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Sunday 22 October 2006

Seeing Double:
A Review of The Prestige

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest

Starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlet Johansson, Piper Perabo, David Bowie, and Andy Serkis

Alert! This review discusses the film without any concerns about withholding "spoilers"...

Christopher Priest's The Prestige (1995) is a novel which is more enjoyable to reread than to read. The first time through, the gradual revelation of its mysteries makes many passages seem confusing or meaningless; but once one understands everything that is going on, the reader can, the second time around, observe with quiet satisfaction the careful unfolding of the magnificent puzzle box Priest has constructed.

Although it is a somewhat different sort of puzzle box, the newly arrived film adaptation of Priest's novel shares this basic quality: familiarity with its storyline makes it more entertaining. And that is why (be warned!) I will be discussing the film without any concerns about withholding "spoilers"; for I enjoyed watching the film more when I saw it a second time, when all the particulars of its modified narrative were perfectly clear, so any advance knowledge imparted here will, I believe, only enhance the experience for those who have not yet seen the film. The ancient Greeks, who loved watching tragedies even though they already knew every detail of their plots, would understand, and they would also recognize The Prestige as a true tragedy, generally following Aristotle's pattern in presenting two otherwise admirable heroes whose tragic flaw inexorably leads to their downfall.

One of the questions I am presumably here to answer, as the film reviewer generally assigned to adaptations of literary works, is precisely how screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan have changed Priest's story. And I can report that the central features of the novel have been retained. In late Victorian England, a series of incidents transforms two stage magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman), into bitter rivals who keep trying to disrupt each other's acts. By means of an intricately maintained double life, in which twin brothers alternately pretend to be one man, Borden is able to perform an astounding trick of apparently instantaneous teleportation from one side of the stage to the other. Determined to duplicate and improve upon Borden's feat, Angier assigns his assistant and lover Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlet Johansson) to seek employment with Borden to learn his secret; but Olivia instead falls in love with Borden and, in lieu of a complete explanation, gives Angier only a brief, and false, clue: "Tesla." This leads Angier (who is secretly a wealthy lord) to seek out the great Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), living in Colorado, and pay him to construct a genuine teleportation device, albeit one with an unpleasant side effect, which Angier then successfully employs in his stage act.

However, for generally understandable reasons, Nolan and Nolan have also considerably revised the story in an effort to create a brisk, audience-pleasing blockbuster. Priest's modern frame story, featuring descendants of Borden and Angier endeavoring to understand the story of their ancestors' feud and its enduring repercussions, has been entirely jettisoned. More so than in the novel, key differences between the two magicians are emphasized: Borden is the better magician, but Angier is the better showman. In the novel, Tesla's teleportation machine usually left seemingly lifeless duplicates of the transported person who nonetheless could endure in a sort of paralyzed quasi-life, and only one interrupted teleportation creates two living Angiers, though both are weakened. In contrast, the film's machine routinely generates perfect, living duplicates of Angier, requiring that one Angier be instantly murdered in order to avoid having two of them around. And this relates to a more general alteration in the events and tone of the film. The ways in which the novel's magicians sabotaged each other's acts were generally nonviolent and of no lasting import, so that one magician could later remark in his journal that the entire feud had been a miscalculation and that the two magicians should have been friends instead. Such a sentiment could never be uttered in the film, wherein the magicians' attacks upon each other invariably involve violence and even attempted homicide. Here, for example, the feud begins when Borden is implicated in the possibly intentional death of Angier's wife while performing an onstage trick, and Borden is later framed for murder by means of the discovery of a drowned duplicate of Angier, leading to his inevitable execution.

This new proclivity for mayhem does seem in keeping with the tastes of contemporary moviegoers, and watching a woman's hand getting sliced up on stage is undoubtedly more visually interesting than watching a man stand up in the audience and shout out, "This magician is a fraud!" But it does have the effect of coarsening Priest's more stately narrative and rendering both magicians less sympathetic as characters. That is, one might readily forgive an angry magician for revealing his rival's trick compartment to an audience, but it is harder to be forgiving when he aims a gun at his chest and tries to kill him. And this demanded another change in the story: the relatively minor character of Harry Cutter, Angier's ingénieur, who constructs his magical apparatus, has now been elevated to the status of the story's third protagonist, and as portrayed by the ever-reliable Michael Caine, he effectively becomes the film's centerpiece, who begins and ends the narrative and provides the film with one consistently likable character.

Another change in the film relates to its underlying message. Priest's novel, I think, conveys a basic respect and appreciation for the art of stage magic, despite its unfortunate effects on the two magicians and their descendants; the various tricks the magicians employ are described in loving, authentic detail, and readers are encouraged to generally admire people who dedicate their lives to presenting persuasive illusions. The film's attitude toward stage magic seems less positive. Instead of simply showing Borden and Angier wearing tuxedos and performing in high-class theatres, one also sees up-and-coming magicians working in smaller and more tawdry venues, diminishing the glorious aura of the profession. Tesla's achievements with electricity are described as "real magic," implying that its artificial relative may soon be a thing of the past. And the film offers only a half-hearted defense of magic in Angier's numbingly unimpressive deathbed speech, in which he begins by asserting how wonderful it is to bring some wonder into the "sordid" lives of everyday people but ultimately confesses that he has only done it because he relishes their looks of admiration.

