This post is going to contain spoilers not only for the film of The Prestige, but also the book by Christopher Priest, for The Count of Monte Cristo, which is old enough that you really shouldn't be able to cry foul at spoilers, and for the movie The Illusionist.
If you are concerned about being spoiled for any of those, please do not read on.
I read the novel, The Prestige, this summer, and so did haruspexy, and while I think I enjoyed it and she didn't, we actually did agree on what the strengths and the flaws of the book were.
I have to say that this is a case where the film adaptation, greatly changed from the original book, outshines the book incredibly and addressed every single fault that the book had.
The biggest, and most impressive thing to me, was how the story was changed in such a way to dole out consequences to the two main characters for their actions. Particularly in the case of Angier. In the book, he is really very victimized and doesn't really deserve horrible consequences in the same way Borden does, but the movie made him so much more of a multifaceted character. Just the simple concept of the Prestige materials still being living after the transportation ups the ante for Angier in a way that makes the character's choices far more devastating and really shows the level of obsession to which he is driven by trying to outplay Borden. Angier's obsession with discovering Borden's trick, in the film, is equal to Borden's obsession with hiding his trick. They both accumulate really horrible secrets in a way that really only Borden does in the book.
Which brings me back to The Illusionist, which in this discussion, I will spoil. If you recall from my comments earlier this year, one of the most perplexing things for me about that movie are the choices Ed Norton's character makes. He basically screws over the entire nation of Austria for a girl-- if you look at the actual, historical Mayerling tragedy that the movie was based on, and you assume that the fictional Austrian Government was the same as the historical one, then, dude, Eisenheim basically sets in motion some of the events that would lead to WWI (and thus WWII) FOR A CHICK. And I just could not sit in that movie at the end and be happy for them. Yes, he got her out of an oppressive and possibly abusive relationship, and yes, they were childhood sweethearts, but clearly-- CLEARLY the Crown Prince was a far more capable leader than his father, and was trying to head off a freaking war. Yes, he was an abusive romantic partner, and that is not ever a good thing, but people who are horrible in one aspect of their lives can be wonderful in others, and he was very obviously a conscientious leader who was trying to stop a plot against his country. But that obviously doesn't matter when true love is at stake, so let's screw him over and drive him to suicide!
What Sophie and Eisenheim do in that movie just struck me as a morally reprehensible thing to do to any man-- whether he's an abuser or not, and when you see what they are doing to the fate of an entire country, it's exacerbated. To the point where at the end of the movie, I was just really weirded out by the fact that it's presented as if we should be happy for them. It's not that I care so much about whether characters are nice people-- I loved Eisenheim's character, quite frankly, and I like when characters do morally questionable things. It was just odd to me that the end up the movie was so upbeat, and that threw me off. It was like, wait, so we're supposed to be cheering for them when they drove a man to kill himself?
This brings me back to The Prestige. Now, the changes to the Prestige actually bring it more closely in line with The Illusionist, which was interesting to me-- but in the Prestige, no one is left happy at the end, somewhat differently from in the book, where Borden, at least one of the Bordens, goes through life without anything ever really touching him besides the loss of his brother-- though he's arguably so loony tunes that that doesn't touch him so much either, since he can't really perceive the difference between himself and his twin in the book. In the Prestige, the characters do morally abhorrent things, but these things only affect themselves and the people closest to them-- not an entire country's future.
How does the Count of Monte Cristo fit into this? I think I just wanted to mention it because I liked the various nods to it in the film, which were not there in the book. I felt as if the film really tried to incorporate more acknowledgment of the concept of a feud becoming an obession-- the destruction Edison wreaks on Tesla's lab is not really given as much attention in the book, and the whole Edison-Tesla rivalry is played up and paralleled with the Angier-Borden rivalry, which makes it a much stronger addition to the story.
The Monte Cristo rivalry is given lip service in the use of the kings on the bottom of the pint glasses that Angier and Caine's character pass back and forth between each other. I don't know if that was intentional, but the use of kings reminded me of the use of chess kings in Monte Cristo, and the parallels are too obviously clear to ignore when you are looking at a story about one man whose entire life is built around a secret and another man whose entire life is built around trying to sabotage the other man's secret and ruin his life. Which gave me pause.
Back to Edison and Tesla and Angier and Borden. I have been discussing this with liret and I find it generally fascinating, although some of the ideas here might be more liret's than mine. With Edison and Tesla, you have one man who was a brilliant, brilliant scientist, probably more brilliant by far than the other, but who was not good enough at presenting himself and therefore met with a lot of difficulty, vesus a man who was probably not as brilliant, but who was great at presentation and was in some ways a better businessman than a scientist. The businessman, the great showman, won. In the case of Angier and Borden, you have the same thing-- but Borden, the genius, is not the one who needs Tesla. It's Angier, the one who knows everything about showmanship, who knows exactly how to sell a trick to a crowd, who needs the genius to make his magic work. It is not the genius who is truly practicing magic in this case; it is the charlatan who has the real magic trick.
Which is interesting considering the exclusion of Angier's turn as a true charlatan in the novel. For those of you who haven't read the book, in the book, Angier spends some time pretending to be a medium and conducting seances early on in his career because it's the only way he can make money as a performer-- again, his magic is sub-par, his performance and showmanship is the outstanding part. In the movie, he is never literally wearing the hat of a charlatan, but his personality, the man he is in the movie, is far more mired in duplicity than the charlatan he really is in the novel.
The other thing that comes up for me is the revelation of secrets. Since I already knew the BIG secret in The Prestige (the twin one), as it's the crux of the book as well, I couldn't tell how obvious it was in the movie. But quite honestly, knowing it, as it becomes really obvious in the book really early on, is actually part of the charm of the story for me. I felt that it was more in the style of Hitchcock than more modern suspense-- it's a story where the suspense is not in not knowing what is coming, but knowing exactly what the answer is and wanting to scream it out and tell the character that he's letting something so simple drive him insane. It's not "Oh my God, how does Borden do that?" It's "Dammit, Angier, the answer is right in front of your nose!"
That was really the one thing that frustrated me about The Illusionist from a filmic perspective-- my unsettled feeling at exactly what Sophie and Eisenheim had done really didn't bother me in terms of the structure of the movie or the way the movie was made, but I felt like the crux of the story-- how Eisenheim created his spectres-- is never revealed. Parts of his plot with Sophie are guessable (although I felt that parts of the setup were a bit hackneyed), everything is revealed, but you never find out how he does the spectre trick. Is it real magic? Is it a trick? It would be nice if they told us! The fact that every other step of the plot is revealed makes it that much more frustrating that the trick isn't-- if the plot were kind of kept under wraps literarily, I could forgive them not telling us how the spectres are created. The Prestige deals with the mechanics of magic, with the psychology of magic, and what is means for a trick to be a trick versus a trick being real magic, and I think the magical theory tossed around in the Prestige shows that the meaning and statement of The Illusionist would be far better solidified if we were told whether Eisenheim's audience was viewing real magic or an illusion. There are definitely the clues that it's an illusion there-- he asks to keep the lanterns behind-- but common knowledge makes it pretty obvious that what he's showing-- walking spectres that move through different rooms-- is not an effect that can be achieved on that level with simple lanterns when you're surrounded 360 by people watching them. Even I know how to create that illusion if you have 180 degrees of the space to yourself, or a concealed platform or concealed lower level. But 360, when the spectres are walking outside, down a street, and into a theater? Without an explanation, the trick seems implausible.
I am aware that this is not the most orderly of comments and that I'm jumping around from thing to thing, so I apologize for the discombobulation. I'm still mulling this all over and it is really interesting to me.