movie spared me some frustration.
There is a third major twist in both versions of The Prestige. Tesla’s machine doesn’t work as Angier intended: it does not merely teleport what is placed inside it but duplicates it, with one of the two bifurcations appearing in the new location and the other remaining inside the machine. That isn’t actually the twist I’m thinking of, though. In the movie, the twist is that, in order to keep dozens of Robert Angiers from wandering around, Angier’s trick makes the Angier who remains in the machine fall through a trap door and into a tank of water, where he drowns. And when Angier steps into the machine, he never knows whether his consciousness will end up in the body soaking up wild applause or in the one that plunges to a horrible death. With one hundred performances, that means one hundred unlucky Angiers floating lifelessly in tanks—the concluding image of the film. We occasionally see one of these tanks being hauled away, covered in a tarp, but it’s just one element of a montage and easy to overlook. It’s much harder to hide something in a book, so the novel again resorts to linguistic trickery to achieve its effect. As we read the end of Angier’s diary—for this makes up the bulk of the novel—we find that he keeps referring to “prestige materials” and the disposal thereof. As in the movie, we learn what the “prestige materials” are near the end. In the book the term turns out to be more than just a euphemism for corpses, though, because when Rupert Angier uses the machine to teleport himself, what remains behind is a frozen husk that remains perfectly preserved forever. When Borden sneaks backstage to find the secret to what he still thinks is a mere illusion, he turns off the machine while Angier is in transit. The interruption of the transmission causes Angier to rematerialize, consciousness intact, as a translucent, semi‐tangible wraith with one‑sixth of his former mass, while the remnant of Angier also retains his consciousness, but gradually falls apart and succumbs to a fatal illness. This is, needless to say, a lot more complicated. Consequently, where the movie hits the audience with a “wtf!!” moment, the book’s version is more of a “wtf?”.
Perhaps even more than in its handling of these twists, the movie improves upon the novel by dispensing with the novel’s complications. In the book, the feud between Borden and Angier begins when Borden, who knows Angier from the letter columns of stage magic industry magazines, finds him working as a “spiritist” making money by convincing the bereaved that he can put them in touch with their deceased loved ones. Offended that an illusionist is claiming real magical powers, Borden disrupts one of Angier’s séances, and in the commotion, knocks down Angier’s pregnant wife. Not long after, she miscarries, and the trauma causes them to grow distant from one another, eventually dooming their marriage. The film’s origin of the feud is much more straightforward. Borden and Angier meet while working as apprentices under the same magician. Borden thinks he’s hot shit and argues that the show is using the wrong trick knot during the water escape. He tries a new knot. It doesn’t work. Angier’s wife is the one in the tank, and she drowns. Not only is that more elegant than the novel’s kludgy version, but it adds resonance to the deaths of the hundred Angiers at the end of the movie. The novel also embeds the two magicians’ diaries within an elaborate framing story in which their distant descendants a hundred years later discover that some troubling incidents in their early childhood may have roots in their ancestors’ rivarly; the film rightly tosses all of this. The strictures of a feature film make it imperative to streamline, but a lot of prose could benefit from a streamlining pass as well. The freedom to add extra content is great, but using that freedom to add extra complications is an easy trap to fall into. One of the most helpful comments I received when I was working on the Ready, Okay! rewrite was Phoenixy’s observation that one character’s plan was way too complex. It was the equivalent of a villain using a gun to press the button on a Rube Goldberg machine rather than just pointing it at the hero. The novel of The Prestige does a little of that, with its framing sequences, but its version of the Tesla machine is a bit like using a fancy laser gun with all sorts of complicated rules about how it works, when a regular gun is actually more terrifying.
The film also seemed to me to have a better sense of timing. As noted, it saves the revelation of Borden’s nature until the end; in the novel, it is clear by the end of Borden’s diary, a third of the way into the book. Thus Angier spends much of his section of the book trying to solve a mystery to which we already know the solution. Angier’s section of the book also begins with his childhood, and we learn that he is the son of a British lord whose title he eventually inherits. In the movie, this isn’t revealed until quite close to the end. This choice has potential drawbacks: the first time I watched the movie, I was under the impression that “Lord Caldlow” was a false identity Angier had set up for himself. This time around I picked up on more of the plot points and understood that “Robert Angier” had been the cover identity all along. Meaning that the American accent he had used in every scene, public and private, had all been part of a lifelong performance just like Borden’s. I had thought that I already knew all the big “whoa” moments in The Prestige from the first time I watched it, but here was another one. Throw in all the other things, not in the book, that clicked the second time around (the meaning of the rubber ball, the early lines which are not callbacks but which turn out to have thematic weight) and I think I have to put this one in my cinematic pantheon.
So it looks like my first experience with Netflix was a success. Now I just have to learn how to “chill” and I will be up to speed with the 21st century!