January 10, 2011

Are You Watching Closely?

It is almost inevitable when a novel is made into a movie that readers of the original will wail, "but the book was better."  And usually they're right.  It's rare to find a movie adaptation that works better than the source material.

So, here's one.

Readers from the Ranch will remember that I put Christopher Nolan's The Prestige on my list of 10 favorite films of the the 2000s.  As I wrote then, I won't pretend that it's particularly deep or life changing, it's just a really entertaining film.  Given that, it was only a matter of time before I read the novel of the same name upon which it was based.

For those of you who have neither seen the movie or read the book, the heart of both is a escalating feud between a pair of late 19th-century English magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier.  They have a shared history, dating back to a single event (different in each telling).  The feud consumes them, in unexpected ways.

The novel came out in 1995, written by Christopher Priest.  It won awards, at the time, including the World Fantasy Award, so it's got quite a pedigree of its own.  It also has one thing that the movie completely lacks (or jettisoned, I suppose), which is a modern day frame story that provides the basis for getting into the feud.  Good move by the brothers Nolan, as the modern day stuff adds nothing to the core of the story, adds an additional layer of the supernatural that I found a little off putting, and lead to a wholly underwhelming conclusion.

What's left, then, is the story of the Borden/Angier rivalry, which Priest cleverly lays out via a pair of first person narratives.  Bordern's comes from his notebook, obtained after his death and published by Angier.  Angier's comes from his diary, though I'm having a hard time remembering if it was later published as well.  Regardless, rather than having them parallel themselves chronologically, we get all of Borden's version before all of Angier's.  Although I initially didn't like that idea, in the end I appreciated the distance it provided from the key incidents recounted by the two men.

It goes without saying that if you're making a movie based on dueling sources like that, it had to shift some things around.  What's interesting is that the brothers Nolan take the outline of the feud and the characters involved and tweak them quite a bit so that, while recognizable from the book, they wind up quite different.  Take, for example, the incident that starts the feud.

In the book, it stems from Borden's intentional attempt to "out" Angier as a fraud (then operating in a John Edward sort of fashion).  It has physical consequences, but fairly minor ones.  By contrast, the spark in the movie is the death of Angier's wife during a performance with Borden in what appears to be an accident.  With that change, the feud becomes more real and believable and more ambiguous at the same time.

That sets the movie up to be a darker affair than the book.  The feud in the book tends to rise and fall, lapse into nothing and the spring up again for no good reason.  The movie makes it all more compact and constant.  It also deepens both Borden's and Angier's actions in a way that the book doesn't.  Both men are required to affirmatively "get their hands dirty" as the feud spirals out of control.  It makes for a more riveting narrative.

All of this is not to say that the novel is bad.  Far from it - the meat of it is interesting and detailed in ways the movie can't be and I like Priest's voice.  It's just that, and I agree with this evaluation, the movie is better.  In a way, it reminds me of Dangerous Liaisons (the Stephen Frears one), which also has at its base a two-way conversation between the main characters that can't easily be transferred to the screen.  Maybe it's a situation where the impossibility of doing that frees the filmmakers from the fear of not doing it "right" and lets their creativity reign?

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