Friday, December 09, 2005

Awaiting The Prestige

In October 2005, Cinerati reported that Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) would be returning to his mystery roots with The Prestige. The upcoming movie about competing magicians in London at the end of the 19th century will star Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as the rivals. The Prestige is based on the World Fantasy Award winning novel written by Christopher Priest published in 1995.

The first disappointing news regarding the upcoming film was reported in today's Hollywood Reporter. It appears that Scarlett Johansson will be appearing in the role of Olive in the film. The Olive character exists a small, but important, section of the novel and the inclusion of Johansson in the role gives a hint as to how the film is being adapted from the source. The narrative of the book spans from the late 1870's to the modern day with Olive appearing during the early 1900s.

Given Nolan's talent and his displayed ability to narrate "internal" mysteries while playing with narrative structure, Cinerati had hoped that Nolan would cover more of the time spanning rivalry than is now likely. Johansson is too large a name to be given a minor role, though I am baffled at her appeal to casting directors since her best acting was in Eight Legged Freaks. It appears that starring in self-indulgent artiste fare directed by enfant terrible is what constitutes stardom today.

The narrative of The Prestige, the novel, reveals itself like a magic trick. In fact, the title itself comes from magician lingo (the word means illusion in French). To quote from the novel:

An illusion has three stages.
First there is the setup, in which the nature of what might be attempted is hinted at, or suggested, or explained. The apparatus is seen. Volunteers from the audience sometimes participate in the preparation. As the trick is being set up, the magician will make every possible use of misdirection.
The performance is where the magician's lifetime of practice, and his innate skill as a performer, conjoin to produce the magical display.
The third stage is sometimes called the effect, or the prestige, and this is the product of magic. If a rabbit is pulled from a hat, the rabbit, which apparantly did not exist before the trick was performed, can be said to be the prestige of that trick.


But the word prestige has numerous other meanings as well. It can refer to one person's standing in society or within a profession, it can also imply wealth. The difference being as between prestigious and prestidigitation. Christopher Priest's novel uses the word prestige to represent all the above definitions and a couple more. His use of the word is tricky and it is the root of the conflicts and mysteries contained within the novel. Both magicians (Alfred Bordon and Rupert Angier) seek prestige, and use prestidigitation to acquire it, but both also have secrets to keep and both conceal parts of their private lives. The reasons for this deception are best illustrated in a discussion early in the book about the Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo.

I saw Ching perform only once, a few years ago at the Adelphi Theatre in Leicester Square. At the end of the show I went to the stage door and sent up my card, and without delay he graciously invited me to his dressing room. He would not speak of his magic, but my eye was taken by the presence there, on a stand beside him, of his most famous prop: the large glass bowl of goldfish, which, when apparently produced from thin air, gave his show its fantastic climax. He invited me to examine the bowl, and it was normal in every way. It contained at least a dozen ornamental fish, all of them alive, and was well filled with water. I tried lifting it, because I knew the secret of its manifestation, and marvelled at its weight.

Ching saw me struggling with it but said nothing. He was obviously unsure whether I knew his secret or not, and was unwilling to say anything that might expose it, even to a fellow professional. I did not know how to reveal that I did know the secret, and so I too kept my secret...He walked with his head bowed, his arms slack at his sides, and shuffling as if his legs gave him great pain.

...But logic was magically in conflict with itself! The only possible place where the heavy bowl could be concealed was beneath his gown, yet that was logically impossible. It was obvious to everyone that Ching Ling Foo was physically frail...

...The reality was completely different. Ching was a fit man of great physical strength...the size and shape of the bowl caused him to shuffle like a mandarin as he walked. This threatened the secret, because it drew attention to the way he moved, so to protect the secret he shuffled for the whole of his life. Never, at any time, at home or in the street, day or night, did he walk with a normal gait lest his secret be exposed.

Such is the nature of a man who acts the role of sorcerer.


Of the two magicians in The Prestige one is like Ching Ling Foo, his entire life is an illusion. The other is a master performer, but unlike the above narrator needs others to reveal tricks before he can perform them. One is a natural sorcerer and the other is a natural performer. Both seek the secret of the other's most magnificent trick. Both tricks involved the transportation of a man from one location to the next, but both have different causes to similar effects. One, like much of magic, is simple when discovered (or is it?) and like most magic tricks the simplicity of the trick can ruin the effect. Once you know a trick's secret, the trick can only be judged by the performance/ingenuity and not the illusion. The magic is lost. The second trick's secret is the reason why The Prestige won a fantasy award.

Mystery and deception fill The Prestige, as does magic, in a tale filled with adventure. And no tale of the turn of the century would be complete without Nikola Tesla, who will be played by David Bowie in the film, and The Prestige delivers.

The novel masterfully incorporated real world magic history into its narrative. In one of those great moments of serendipity one finds in life, I found a wonderful book about the time period by chance at a local Borders. This book was about the famous Chinese magician Chung Ling Soo, not to be confused with Ching Ling Foo, whose own life was filled with mystery and one deep secret. Chung Ling Soo, one of the most acclaimed Chinese magicians of London, was not Chinese at all. Not only that, he own "real" identity turned out to be filled with deceptions as well. You see, Chung Ling Soo was really William Ellsworth Robinson, a former magicians' assistant and the husband of Olive Robinson. "But even William Robinson was not who he appeared to be, for he had kept a second family with a mistress in a fashionable home near London." Chung Ling Soo was an imitator of Ching Ling Foo, who was a real magician who's actual name was Chee Ling Qua and he became a formidible enemy of the American impostor. The biography of Chung Ling Soo, The Glorious Deception by ingeniuer Jim Steinmeyer is a wonderful narrative of real world rival magicians and living deceptions. The Glorious Deception displays that no matter how good a fiction might be, sometimes reality is even more exciting.

The number of parallels between the books is remarkable. Both magicians in The Prestige battle for the affections of Olive. One of the magicians has two homes -- the first with a happy family, the other with his mistress. One of the magicians in the novel, like Chung Ling Soo, was inspired by Ching Ling Foo. The list goes on the similarities between the magicians in The Prestige to the life of William Robinson are fun to find. One could only assume that Christopher Priest had read The Glorious Deception as part of his research. But that would have been impossible! For while The Prestige was written in 1995, The Glorious Deception was just released in 2005. It is as if we have witnessed a new magic trick...write a fiction novel and have it transported into the future (months before a film release of the novel) and transformed into a real life biography. Unlike with most magic tricks though, finding the "secrets" increases the appreciation of the fiction, but in this case the real world "illusions" are in some ways more fantastic than the fictional.
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