This post contains spoilers for The Prestige
After an interesting post on what makes a good adaptation over at Lucy’s recently, I thought I’d weigh in with my two cents – which is that one of the best recent screen adaptations I can think of is Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s The Prestige.
The Prestige was adapted from a novel by Christopher Priest, which is well worth a read in its own right. However, looking at what was added and/or jettisoned from the novel gives a series of what I think are valuable lessons, not only in screenwriting, but what makes for a good adaptation.
For starters, the book has four protagonists, not two – a proportion of the narrative takes place in the present day as the descendants of Angier and Borden struggle to come to terms with the feud that their ancestors were engaged in. The Nolans obviously made the decision to expunge all elements of the present, focussing instead on the eminently more dramatic (and interesting) historical feud. If the screenplay had been a faithful adaptation of the novel, the historical feud would have been viewed from the present at arm’s length (even worse, it probably would have been written as a series of flashbacks). The central narrative threads of the novel – Borden and Angier’s feud and the gradual revealing of their respective secrets (some banal, some not so banal) – are maintained in the screenplay, but by expunging all present day elements, the Nolans provide a tighter focus for the film.
What is also interesting is the way that the Nolans tie Borden and Angier together very early on in the screenplay. In the book, Borden disrupts a fake séance that is being led by Angier, an event that marks the start of their bitter feud. However, as we follow both Angier and Borden through the climbs in their respective careers, this feud takes a long while to ramp up. In comparison, the screenplay hits the ground running: the Nolans make a drastic change inasmuch as Borden and Angier are working together as assistants to the same magician. A supposedly untried knot used in a dangerous trick featuring Angier’s wife goes horribly wrong, and the feud begins with a real sense of urgency and intensity.
Another major departure from the novel is Borden’s arrest for Angier’s murder, which I think illustrates a major pitfall for any adaptation (and one that The Prestige deftly avoids). In the novel, Borden accidentally interrupts Angier’s show by shutting down the power to his teleportation apparatus – this has the effect of creating two Angiers: one weak and sickly, the other transparent and (apparently) immortal. To faithfully adapt this for the screen would require a great deal of tricky exposition – thankfully, the Nolans made the decision to expunge the more fantastical elements of the novel, and to keep Angier’s secret up their sleeve until the very last moment. As with Chris Weitz’s adaptation of The Golden Compass, the more fantastical the narrative, the more exposition you have to shoehorn in to explain it. In the screenplay, instead of disrupting Angier’s performance, Borden is deliberately set up by Angier, which ultimately leads to his imprisonment and conviction.
The major factor that the novel and screenplay have in common is the treatment of the concept of protagonist and antagonist. This is from a Christopher Nolan interview at about.com:
“...when we were trying to figure out how to sell this film to a studio early on, it's like what story paradigm is it? Are (there) very few... two-hander story paradigms? The Sting is one of them. There are others where there's no good guy, bad guy, so it's very tricky. I mean, Michael Mann's Heat is another one... They do exist, but they're few and far between. The Sting is quite a close one. Sleuth is another one.”
The Vanishing and American Gangster are good examples of this story paradigm, but the treatments are obviously completely different to that of The Prestige. However, unlike The Vanishing (where the roles of protagonist and antagonist are clearly demarcated from the outset), The Prestige does something altogether different: throughout the course of the film, the roles of protagonist and antagonist are in constant negotiation – your sympathies are batted back and forth until you come to the conclusion that both Borden and Angier are as obsessive and misunderstood as each other. Mix in a huge dollop of misdirection and two essentially unreliable narrators, and, in my opinion, you have one of the best adapted screenplays of recent years.