The Illusion of Change
The appearance and the reality of narrative structure
Transformation is a process of letting go, a discarding of old ways with the hope that relief may come with new resolve. Growth of character, however, makes no such assumptions of metamorphosis.
With the intelligent, well-crafted Inception dominating the box office for the second week in a row comes the opportunity to revisit one of Christopher Nolan's lesser-known--though not lesser films--The Prestige. Telling the story of two magicians fighting for fame and fortune in the Victorian Era, this 2006 thriller delivers concrete emotional wallop amongst the dark suspense and surprise that is common with Nolan's work. Much of his success can be attributed to the sound story structure he diligently applies to every film. Story structure that, like Inception, gives greater meaning to the events that unfold.
One of the precepts for a meaningful story centers around the idea that when looking at the two principal characters one will transformationally change their resolve, while the other will remain steadfast in regards to their resolve. While this may seem to run counter to the widely accepted notion that every character must "change" in order to arc, it actually speaks of a more accurate understanding of What Character Arc Really Means. Two approaches are presented towards solving the story's major problem, one appropriate, the other not so much. Which one is which is entirely up to the Author and the message they wish to communicate with their audience. When both characters change there is nothing said, no greater purpose to the events on-screen, and therefore, no reason to remember the film some twenty-five minutes later when one pulls out of parking.
To a writer, change should be evaluated by comparing the character's final resolve at the end of the story with who the character was at the beginning. If their character--if the way they look at and see the world--has somehow become drastically different from where they started, then yes they have had a transformation of character. If on the other hand, they simply grew into a viewpoint they only somewhat believed in at the beginning, then they have actually held steadfast to their worldview. They haven't changed, they have simply grown.
One can grow without changing who they are and how they see the world.
At first glance it may seem that both principal characters change in The Prestige. Robert Angier (Huge Jackman) changes from a magician unwilling to get his hands dirty (as evidenced by his reticence to kill even the smallest of birds) to a man willing to kill himself over and over again for the roar of the crowd. On the other side of the street, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) transforms from a man willing to do whatever it takes to keep his magic a secret (as evidenced by the prompt removal of two perfectly good digits) to a man willing to admit the truth of his situation regardless of who he may hurt. So how can both be considered Changed characters if in doing so, the story would be considered broken?
Ignoring this paradox for a moment, the similarities between the two--the You and I connection--become as equally important in the investigation of this story's structure. Both magicians are driven by that desire for "the Prestige." If the film had been written by an lesser artist, there might have even been an on-the-nose conversation where Angier calls Borden out:
You know...you and I...we're not that all that different.
And how's that?
We both would do anything for the sound of their applause.
As it stands, we do get something close to that in the final reveal scene, but admittedly with more artistry and professionalism than the ham-handed example above. Regardless, both characters are driven by that desire for recognition, but only one of them truly lets it go at the end. To determine who, it becomes necessary to separate out the individual storylines.
The Main Character Throughline
The Main Character's Throughline, while woven into the thematics and plot events of the larger main story, maintains its own concerns and thematic issues separate from the overall Plot. In fact, these dramatic concepts are so unique to this character that he or she would take them with them no matter what story they went into. If Luke had never run into R2 and instead was involved in a story about drag-racing across the dunes of Tatooine ("Taladega Wars"), he would still have found time to whine about how he was stuck on a planet where his spaceship fantasies could never become a reality. Likewise, if William Munny had never heard of Big Whisky, and instead was involved in the great Oklahoma Land Rush with Tom and Nicole ("Far and Unforgiven"), he would still have had those issues with maintaining his wife's attitude that he "ain't a bad man any more." If someone were to try and claim one of his stakes, why...well let's just say that Little Bill probably got off easy.
Thus, in order to truly understand what is most personal to the Main Character of a story, it becomes necessary to filter out all those elements that really are a part of the larger main story. This is even more important in a film like The Prestige where the Main Character is also the Protagonist (which is not always the case). Far too many times what people think of as a personal moment from the Main Character point-of-view actually turns out to be a choice or action taken from their point-of-view as the primary driver of the main story.
If one were to overlook all of Angier's actions as Protagonist (and the objective Goal of appreciating who is the better magician), his most personal issues deal with his desire to be the very best, his obsession with the adulation of the audience, and of making them forget their ordinary lives--if "even for a second or two." These are the kinds of issues he would take with him into any story as they are the problems central to his very nature. They coalesce nicely with the rest of the story, but they can be seen as separate and individual and most importantly, personal to him.
Scenes where we the audience see the Main Character alone are often chock-full of these sort of personal thematic issues. In The Prestige we get such a moment during Angier's first performance of his own Transported Man trick. Having successfully swapped places with his alcoholic look-alike, Robert takes his triumphant bow from below the stage--out of sight of the adoring audience but thankfully within earshot. His desire for that love, regardless of how he has to get it, speaks volumes about his character.
Another often-used device in communicating this personal throughline is to have another character in the story point out plainly and clearly what the Main Character's real problem is. This is not the same as the Influence Character, who by their very existence in the story forces the Main Character to deal with their personal issues, but rather a character who simply comes out and says, "Hey, you know what your problem is?" David Bowie's Tesla fills this role when he warns Angier of proceeding:
I can make your machine, Mr. Angier. But I can also give you some advice...
Go home. Forget this thing. I can recognize an obsession. As Mr. Alley could tell you, I myself am given to one now and then. It will not do you any good.
Have your obsessions done you no good?
At first. But I've followed them too long--I am their slave. Their whipping boy. And one day they may choose to destroy me.
Angier looks into Tesla's eyes.
If you understand an obsession then you know you won't change my mind.
