Since The Prestige is both a movie and a novel, and I have both in my possession, I thought it’d be neat to review them side by side. This review will be divided into three sections: plot, characters, and presentation (narrative for the book, and adaptation for the movie), and I’ll be comparing the two in each of these categories. I will also try to avoid spoilers the best I can.
But before we get into it, I’d like to state outright that whether you’ve only read the book or only watched the movie, you will get something out of The Prestige in its other form. I myself watched the movie first before reading the book, and the book had enough differences and its own distinct style to keep me flipping its pages. I am also sure that if you’ve only read the book, you will most definitely enjoy the movie, and hopefully this review will be able to convince you why.
Both the movie and the book share the same premise: two magicians, Alfred Borden and Robert Angier, compete with one another over the course of their careers, leading to tragic consequences in their personal lives. The novel and the film diverge in the latter half, each presenting a different conclusion to the heated rivalry.
The novel tells this story through journal entries and first person accounts, framing it within a mystery that takes place generations later, and the descendants of the two magicians discover the story piece by piece, first with Borden’s point of view then Angier’s. In this way, the novel sets itself up as a mystery of sorts: how can one man transport himself to another location in the blink of an eye? The great thing about the novel’s method is that the storytelling comes to resemble the magic tricks it describes. The audience (reader) is given something ordinary, something extraordinary happens to it, and by novel’s end you are left wondering and speculating.
I must say, however, that I do like the film’s climax way better than the novel’s. The entire approach of the film is more personal than what is presented in the novel, leading to an ending that is significantly more substantial and immediate. Of course, the advantage the film has is hindsight, and it correctly chooses to focus on Borden and Angier, omitting their descendants altogether. To fill in that gap, the film pays more attention to developing the two main characters, giving them a different starting point for their hatred of one another as well as a different conclusion. Because the film focuses on the most engaging feature of the novel (the relationship between Borden and Angier), it is able to deliver a more concise and satisfying experience.
As mentioned above the novel has a bigger cast, since the main story is told through the lens of Borden and Angier’s great grandchildren, and the mystery actually starts with them. The remnants of the feud between the two magicians linger and spill over into the future. For a novel that wants to be a mystery, it was a wise decision to include the adult grandchildren, since it affords the reader a perspective from the outside looking in.
One unfortunate thing I noticed as I was reading was that Borden and Angier are barely distinguishable from one another from a narrative point of view. Since we get their stories by reading their diaries, Mr. Priest seemed to have forgotten that these are two different men, and it was oddly noticeable how similar in temperament and speech Borden and Angier’s first person narrative were. There was a missed opportunity here to paint two different portraits, perhaps even explicitly contrast them against one another via verbal quirks and mannerisms. As it is, both Borden and Angier are two articulate and well spoken magicians who cheat on their wives. It would’ve been a nice touch if the language reflected more concretely the possible differences between Borden and Angier.
Fortunately, the film does a much better job with this, specifically because a movie can give us a visual representation of the characters, and Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman both do a great job of addressing the above problem. Their performances effectively portray Borden and Angier not only as two different types of magicians, but two different men as well.
Since the film chooses to focus only on the two magicians (excluding their great grandchildren completely), it has the space to devote more attention to the important side characters, such as Cutter and Olivia. Not only do Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson have remarkable film presence, but the characters actually do a whole lot more in the movie than they do in the book, though it is more through a sum of smaller details rather than a single big plot twist.
The character that benefits the most from being brought to life on the big screen is definitely Borden’s ingeniuer, Fallon. Being primarily a visual experiences, the film’s big secret is allowed to hide in plain sight for the majority of the running time, giving viewers a big hint while at the same time concealing it. Conversely, the novel does a poor job hiding that same secret. It’s not the case that the book accidentally gives up an easy clue, but rather it deliberately sets up a false red herring, explicitly denying the truth. The book is literally saying “no, this is not Borden’s secret” when in fact it is. I was initially excited for the possibility of a different explanation in the book, but when it turned out to be an outright lie, I couldn’t help but feel I was cheated with a cheap and lazy means of misdirection. You’re not supposed to say “Darth Vader isn’t Luke’s father”, but rather “Darth Vader killed your father long ago.” That is how you drop a good hint. Denying your inevitable plot twist leaves a bad taste in the audience’s mouth, one that is not soon forgotten nor forgiven.
Nevertheless, the narrative is the strongest part of the novel. Priest’s descriptions of magical acts, and how a magician thinks, are immersive and his overall prose is elegant and pleasing to read. Even though I knew the big secret, the smooth narrative kept stringing me along, and I don’t know how historically accurate this novel is, but it provided a picturesque glimpse of Victorian-era show business.
The film was helped immensely by a talented director/screenwriter combination. The Nolan brothers’ vision of The Prestige translate perfectly into a movie, being more precise and focused on the heart of the novel. By now we have seen enough evidence of Christopher’s Nolan directorial talents, and so The Prestige serves as an early example when he was still up-and-coming. I think Nolan’s greatest strength is his ability to be straightforward, to frame a story in a simple manner, yet at the same time present extraordinary overtones of glamour, sorrow, darkness, and joy. This goes for all of his work.
The cast also does a superb job all around, starring a group of actors both just before they reach their peak and some already riding the wave. The Prestige is notable for its collection of talent. As stated above, Bale and Jackman do a great job portraying Borden and Angier, and each of them brings to the life the innermost feelings of their respective characters.
It is usually the case that one prefers the medium they were first exposed to. If you read the book first you’ll like the book over the movie, and vice versa. That is the case here, as I prefer the movie over the book, but only by a slight margin. The novel deserves to be praised for its unique story and solid storytelling, but the film does a magnificent job elevating it further. Cutting all the right corners and trimming just enough fat, the film is indeed more spectacular and concise. However, as mentioned at the beginning, I’d highly recommend reading the book even if you’ve only watched the movie. There are enough differences to keep it suspenseful, and the narrative is well written enough to be a page-turner.
The Prestige can be enjoyed by anyone, though the book may appeal more to science fiction/fantasy readers. If you haven’t been exposed to either the film or the movie, go with whichever medium you enjoy more, since you really can’t go wrong. What’s waiting for you is a magical performance that is both ambitious and will leave you guessing and in awe.
This has been a gamobo review.