When I did one of these for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I talked about how that script was the first one I ever read. The second script I ever read was The Prestige and I’d venture to say that it had just as much of an impact on me as the former. The screenplay was written by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, and was adapted from Christopher Priest’s novel of the same name. I actually read this one before I saw the actual film, and, in a true testament to the screenplay’s excellence, I was just as invested in the story when I finally was able to watch the finished product.
It goes without saying that the Nolan brothers are both extremely talented storytellers. Reading one of their scripts is a real a treat for fans and filmmakers alike. Their writing is heavily layered and complex and often times features nonlinear storytelling… that is a story that isn’t told in chronological order. Telling a straightforward story is hard enough, but telling one where you're bouncing around between different periods of time and juggling so many ideas is an incredibly difficult thing to do. When examining The Prestige, I think it’s important to step back and look at the screenplay as a whole before delving deeper into its moving parts. This is a film that revolves around magic and the script itself is one giant magic trick. Fair warning to all of you who haven’t seen The Prestige, this feature’s going to be pretty spoiler heavy. I would highly suggest watching the film first, since so much of the fun is in all the twists and turns it takes.
Let’s start with the opening image. It's short, but sweet:
At first glance, the true brilliance of it all doesn’t register. It’s only after you've read the entire screenplay (or watched the film) that you start to truly understand what’s really behind these words. Essentially, the Nolans are giving away the big secret of their film in the opening frames. That’s an incredible ballsy thing to do. You have to be extremely confident in your ability as a filmmaker to even attempt something like this. If you end up overplaying your hand, the audience will figure out your movie before you want them to, thus removing all the tension and drama in your story. That doesn’t occur here, because the Nolans are in complete control throughout. Getting back to the actual imagery, the top hats and cats are a dead giveaway to the true nature of Tesla’s machine later in the script. It creates a clone of whatever is placed in it.
The cats also serve as a metaphor and foreshadow the truth about Borden and his version of “The Transported Man.” The cats, of course, are identical copies of each other, just like Borden and his twin brother. And, once the audience figures this fact out, they’ve also discovered the secret to each respective “Transported Man.” Another nice touch is the fact that when we first see the cats they appear to be fighting, which mirrors the conflict that plagues the Borden brothers later in the script.
The last thing I want to quickly touch on is Cutter’s line, “Are you watching closely?” In case you were wondering, the answer is no. That line becomes one of the major ideas for the entire screenplay, which I’ll get into a little more later. Everything the audience needs to solve the puzzle is right in front of them, but they’re not watching closely enough. In a way, the Nolans are having a little fun with the reader by asking them a question they already know the answer to. One of the things the brothers do better than almost anyone is keeping a brevity to their writing. This opening shot is a prime example of that. It’s about 2/8ths of a page, yet packs more punch than most full-length scenes.
Earlier, I said this entire screenplay was essentially one big magic trick in itself. Let’s take a look at the rest of the opening sequence to further that point:
Cutter describes a magic trick as consisting of three acts. Does that sound familiar? Traditional screenplays follow a similar three-act structure. When Cutter outlines the details of a fine magic trick, he’s also telling the audience how this story is going to be told. Both structures are essentially the same and it further hammers home the point that the script is a beautifully crafted magic act. But, like all Nolan scripts, there’s many more layers beyond just that.
During this opening sequence, we’re also given two very important story points. The first is a lot less obvious right away. Cutter, Angier’s ingeneur, is seen with Borden’s daughter. Since we don’t know all the character relationships at this point, a red flag isn’t immediately raised. Still, it's a very critical piece of story that the audience gets early on. Think about it, we’re given the secret to Tesla’s machine and the fact that Cutter is working with Borden (even if we don’t know it, yet) all on the first page. Both of these things end up being significant turns much later in the script, once they’re revealed in full. However, using a little misdirection in the form of dramatic storytelling, the script is able to draw attention away from these points and place it right where the screenwriters want it to be.
Check out this piece of dialogue:
It also pops up again at the end of the story (along with the explanation of the three parts of a magic trick):
Cutter is actually speaking directly to the reader here. Sure, he’s talking about magic, but he’s also talking about the story and it's pretty genius. Generally speaking, people want to believe there’s something more to the world than the truth. They want to believe in magic. They want to be amazed. Subconsciously, we really don’t want to ruin the trick by discovering its secrets. More importantly, Cutter’s character is referencing all of the clues given to the reader with an emphasis on the opening shot. We end the same we started... on hats. It’s only right now that we truly understand that one of the biggest secrets in the entire film was given to us on page one. And, Cutter is basically telling us, “I told you so.” That’s great writing.
Staying on Cutter for a moment, he’s the one character in the screenplay that always tells it like it is. Yet, drawing from his quote, we don’t want to believe a lot of what he has to say, because we’re looking for something more. Take a look at this exchange:
Cutter gives us the secret behind Borden’s character when he tells Angier he uses a double. In fact, he states this fact more than once in the script. Unknowingly, Olivia furthers this point by saying it’s the same man. We’re basically told that Borden must have a twin double, but we don't want to believe it because we're looking for something bigger than that. Like I said before, that’s extreme confidence in your ability as a storyteller. To paraphrase a quote from the film, the Nolans show you something ordinary, but in fact it really isn’t. They understand that the audience isn’t prepared to accept these statements as truth, and, as a result, are able to pepper the script with these clues. Pulling off a “trick” like this is much harder than it sounds. Your hat really has to go off to them.
All of this wouldn’t matter, however, if the script didn’t take its characters on an emotional journey that invested us in their personal struggles. This is a tale that boils down to obsession and devotion to a craft. Each man becomes further embroiled in their quest to one up the other and obtain their “revenge.” What really makes all of this count is the toll all of this conflict takes on our protagonists. And, in true Nolan fashion, it weaves itself back into the complexities of the bigger picture. Take a look at this excerpt:
And this one:
Great films reveal new details to the audience upon numerous viewings and The Prestige is no exception. Aside from the obvious clues these scenes provide about Borden having a twin, they also carry emotional weight in terms of his relationship with Sarah. Borden has to split time with his wife and the strain rears its ugly head over the course of the screenplay. What’s really remarkable about these scenes is that you can actually tell which twin is in each scene upon a second reading. Their mannerisms and feelings toward different characters is a dead giveaway. Yet, they’re subtle enough that they can be played off as mood swings the first time around. It’s also great piece of acting by Bale. And, not leaving out Angier, his character also has a very complex emotional journey. His character becomes so obsessed with outdoing Borden that he forgets the very reason this all started. The death of his wife. It's all really amazing stuff.
The Prestige is one of my favorite films of recent memory. I’ve barely gotten into all the little complexities and themes at play in this one, which goes to show just how skillfully crafted it truly is. The Nolan brothers are two of the best storytellers around and this script is pure proof of that. I can honestly say that I can count on one hand the number of scripts that have given me the almost childlike sense of wonder I had while reading this. Or the big "holy shit" moment the reveal that Borden had a twin gave me. This is truly a great script, check it out. And, just for fun, here's the opening of the film: