The Prestige, Christopher Priest

Tor, 1995 (2006 reprint), 360 pages, C$18.95 tpb, ISBN 0-765-31734-6

Given how often movie adaptations of good books are disappointing, a saner way to think about it would be to see adaptations as lavish advertisements for the humble book that inspired it all. For those without any knowledge of the story, why not upgrade the experience by going from the film to the book?

That’s part of the reason why I deliberately held off on reading Christopher Priest’s The Prestige until after I had seen the film. Given my knowledge of the Science Fiction genre, it’s rare that an SF film adaptation will tackle a book that I haven’t read: I thought it would be fun to do the plebeian thing and pick up the movie tie-in reissue.

At this point, I could spend a lot of time discussing the meticulously well-constructed machine that is Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of THE PRESTIGE, but most of it boils down to two conclusions: First, the book and the movie are substantially different. Second, the film was far more satisfying than the book.

Not that the book isn’t a success: Here, Priest plays around with the notion of feuding Victorian-era stage magicians, and the result is fascinating. More or less told through two diaries within a contemporary first-person framing device, The Prestige describes a duel between skilled illusionists who turn their obsessive nature to one-upping and humiliating each other. Their quest to defeat each other’s illusions gradually takes them in increasingly fantastic territory –although the “fantastic” here isn’t always related to science and technology.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the novel is its exploration of the world of Victorian stage magic. At a time predating most of what we now regard as “mass entertainment”, stage magic was a big deal: It’s easy to imagine the whole of London looking on as Priest describes the routine of the job and explain the prestidigitator’s trade. (Though without explaining their tricks –another way the film is more satisfying.) The atmosphere is top-notch, and the illusion of verisimilitude is perfect.

The diary format also allows Priest to delve deep into the minds of his unreliable diarists (which may serve to explain why the duller contemporary narration is less interesting) and give them all very different characteristics through simple use of language. Viewers of the movie won’t have any problem identifying the characters, even though the adaption takes liberties with at least one character by sheer necessity. Writing-wise, The Prestige is a pleasure to read, the Victorian-era language never overpowering the compulsively readable nature of the narrative, even for those who think they know the upcoming surprises.

But there are some very important differences between book and novel. Even for such a twisty story, the plot turns and revelations are arranged in a different order, and the book contains at least two extra surprises that take the story much deeper into the Science Fiction genre. I’m not convinced that these extra twists are essential, though: By the time we’re back to the contemporary frame, the last surprises seem a bit inconsequential and superfluous: If the film has a particular strength, it’s to rearrange the revelations in such a way that they give an extra thematic meaning to the story: I particularly loved the way that the film one-ups its high-tech twist by one of the oldest double-switch trick there is.

While the book is good and pleasant and immensely readable, it meanders without making optimal use of its own strengths. The film may be short and simple and predictable (to some), but it has the luxury of extracting the diamonds in the rough draft of Priest’s story, and stringing them along for a stronger narrative. Both stories are successes in their own chosen storytelling modes, but the film has an extra kick that can only leave viewers shaking their heads in admiration. (There’s probably an extra generalization to make here about what distinguishes good adaptations from bad ones, but I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader.)

Looking at my database of books read since 1994, I realized that I had never read any book by Christopher Priest before The Prestige, a curious oversight ill-explained by the confidential distribution of his books in North America. Whatever the reason, I have now started correcting the situation: Priest’s The Separation is now on my bookshelves. The Prestige, while a paler double of its own adaptation, convinced me to see out the rest of the author’s backlist.

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