Commenters on Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige have frequently noted the ways this story of the rivalry between a pair of turn-of-the-twentieth-century stage magicians presents a complicated narrative of duplicity and illusion. Rarely, however, have critics explored the film’s relationship to its source, Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel of the same name. In particular, scholars have neglected the ways Nolan’s adaptation reproduces it source text with a key difference: namely, how the cinematic version of The Prestige both draws on and amplifies the connections the novel makes between its protagonists, the geographical United States, and a persistent cultural vision of the transformative possibilities of America. Where Priest’s novel offers readers an alternate history of turn-of-the-twentieth century Western culture that blurs the boundaries between science and magic, Nolan’s narrative presents viewers an alternative version of this alternate history that links myths of self-making and class mobility to stage magicians and conjuring tricks. This talk will explore the ways Nolan reconceives the geography – both real and imagined – of Priest’s novel so that America itself comes to stand for misdirection and magic tricks. In so doing, Nolan’s version of The Prestige offers viewers a space for interrogating traditions of self-invention and social mobility, a re-imagining of the past that speaks to our current twenty-first century cultural moment and challenges us to reconsider conventional notions of performance, social mobility, and individualism.
Andrew Hakim completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Southern California and is currently a postdoctoral lecturer in the Princeton University Writing Program, where he teaches classes on confidence men and women, puzzles and games, and fantastic fiction and film. He is currently working on a book project that investigates a series of twentieth and twenty-first century literary and visual documents that present narratives of the American dream as “crimes” that need to be exposed and solved.