Sunday, September 12, 2010

Heightened Tension, Lost Ambiguity?

So, after hanging onto the Netflix version of "The Prestige" for close to a month, my husband and I have finally gotten around to watching the thing. We loved the book and had heard super things about the movie, and so this was, like, the big movie night of the season. (Woohoo!)

Now, I should start by saying that it will be nigh impossible to talk about these works without giving something away. I will do my best, but if you are planning on reading/watching "The Prestige" you should consider this paragraph a long-winded spoiler alert.

"The Prestige" is about two feuding magicians, Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. These two obsess over each other and expend much energy ruining each other's acts. Borden, a man of many secrets, creates a trick called "The Transported Man" and Angiers, a less talented magician but better showman, upstages him with his own version of the trick. When Bordon destroys this trick, Angiers' quest to one-up his enemy leads him to the real-life scientist Nikola Tesla and to the creation of a gruesome new "trick", "The Real Transported Man".

The novel details the escalating conflict between the magicians from an ambiguous event in which one holds the other responsible for the ruination of his career and the death of his wife. The great-grandchildren of Borden and Angier investigate how their own lives have been affected by their ancestors' conflict. The events of the past are revealed primarily through the the magicians' diaries. The novel also examines the nature of magic and of magicians and has some very creepy, surreal scenes. It is grand in scale and broad in subject. The relationship between the magicians and their ancestors is constantly shifting about, each is justified and not, standing on principles that are uniquely his own.

The movie was interesting, not only because it was well done, but because Director Christopher Nolan took this complex and multi-layered novel and-- rather than try to duplicate the reading experience on the screen-- simplified the plot, ratcheted up the tension, raised the stakes, and the re-drew the conflicts between the characters so that they were less ambiguous.

The movie version eliminates the magician's ancestors altogether, adds Borden's beloved little daughter (to raise the stakes considerably), a court scene and death sentence (raised stakes again!), and, most importantly of all, shifts the gruesome nature of the "Real Transported Man". The trick was creepy in the novel, but in the movie it is down-right dastardly! The movie also adds a much less ambiguous and satisfying ending-- serious spoiler alert-- with the two magicians basically killing each other off.

So... why am I taking all this time to discuss a book/movie without a single gibbon, purple Buick, or cheesy song? Because it seems to me that the movie version of "The Prestige" did what we as writers are often asked to do: it took a wide-ranging, "deep", ambiguous "draft and created a much tighter, clearer "product".

At first, loyal to the awesome book, I thought this made for less of a satisfactory experience. But I am not so sure now. The movie was so much more defined. The conflict between the magicians had a very clear and unambiguous root, the ending was dramatic and very much earned.

Do we want all our novels to cut out all the extra and ambiguous stuff? No... at least I don't. But I could see how one version derived from the other and so clearly was edited for all the stuff we are told to look for when working with our own drafts.

It was a truly helpful exercise to compare them.

What do you think? Are there other movies out there that seem like better edited versions of the real thing?


Travener said...

I think movies and books are different art forms and what works in one doesn't necessarily work in another. While some books are forumulaic, movies almost always are, because the stakes are so high--millions of dollars on the hook, compared to the relatively piddling sums needed to publish a book.

Saumya said...

I definitely compare movies, books, and television shows. I really enjoyed The Prestige (even though I had to watch it again because I missed a lot the first time around). It's so crazy how story telling is so similar and different in various media!

I'm excited to be a new follower!

Perri said...

Welcome Travener and Saumya! Thanks for stopping by!

Travener, I agree movies and books are very different, but I wonder if the book version of "The Prestige" would have had more of an audience if it was more like the movie, direct and visceral, less ambiguous

Saumya, I wondered if the movie would have been confusing if I hadn't read the book. I usually like the breadth and depth of the book form and feel like I'm missing out on that when watching the movie version.

Sangu said...

Fabulous post! I haven't read the book, but I really like the film and I love how you draw the parallel to the "tighter product" writers are supposed to create.

Lola Sharp said...

I loved the book and I loved the movie. Also, I agree with this entire post. They have to ratchet things up and tighten the story to get it told in a 2 hour movie. A book (in general) has more time to build the tension and subplots.

I'm new here. *waves* Nice to meet you. :)


Perri said...

Welcome, Lola!

Time seems to be a huge factor in the transition from book to movie. I also like your point about subplots, which are essential to books and "clutter" in movies.