The Magic: the story of a film by Christopher Priest
The Prestige by Christopher Priest published in 1995, which our Book Group read in late 2006 way before this blog started, is a novel that has stayed with me for several reasons: firstly – it’s a wonderful novel, secondly – Nikola Tesla is a secondary character in it (he is a minor obsession of mine), thirdly – the film, which was released in late 2006 also is brilliant. As I always try to do, I read the book first, not actually seeing the film until it was out on DVD.
The main plot of the novel is the story of feuding Victorian stage magicians set in fin-de-siècle London. Their enmity (in the film it begins with an onstage tragedy before either of their own careers takes off, and) builds over the years as they become rivals. When one develops a trick called ‘The Transported Man’ the other is determined to better it, which is where Tesla comes in and feud ramps up another notch. The novel is written in the form of the two magicians’ diaries and has a present day framing narrative in which the great-grandchildren of the two meet up to discuss their ancestors. I can distinctly remember our book group discussions centring around the framing narrative and whether it was needed. I thought it added more of a creepy horror edge to the story which meant it earned its place for me; the film adaptation notably doesn’t use it…
Recently I discovered, via a slightly circuitous route through various author’s own websites researching my recent post here on my favourite books about magicians, that Priest had written a short account of the route of the novel on its journey to the big screen, and because I loved the book and film was sufficiently intrigued to order a copy directly from him, which arrived signed with bookmark. Thank you Chris!
The world of film options is a strange one. Many, many novels and stories are optioned by production companies, but few of these option make it to the screen. There was plenty of interest in the book, with Fox suggesting they’d cast Kenneth Branagh and Tom Cruise the magicians, and Priest’s agents had a flurry of sending out copies of the book all around the film world, at Priest’s expense as he recounts…
I did, though, get the bill for their copies. Every time the agents had any money to send me, their accounts department enclosed a copy of the latest invoice from the publishers, and they deducted the cost of the books. Sometimes this bill ran well into hundreds of pounds, and I don’t like to think what the total came to over the period of a year. It was a drain on my income I could little afford. I tried to be optimistic, thinking that in the end something must come of it all.
In the end, something did.
But the Fox project fizzled out with a change in personnel, leaving two potential companies who showed serious interest. One was Sam Mendes who had recently made American Beauty, the other was Newmarket films, the company of the Nolan brothers, Christopher and Jonathan. Mendes had the reputation already and the cash, but Priest was torn after he was sent a copy of the Nolans’ first film Following.
I sensed a kindred creative spirit in Nolan. He seemed to think about things in the same way I did, he attached a narrative with the same disregard for sequence, he obviously had the same interests in reality, perception and unreliability. He was clearly talented, but what interested me was that his talent was quirky, unusual.
He went with the Nolans, but it took them five years to be ready to film, for a certain big budget movie – Batman Begins – got in the way.
Priest then goes on to analyse the differences between the film and the book, which are many. By necessity, movies need to pare away elements of the plot, reduce the number of characters etc. Sometimes this is straight-forward, but in stripping away the framing narrative, the Nolans had to devise a new way to show the secrets of the ‘Transported Man’ illusion. Like the novel though, the essential secret is in plain sight in a different way right from the beginning – but you won’t realise until much further on – clever!
Priest is sanguine about the handing over of his novel, and the ensuing lack of consultation – the norm – but he was getting fed up with other people asking him about how the film was going, and…
Writers with similar experiences in the past told me until I was tired of heading it that in Hollywood the scriptwriters was at the end of the ‘food chain’. But even he or she was not at the absolute end. That lowly position was reserved for the author of the original book.
Priest goes on to discuss how the mechanics of the various plot changes contrast with the novel, some are far less subtle than the book. He went to see the film three times while it was on the big screen, and although delighted that the Nolans had pulled it off, is as you might expect, a little critical of some aspects. However, it is clear that he enjoyed the film very much. His detailed analysis is fascinating, and you will need to have read the book and seen the film to get the best out of this account, which is naturally full of spoilers.
Before I read this book, I rewatched the film, which wowed me as much on a third viewing as the first time, even knowing all the secrets. While I love both Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as the two magicians, the standout turn is Michael Caine as Angier’s (Jackman) ‘ingenieur’, Cutter, the behind-the-scenes builder of illusions and provider of the scene-setting voice-over at the start of the film explaining what the ‘prestige’ is, i.e. the illusion’s payoff. I also really liked Rebecca Hall as Borden’s confused wife, Scarlett Johansson and Andy Serkis give good support and the cameo from the conjuring legend that is Ricky Jay was fab. Much was made of David Bowie’s supporting role as Nikola Tesla when the film came out – he certainly looks the part – but on my recent viewing, I found his attempt at a Serbian in the USA accent straight out of Sarf London with Germanic interruptions – but he’s David Bowie – who cares!
I now plan to re-read Priest’s novel in the new year, and will look forward to comparing and contrasting yet more. Meanwhile, the film of The Prestige is wonderful: sumptuously styled, brooding, complex and compelling viewing. Priest’s book, The Magic, is best-suited to those who know both book and film, or at least have an interest in how the process of book to film works, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. The Magic: the story of a film is available in hardback/paperback via Christopher Priest’s own website – and he’ll sign it for you.
Source: Own copy. The Magic, Christopher Priest (GrimGrin, 2008) hardback, 148 pages incl notes/index.