Thursday, 4 August 2011

'The Prestige' by Christopher Priest (1995)

Synopsis: in London 1878, two rival magicians clash during the course of a fraudulent seance. From this moment on the magician's lives become full of deceit and revelations as they continually try to outwit and expose one another. The rivalry will take them to the height of their careers but it will have terrible consequences. Their rivalry will even have an effect on their modern-day descendants.

I think I'd have probably been more impressed with this book had I not seen its film adaptation first which is 10 times better. The Prestige is a fantastic film and is one of my all-time favourites. It's also one of those very rare examples of a film that is actually better than the book it's based on! Here's why:

  1. The book's subplot. Priest mostly tells his story about the two magicians - Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier - through their diary entries but he also includes a subplot about the magician's modern day descendants. I think it was a very wise decision on Christopher Nolan's part to remove this subplot from his film because it's very boring and almost completely pointless and irrelevant. 
  2. The main characters and their motivations are much better fleshed out and are given much more depth in the film. In the book the magician's feud may well be interesting but the magicians themselves aren't. Their feud has no real basis either. Priest does provide a reason for how the feud initially began, but it's not a very strong explanation when you start to consider the magician's intense obsession and hatred of one another. Why does their feud carry on for over two decades? Why do they resort to increasingly violent means to sabotage one another's act? In the book we never really know and it's all very vague and unclear. The film provides a much more convincing backstory for the magician's feud and it fleshes out their characters more. Both Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman give brilliant performances in the film and deserve a lot of credit for making their characters more complex and interesting than they are in the book. The tension between them is palpable.
  3. Nikola Tesla's disappearance. In Priest's book Tesla builds Angier's machine and then abandons his lab due to bankruptcy - even though he's received a vast sum of money from Angier. In the film Tesla is forced to abandon his lab because Thomas Edison's goons have tracked him down and torched the place. It's a much more interesting explanation since Tesla and Edison had a real-life rivalry and it compliments the feud between the magicians.
  4. The two big twists at the end of the book just weren't a shock to me since I'd already seen the film.

After doing a bit of thinking I've decided to give this book three stars rather than the two that I was initially thinking of giving it. Priest did come up with a fascinating premise and the potential for a great story is certainly there. The book has some interesting themes too - like the nature of obsession and the dangers of deception and of living a double life. Priest is a good writer and parts of this book are decent. What a shame then the book is let down by weak characterisation, vague motivations and an unnecessary framing device! This book had the potential to be a truly brilliant work of fiction but instead it's just average. The film is just so much more enjoyable and I'd completely recommend it!

Rating: 3/5

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