Two stage magicians,
cut-throat rivals, seek to learn
each other's secret.
If you've seen the recent movie, The Prestige, you might think you already know this story. You would be wrong.
The Prestige (both book and movie) follow the careers of and lifelong rivalry between two stage magicians -- illusionists -- in London at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. Each has a culminating illusion the other cannot figure out, and each spends more energy and karma than he can afford, pursuing the trick and sabotaging the other.
I bought the novel by Christopher Priest because I found the movie enthralling. After that magic night at the cinema, I spent several satisfying hours researching Nikolai Tesla, a pioneer in electricity who was a contemporary and bitter rival of Thomas Edison. But I still had many unanswered questions about the story itself.
However, that was a different story from this one (though the book did answer my questions). Many characters in the book do not appear in the movie, but surprisingly, some characters in the movie do not appear in the book.
Even more surprising, some of the most important, pivotal events in the movie do not occur in the book. I believe they were added to give single events the same impact and emotional power as series of events in the book.
On the other hand, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the influence of the two magicians' feud on their contemporary descendants, and that isn't even alluded to in the movie.
Finally, there are some great speeches in the movie that are original to that medium, most notably Sarah's comment that how sometimes her husband means it when he says he loves her, and the last speech given by Rupert Angier, where he admits to fearing where he will end each time he does his most famous magic trick.
The most important fact, however, you will know if you've seen the movie, and it colors the read. I found myself reading The Prestige as one rereads a book: watching to see how carefully the author set up the scene that will be the book's denouement. But the read was not any less fascinating, and Priest's setup was skillful indeed.
These are wonderful characters, if a bit ruthless for my liking: fully developed and leading action-filled lives of intrigue. Priest manages to capture a sense of Nineteenth Century writing in the sections that purport to be diaries from the period, without alienating a modern reader. And even knowing the ending, I didn't want to put the book down. Twice, when I woke in the middle of the night, I turned on the light to read rather than getting my much-needed sleep.
In fact, the only thing that kept the book from being perfect is that the contemporary conflict, the one the descendants have to deal with, was not resolved. Though all my questions from the movie were answered, the book opened a new one: what the heck happened? The last page seemed to turn in the middle of most intriguing action, and I felt like I'd been aroused by a skillful lover who lost interest before finishing the deed.
What makes the book (and movie) especially powerful though is that the author/producer have managed to take the techniques and style of stage magic and apply them to a narrative story.
- First, the artist (author/producer in this case) sets up a trick: hints, suggests or explains what will be attempted. This step involves misdirecting the audience.
- Second, the artist performs the trick: the story is written, the movie is produced, and the reader follows the story as an audience follows an illusion. In this step, the artist displays skill, acquired only by a lifetime of practice.
- Finally, there is "the prestige" or product: the rabbit that didn't exist before emerging from a top hat, the applause and bewilderment of the audience. In the world of the novel/movie, the "Prestige" is both metaphorical and literal, but in the illusion Priest has created for the reader, it is a haunting.
Put more plainly: this story will haunt you. You will examine it from all sides, wondering how Priest did it. You will think of it for days, even weeks: wondering if it's possible (and telling yourself that, as with any illusion, of course it's not, don't be silly!). And the silent applause will grow as you recognize Priest's skill.
I have only one response: I stand and applaud. "Bravo, Christopher Priest! Bravo."