The Prestige by Christopher Priest
Ah, The Prestige. I remember watching Christopher Nolan’s film adaptation of this novel with my mother, who couldn’t take the ending—she likes her villains punished, my mother. I myself enjoyed the thoughtful plot, the fantastic acting, and the costuming. It’s often about the costuming with me. Obviously, it was after watching the film that I discovered it was originally a novel, but for years I thought that the novel was endlessly complicated and that Nolan had pulled out one story thread among many to adapt to film. Imagine my surprise—and delight—to discover that that’s absolutely not the case.
The Prestige opens with Andrew Westley, born Andrew Borden, receiving a package from a one Kate Angier containing the diary of Alfred Borden, a stage magician of the late 1800s and his ancestor. In it, he reads of the feud between Borden and Angier, Kate’s ancestor and another stage magician. Unbeknownst to Andrew, this feud has lived on, and Kate has reached out to him to end it. While Andrew doesn’t consider himself a Borden by anything but birth, he’s still intrigued—because he thinks it might solve the mystery of the fact he’s always felt he’s had a twin brother, despite being a single birth…
The film adaptation of The Prestige (which will get its own review in due time, don’t you worry) dispenses only with the frame story of Andrew and Kate, which only serves as an introduction to the story and a way to give the novel some sort of a climax. Since The Prestige in my head was a Gordian knot of stories, I will admit to being a little disappointed, but that’s hardly the novel’s fault. The frame story merely punctuates the diaries of Borden and Angier. Knowing the “twist”—well, the plot, it’s hardly a twist, although it’s kept from the audience—from the film adaptation kept me from enjoying it as a first reader would. But there are other delights; you know how sometimes you’ll reread a murder mystery just so you can track the killer from the very beginning? (I’m not the only one who does that, right?) Knowing what heights of madness Angier eventually reaches in the search for the perfect trick to one-up Borden ratchets up the tension and the creepy atmosphere of the novel. Both Angier and Borden are forced to get cryptic in their diaries to conceal their professional secrets, and being able to read between the lines is properly spine-chilling. I can only imagine that encountering it for the first time will be equally as satisfying.
Less satisfying is the writing style. There’s nothing wrong with it, except a pretty heavy whiff of the mid-nineties (a quality I can’t quite put my finger on yet, but I will someday)—it’s efficient and the story itself is so engaging that it’s hard not to. But little differentiates the voices of Borden and Angier, and only time, gender, and the third person separate Andrew and Kate from them. The novel isn’t a deep character study; rather, it’s an exploration of the concept of doubles from various different angles, touching on it in its various natural and unnatural incarnations. But there’s not much emotional exploration of the fallout of these events, despite the intimacy that the diaries could possibly provide. Perhaps that’s the point—Angier and Borden are always playing their cards close to their chest, so it’s impossible to truly get inside their heads in narratives that they themselves are creating, just like the tricks they perform onstage. The diaries, as Borden’s peculiar way of referring to his own secret, are part of the trick.
Ultimately, I think the film adaptation streamlines the material provided here into a more svelte and affective story, by eliminating moments here and there—one of the twists is brought up early and dismissed, before being raised again, for instance—and removing the ultimately thin frame story. It’s a fascinating and utterly unique story and concept, hence its James Tate Black Memorial Prize, but it’s not as developed as it could be, and I found that ultimately disappointing, even as I kept flipping the pages. I don’t know; perhaps I’m hideously biased because I saw the film first at a formative age. But ultimately, I think the film adaptation outshines the novel.
Bottom line: The Prestige is an efficiently written, fascinating, and unique piece, but the lack of emotional depth forces me to concede the best translation of this concept is, in fact, Nolan’s 2006 film. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.