Because all of life is stories.
A little over a half dozen years ago, Christopher Nolan released a movie called The Prestige. It had an all-star cast including Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis, and David Bowie. And it was incredible. It was the tale of two magicians, how their careers intersected, and how one unfortunate show began a feud that threatened to ultimately destroy them both. It is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. So imagine my delight when I discovered that the movie was based on a book that had been written nearly a decade earlier by British author Christopher Priest.
Normally if you’ve seen the movie you have a good idea about how the book ends, that is to say good adaptations stay fairly close to the source material most of the time. If you have seen it, and haven’t read the book, then pick it up. In this instance, the book is substantially different from the movie, introducing new characters, new history between them, and a very very different set of circumstances leading towards the climax.
Like I said, the plot of the book follows two magicians, from the time they are children and onward over the decades. The book is formatted as a series of diary and journal entries from the main protagonists, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. They grow and learn the arts of misdirection, of prestidigitation. They take jobs and slowly but surely build great careers for themselves. And then, they meet. I cannot tell you the reason for the great feud between them, but I will tell you that the movie handles it much differently than the novel. As the book progresses the stakes for these two men rise with their success, and the price each of them is likely to wind up paying is steep.
So why journals? Why not just write a novel? Well, with journals, you get first person perspective. You get into the head of each character and get to see how they see the world. Also important is what you don’t see. Here is where the magic comes into it. In any magic trick the most important thing is making sure that the audience doesn’t notice the turn, or at least the method for it. If they see how you’ve made something disappear they won’t be particularly thrilled when you bring it back. And with journals you see the world as the writer sees it, though not necessarily as it truly is. It is often in piecing together what is real, what exists between Borden and Angier’s journal entries, that provides the real thrill of this novel.
The other reason for journals is that often, someone is reading them. In the book, this story is driven by the descendants of Borden and Angier, as the feud we discover has been going on for generations, and at this point there are only two left. And one of them has only recently found out he is a Borden at all. So, staying in the Angier family mansion, the last Borden and the last Angier delve into the journals of their forefathers, trying to ascertain the secret to this great disruption between the two families, and to just what is hidden in the old family crypt.
The Prestige is a sort of different novel. It spends its time following around magicians, people who specialize in deceiving. In making people look in the wrong place, for the wrong thing. It is a splendid story in and of itself, and if that were all there was to it I would still have recommended it for being a highly enjoyable novel. But that isn’t all there is. Like most magic tricks, something is happening unseen with this book. Something it doesn’t want to tell you. You may piece it together before the big reveal at the end, and you may not. Either way, it is a thrill getting there. A thrill re-reading passages for some kind of hint you are sure exists, but is always just out of your reach. The Prestige is a hell of a novel, and an exhibition in being more than the words contained within. Read it carefully.
Are you watching closely?