Well, I’ve followed up reading the book with watching the film. My response is… mixed.
First things first: I enjoyed the experience greatly. It was a good film, well made, perfectly entertaining.
Second thing: it strikes me that this is one of the few times in life when, after the diverging of two roads, the road not taken is quite visible, yet can truly never be stepped back on to. What I mean is that either you read the book first and then the film, or you watch the film and then read the book. Neither is superfluous: they go together well. But I think your experience of both will be irrevocably altered, depending on the order.
I watched the film having seen the book; this was both good and bad. On the good side, I knew what was going on. I think that this is a confusing film, and one which many people will either not understand, or else get only a small part out of. Concentration throughout is essential, and little is done to make things clear or comprehensible. Knowing the plot in advance made it clear how things all fitted together, and so the constant flashbacks (to three different time-periods from two different perspectives) did not trouble me.
The bad – the film puts far greater emphasis than the book on the nature of the secrets of the two main characters. As I knew the tricks, a lot of the impact was lost – particularly at the end, when I wished I still had the naivity that would allow me to enjoy those revelations afresh. In this respect, it would have been better to read the book after seeing the film. The book is more subtle, and knowing the secrets is less of an issue (one of them is revealed very early on) – and, what’s more, the book is more complicated, with more twists in the plot, so knowing the film does not spoil all of the book. The film is not particularly subtle, and so watching it while knowing the secrets was a bit painful in places – the hints at Borden’s secret were clever at first but became increasingly obvious.
The film is more spectacular, as one would expect, but it is also more intentionally confusing – the fewer plot twists are made more twisty by greater complexity in the way they are told. This, as I say, may mean that many viewers lose some of the value of the film – but at the same time, I think it is essential. A masterstroke, even. Faithfully adapted, The Prestige would have made a very long, rather dull film. The Nolans did not adapt it faithfully. They did not adapt it anywhere in the vicinity of faithfully. They ripped it into pieces and put back together something vaguely in the image of the original.
…which is exactly what they needed to do. The result is not faithful to the original – but it is loyal. It is, perhaps, what Priest would have written, had he written the novel as a film. Some things became possible; others had to be avoided. I was struck when watching it by Angier’s method of adapting Borden’s trick – taking something intriguing but not with mass appeal, and massively ramping up the showmanship. The showmanship oozed from every change they made, major or minor – where Tesla experiments, in the book, on an iron rod, in the film it is on a magician’s top hat. More fanciful, perhaps, but better showmanship for the silver screen. The resulting magic trick was not as good as Priest’s original, just as Angier’s first revamp was less satisfying than Borden’s – but it is more accessible.
In fact, here I must admit that I was only ever half-watching the film, because a third work of art was grabbing my attention: not the book, not the film, but the adaptation of the book to film. Because it was artistic – it was brave, it was bold, it was elegant, it was constantly surprising, it was knowing, it was respectful, it was confident. The Nolans could have simply transferred the events to screen; they could have written the best film they could have written, inspired by the book. Instead, the web they created linking the film to the book is convoluted and enticing – rather than regarding the book as a melody to be transposed, they broke it up into an array of motifs, and arranged and inverted and expanded those motifs to fit the demands of the new form. To take a single example: the bouncing of a rubber ball is drawn out of a single scene in the book to become a key motif throughout the film. The result is unique to the film, yet feels completely in keeping with the book. Elsewhere, scenes are thrown through the timelines, lines of conversation are taken from one speaker and given to another… a large part of the film emphasises questions about Borden’s life that are only raised in the book in a few brief sentences by Angier – as though it were Angier writing the film, not Borden, nor Priest. This is new – but it is not disloyal, because the film is not breaking new ground, but only exploring paths named and outlined in the book. It is ‘close to’ the book in the sense of being entirely parallel to it.
The film is not as good as the book. It is shorter, it is simpler, it is more confusing, it is vastly more simplistic in terms of character and theme (in particular, I feel Angier is unjustly made the villain of the piece), it is more heavyhanded and the ending is severely lacking. The film is not as good as the book (because the story is not well-suited to the screen) – but the artwork of the adaptation itself may be, and certainly it’s hard to see how a better film could have been made of the book (except, perhaps, for a little more work being put into the ending).
That said, the film by itself was worth watching – a good film, but not a great one.