Acclaimed director Christopher Nolan is back in theaters with his space epic “Interstellar.” A fair amount of my favorite movies of the 21st century — “Memento,” “The Dark Knight,” “Inception” — are Nolan works. One that often gets lost in the shuffle is 2006’s “The Prestige,” an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Christopher Priest.
The novel, published in 1995, tells quite a different story as opposed to its movie namesake. The basics are all still there: two stage magicians at the turn of the 20th century, Alfred Borden and Rupert (Robert in the film) Angier, form a rivalry that systemically eat into every aspect of their lives. Borden (played by Christian Bale) creates a one-of-a-kind new trick, The Transported Man, in which he appears to teleport from one cabinet to another across the stage instantaneously. Angier (Hugh Jackman) tries to imitate the trick as best he can and has success, but he isn’t satisfied as he knows Borden’s is better. Thinking he has found the secret, he seeks out inventor Nikola Tesla to build him a machine that can do the job.
(SPOILERS FOLLOW THE JUMP)
The machine, however, doesn’t just transport Angier to another place — it creates a copy of his body to do so. In the book, the machine kills the original body and places the soul into the new body it creates. In the movie, the original is still alive, so to prevent multiple copies of himself from existing, Angier rigs the machine to drop the old body into a locked water tank under the stage to drown it after every performance. He works it so Borden is charged with his murder, and Borden’s time in prison serves as the frame for the narrative. In traditional Nolan fashion, the story jumps across several timelines, with Borden reading Angier’s diary in prison and Angier providing flashbacks in his story.
Eventually, Borden learns Angier’s secret when a Lord Caldlow, who mysteriously bought all of Angier’s equipment, comes to shepherd Borden’s daughter away. The man turns out to be Angier, come to rub it in his rival’s face one last time. However, Borden’s great secret is that he is one of two identical twins who shared lives to live out the perfect trick. The other Borden follows Angier to his storage facility and kills him.
This is how the movie plays it out, anyway. The men’s secrets are the same in the book, but they are revealed much sooner with more emphasis placed on how the rivalry and life in general have eaten away at their sanity and livelihood. The book shows how neither man is more or less responsible for the feud and how they constantly regret their lives going down that road. Borden, as he is in the movie, is a fundamentalist and purist in the craft, and when he learns of a popular seance act — run by Angier — he makes to expose it as a sham and improper use of the art of illusion. The reader first sees the events of the rivalry through Borden’s journal, painting Angier as a scam artist and hack magician.
It is only after reading Angier’s account much later that we learn that their initial meeting was not all it seemed, that Angier and his wife/assistant were doing whatever they could to get enough money to start a legitimate career, that Borden’s intervention directly led to the pregnant wife’s miscarriage. In the movie, Borden is also responsible for a death close to Angier, except he inadvertently kills his wife during an act (the movie has the two men starting out as assistants in another magic show). From there, revenge and the rivalry absorb all of Angier’s motivations, while Borden mostly ignores him until Angier starts stealing his Transported Man trick.
The book also is framed completely differently to show how the feud has survived the generations. A descendent of Borden is called on a journalistic endeavor to the Angiers’ manor; because he was left for adoption, he doesn’t know much about his birth family’s history except that he feels he has a long-lost twin. The great-granddaughter of Angier has brought him there with the intention of burying the past ghosts, enlightening him on the whole, dark story and including a tale from their shared childhood, when his birth parents came by the manor under the same pretense. Her father had in a fury used Angier’s machine on the boy. Grown up, the writer ends the novel by going out to the crypt where the machine was kept, leading to a harrowing and haunting climax involving the spectral visage of Angier himself.
These differences don’t make either version of the story better or worse, but the book can get long-winded in its epistolary style. The film can be a bit convoluted (like Nolan’s work tends to be), but the suspense and drama more than make up for the confusion. Both are engaging pieces and will keep you enchanted by the act.