One basic problem with magic, it emerges, is that constant pretense can become a habit, both onstage and offstage, resulting in an inability to maintain satisfying human relationships. "Be honest with me!" demands Borden's wife Sarah (Piper Perabo), tired of having a husband with two alternating personalities, but of course Borden cannot be honest without revealing his secret, driving his wife to commit suicide and his mistress to leave him. The death of one Borden, the film's conclusion suggests, was a blessing in disguise, in that it will force the surviving Borden into a wholesome, unitary life with his daughter Jess (Samantha Mahurin). As for Angier, his obsession with duplicating Borden's trick leads him to push his mistress away solely as part of a stratagem that might allow him to obtain the desired secret. One cannot be, it seems, both a successful magician and a successful human being.

Now, it would be difficult to summarize what position the novel might be taking in respect to the question of human identity (and I would want to reread the novel again before attempting to do so), but surely a science fiction writer like Priest recognizes that things are not this simple, that life does not present people with a straightforward choice between being admirably truthful and being disgracefully deceitful. Anyone familiar with the works of Philip K. Dick knows that complying with an instruction to "Be honest with me!" is not necessarily unproblematic; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. has asserted that "We are what we pretend to be": and characters with more than one identity are common features in science fiction works ranging from renowned classics to superhero comic books. While the film acknowledges that truth is "a slippery notion" in the profession of magic, it does little to explore this insight. Thus, one might wish for a film that, like much of science fiction, would be less inclined to condemn duplicity and more inclined to explore its intriguing possibilities. Instead of regarding each new Angier as a horror that must be instantly slaughtered, for example, why can't Angier realize that having a second Angier around might be occasionally useful, or even pleasant? And Borden admits to no regrets about his lifestyle, stating that "We each had half a life, which was enough for us, but not for them [their loved ones]"; his motives are not bluntly stated, but an early statement that magic for him represented "the only way to escape all this" suggests that he found his lifelong deception liberating as well as confining (a theme underlined by numerous images of people and animals escaping from cages). Audiences, in fact, might be invited to consider the possibility that it may actually be rewarding, or even just plain fun, to be one person one day and another person the next day.

Both novel and film, of course, fail to fulfill the agenda of science fiction in another respect: as first explained by John W. Campbell, Jr., good science fiction does not simply present marvelous inventions, but also considers their effects upon human society. Despite the scenarios in countless naïve stories, scientific breakthroughs do not appear and then conveniently disappear in order to maintain the status quo; rather, they are publicized, duplicated, and made more generally available in ways that will permanently alter the status quo. Displaying an awareness of larger issues that the film lacks, Priest's Angier is savvy enough to always place a few gold coins in his pocket before entering the machine, so he can profitably harvest the copies from his inert duplicates, but he also acknowledges that he cannot do too much of this without beginning to disrupt the economic system. What would have happened if Tesla had patented his device and marketed it to people who lacked such scruples? One cannot call "Pandora's Millions" (1945) a classic science fiction story, but George O. Smith was at least attempting to seriously consider what might really happen if a duplicating machine was ever invented. Priest and his adapters are content to posit, implausibly, that such an astounding invention would remain forever hidden, destined to never be rediscovered.

In addition, while the novel does include a balancing contemporary viewpoint, the film is entirely set in Victorian England and seems entirely comfortable in its milieu. Precisely why so many science fiction writers have displayed a nostalgic fascination with this era (generating an entire subgenre of "steampunk") remains a mystery to me. Here is a world which may have a feisty woman or two but remains entirely dominated by men; a world in which non-white characters are virtually nonexistent, save for the briefly glimpsed Chinese magician, Chung Ling Soo (Chao-Li Chi); a world controlled by a rigid class structure, with admirable aristocrats on top and suspicious ruffians at the bottom. Indeed, the film's unhappiness with shifting identities might reflect fears that this could undermine its class structure: if people can change or conceal who they are, it becomes more difficult to keep them in their place. Thus, Borden uses magic to rise above his lower-class background, while magic allows Angier to go slumming far beneath his lordly status. And perhaps, powerful forces cannot allow Tesla's "real magic" to be unleashed into the world precisely because it might allow poor people to become rich and make rich people poor. In presenting modern descendants of Borden and Angier who reconcile and meet as equals, the novel allows readers to rise above this suffocating Victorian existence and see it as a thankfully vanished world; in the film, the only respite from Victoriana comes during Angier's sojourn in America, where he can enjoy the down-to-earth camaraderie of Tesla's assistant Alley (Andy Serkis) and, by viewing Tesla's experiments, get a glimpse of the world's "strange future." But he and the film then move back into the familiar past of Victorian England, seemingly with pleasure.

In a sense, all of this adds up to another familiar story: the novel was subtle and complex, while the film is blunt and simplified. Still, recalling that we are after all dealing with a tragedy, there is a certain inevitability in this as well. An absolutely faithful adaptation of Priest's novel would never have attracted the financial support that has made this such a handsome and well-promoted film; and even if it falls short of what Priest had in mind, The Prestige remains much more original and thought-provoking than the typical Hollywood offerings at this level. See it once, see it again, and you will be refreshingly intrigued and entertained. But is the film genuine science fiction, or only a persuasive illusion of science fiction? In this business, truth is a slippery notion.

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