And thus we have a perfect example of a Main Character moment. With these issues at the core of what Angier is personally struggling with it becomes obvious whether or not he grew into his Resolve, or out of his Resolve.
But first, we need to unravel the order of events.
Story Structure and the Order of Events
The original version of this article argued that Angier maintained his Resolve from beginning to end. The reasoning behind this understanding was clear:
[Angier's] desire began as a small kernel of motivation, but eventually grew into something that consumed him, resulting in his eventual destruction. This was, of course, the meaning behind the whole piece.
Unfortunately, this understanding only makes sense when viewing the final film as shown in theaters. The above argument stands inaccurate when the events of the story are placed back in their original order.
The Prestige uses an editing technique of obfuscation where time slips backwards and forwards without regard to the actual order of events. Like Nolan's breakout film, Memento, The Prestige starts with the ending, then jumps to the beginning, then jumps forwards and backwards, and all over the place, until finally it ends at the ending.
Appreciated from this vantage point, Angier's desire appears consistent from beginning to end.
Accurate story structure is only concerned with the sequence of events as they actually occurred. Regardless of beginning, or end, if the Audience can piece back together the actual order of events then that understanding stands as the structure of the narrative.
Story structure is ordered thought. The thematic Premise, or meaningful intent, behind a piece sets the order of events in an effort to communicate its purpose to the Audience. The Premise of The Prestige:
sets the Storyform of the narrative and the order of events as they actually occurred.
Once film editor Nicolas Le Du edited the film to match this linear progression of events (circa August 2021), the case of Angier's resolve became painfully clear: he was the Changed character, and Borden was the Steadfast character.
The Difference Between Resolve and Growth
Resolve, which is what we are concerned with when determining whether a character ultimately changes or stays true to their nature, sits apart from the actual character's growth. Their growth is how they get there, how they end up at that moment of crisis, and end up faced with that choice that will set in stone their resolve. Main Characters can waffle back and forth through the story (and probably should for the sake of interest), but it is that final culminating moment that ultimately defines them. Have they grown to a point where they are ready to let it all go and see the world anew? Or have they determined for themselves that yes, the way they have been going about this is truly the way to go.
Borden answers the call to maintain Resolve. His drive to keep up appearances (Influence Character Origin of Perception) was something he grew into, but was always something he had the potential for from the very beginning. A pivotal scene in this process was the moment Borden's wife asks his twin brother (the one more interested in Olivia) whether or not he really loves her.
Since the moment he met her, Borden has been driven to keep up the perception that both he and his brother were one and the same. How else could he successfully pull off the trick of the century without this elaborate deception? The only problem is that this success came with a price--the emotional torture of his innocent wife. Eventually, and in no small part to his interactions with Angier, Borden comes to a place where he just can't keep it up any longer and reveals to her the truth:
INT. LIVING ROOM, BORDEN"S HOUSE--CONTINUOUS
Sarah turns to face Borden. Desperate.
I can't live like this!
What do you want from me!
Sarah pauses. Catches her breath.
I want you to be honest with me. No tricks, no lies, no secrets.
Borden calms. Looks into her eyes. Nods.
Do you love me?
Borden looks into her eyes. Sincere.
Sarah takes this in. Borden watches, helpless.
Borden watches her turn away from him.
Borden changes to someone no longer driven by illusion (Influence Character Resolution of Actuality), but only for a moment. Reality has taken over as his new approach to solving problems and one can imagine that, moving forward, Borden and his brother might choose a different line of work. Unfortunately, in undergoing this transformation of character, Borden breaks Sarah's heart, revealing to her that all along the trick was more important than their relationship. Motivated by this new revelation, his wife feels as if she has no other alternative than to take her own life--
--driving Borden to realign with his original motivation: that of keeping up the illusion that there is only one brother, up to--and including--his own death at the gallows.
Resolve, in terms of Changed or Steadfast, is a comparison of the beginning of the narrative with the end. Does the character's point-of-view maintain that original genesis point (the point of Origin), or is there some sort of Resolution to balance out the original inequity?
Borden maintains that Origin of motivation up until his final "Abracadabra." Angier finds resolution in his capacity to perform the "real" Transported Man.
If only just for a moment.
Clarity of Character
Separating out the throughlines and putting the events of a story back to their original order, determining the difference between a character's resolve and their personal growth, clarifying which principal character transforms and which maintains their point-of-view--all of these are tools a writer can use to insure that their story stays consistent and meaningful throughout. When writing a story as complex and non-linear in presentation as The Prestige, understanding precisely what is going with the characters that populate it can go a long way towards making sure the audience does not leave befuddled or overcome with unanswered questions. Those who prefer to leave such concepts left to chance, or to the whims of their individual muse, aren't really looking close enough because really...they don't want to know.
They want to be fooled.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
The Storyform for The Prestige is so elegant and so precise that it almost seems as if Christopher Nolan himself is an avid user. Then again, he may just be a naturally great storyteller!
When identifying the dramatics behind this great film, it was apparent that the Origin of Borden's motivation was one of Perception: in order to keep up the illusion, he needed to focus on what everyone around him thought, and directed his efforts towards keeping what he knew a secret (Influence Character Focus of Thought and Influence Character Direction of Knowledge).
This relationship works nicely with an Objective Story Focus of Thought and an Objective Story Direction of Knowledge. With an Objective Story Domain of Physics (two magicians battling it out on stage for superiority), Angier's Throughline falls naturally into the Universe Domain (the "Great Danton" in name only).
Borden Remains Steadfast while Angier Changes, resulting in an Objective Story Outcome of Success: both magicians finally Understand the extent to which each got their "hands dirty" (Objective Story Resolution of ability).