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Page to Screen: The Prestige

Updated on July 19, 2015


It's a movie about Wolverine and Batman trying to outdo each other with magic tricks, although Batman uses a double and Wolverine regularly clones and kills himself. Black Widow sleeps with the both of them while Tony Stark's old girlfriend marries Batman and commits suicide. Alfred seems to dislike Batman while helping Wolverine. Smeagol/Gollum works for David Bowie who doesn't broadcast a massive bulge in his pants for a change. Oh, and that girl who played in Coyote Ugly gets killed doing a magic trick after marrying Wolverine.

Movie Poster for The Prestige


The Film

Leaving the horror elements and some of the plot behind, Christopher Nolan successfully adapts Priest's novel in 2006. With help on the screenplay from his brother, the director made a streamlined version of the original work that retains much of the original spirit and themes that made the first such a success. It carries a lot of Nolan's trademarks (including a huge host of actors he regularly works with). It received largely positive reviews all around and was a financial success.

Possibly most importantly, the adaptation greatly impressed the author Christopher Priest, who was quoted after watching the film 3 times in less than a year, "I was thinking, 'God, I like that,' and 'Oh, I wish I'd thought of that.'"

The Book

A relatively recent book, British author Christopher Priest penned this novel in 1995. The structure is epistolary so everything is read as if from a diary or a letter. It juggles multiple perspectives in a continued flow, meaning when reading from Character A's perspective, you'll begin from the start of the story and won't leave them until the end, and then you'll start Character B's perspective. The title of the book, The Prestige, references the third part of a magic act where the original item is reproduced in an amazing way, foreshadowing the numerous plot twists within the novel. This book won two awards, James Tait Black Memorial Prize for best fiction and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel

Book Cover


Differences in the Adaptation

Two Storylines, Not 3/4 Stories
The book is epistolary in execution, meaning everything is presented via letters and collected diary entries that detail various aspects of the overarching plot. We have Rupert (Robert) Angier and Alfred Borden from both mediums (although it's largely told from Angier's perspective in the film), but the book has the unique perspective from one Andrew Westley, who happens to actually be a descendant of Borden. The film effectively did away with Andrew Westley's plotline to make the film a bit more streamlined and more easily processed within the timespan.

Origin of the Feud
The film and book versions differ drastically in this regard. In the book, Angier and his wife Julia performed seances, that is communicating with dead loved ones. They did their work knowing it was a shame but they felt it helped those people who hired them reach closure, and Angier was working on getting enough funding to start his career as a professional magician. Borden felt they were cheating people of their money and did his best to expose them during one 'ritual,' which had the unfortunate result of causing Julia to have a miscarriage, something Borden never realizes but starts their eternal rivalry.

The film however gives an implied history between the two as they both work for another magician (who gets absolutely no credit). Borden proposes a different method to do a trick with Angier's wife during a performance and one performance the trick goes horribly wrong, ending in her death. Bordon's memory has apparently blacked out and cannot remember if he tied alternate knots or not, resulting in an incredible enmity between the two.

Tesla's Device and Angier's Prestige(s)
In the book, Tesla's Device used a colored pipe as its subject instead of the top hat (although both versions did use cats at some point). Furthermore, the book's version of Angier's Prestige did not come out as another person, but as a lifeless corpse. The lifeless corpse was dropped underneath the stage (similar to opening moments of the film where the copy of Angier dropped into a water tank), while the living Angier was sent to his destination. This process is constant until Borden sabotages Tesla's Device during Angier's final performance (more on that later). Angier also manipulates this to put coins in his pocket to help increase his revenue both in practice and performance.

However in the film, every time the machine was used there were two very much alive Angier bodies. Angier pre-planned these events by making sure there there was a means for one of them to kill off the other to best hide the effects of the machine. This is best exemplified during the first human testing where Angier uses a pistol to shoot the produced effect dead immediately.

Christian Bale as Alfred Borden and Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier
Christian Bale as Alfred Borden and Hugh Jackman as Robert Angier | Source

Angier's Final Performance, the Death of the Double (The Ending)
There are some ridiculously drastic changes between film and book. During Angier's final performance, Borden purposefully interferes and causes one Angier to become incredibly sickly and dying of mysterious causes (effectively delivering him a mortal wound). The produced Angier becomes quite literally a ghost, one that can change his density and visibility (not altogether from a superhero strangely). This one can not die but his presence is so strange and explainable that by the end of the book, he/it has retired to a hidden cavern where the rest of Angier's stillborn prestige are kept, effectively making him a true haunting ghost and giving the book a far horror-like ending.

It is this wraith that visits Borden afterwards and attempts to kill him with a knife. This doesn't pan out as the ghost still has a conscious and leaves. This Borden, a twin brother, dies of a heart attack not long after, which becomes an interesting affair of Borden's journal, which Olivia (who was an assistant and had relations with both magicians) possessed and gave to Angier despite the still living Borden's attempts to get it back (Olivia believed there was only one Borden and hers faked his death to go back to his family).

So in summary, one Borden lives with his family while his twin died, is hounded by a woman who claims to be a mistress, and his journal is published to the world. Angier's ghost continues to haunt his legacy for an indeterminate amount of time.

The film version is substantially different, as Angier frames Borden for his duplicate's murder which Borden is killed for, Angier temporarily takes custody of his child after his wife commits suicide, but Borden's double kills Angier and takes his daughter back. Tesla's Device is submerged into the ocean.

An Ironically Misleading Trailer

Closing Thoughts

There were so many plots going on during the novel it felt difficult to follow at times (especially when I can't easily re-read something because I'm listening to the audiobook version). I'm not saying it's bad, but it is a story one needs to invest it to fully appreciate it. While it may take time, it's worth it, especially with the story parallels and how the past affects the future.

The film however, takes some of the best ideas of the book and adapts it masterfully for film. It's a Nolan work and presents a fantastically strong cast to boot. It's hard to argue against the overall quality of this work, despite some of its outlandish premises that exist even in the original source. What can I say? The book is great, but in my opinion, Nolan's adaptation is a masterful adaptation of the source material, straying enough to be more easily accessible to a more common cinematic audience. This work excels in all the little ways the book needed to survive such an adaptation.

Book vs. Movie

For those of you who read the book and watched the movie, what did you prefer?

See results

Further Reading

You can read more Page to Screen adaptations if you click here.


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