An award winning author, Christopher Priest has been writing science fiction for over 40 years. His most recognizable work, The Prestige, was adapted into a film by Christopher Nolan starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johannson. Priest spoke with Screen Invasion about Nolan, writing the novelization for David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and his new novel, The Adjacent.
Congratulations on your latest novel! It’s an amazing accomplishment to be a published author for 40 years. A lot of your work seems to revolve around magic and magicians. Is that something you’ve always been drawn to?
I didn’t really have a special interest in magic until I wrote The Prestige. When I was a kid, I was intrigued by magic, and someone gave me a “how to” book as a Christmas present, but it was just one thing, nothing special. Something a lot of children get briefly interested in. I moved on, grew up. When I approached The Prestige years later, it was in the same way as I have approached all my novels (as a work of the imagination, basically), but in that case there was a special circumstance, which was the need to write about magic convincingly. Magicians train and practise for years, and go on doing so throughout their careers. It’s a real skill, requiring total dedication.
That interested me … it’s how I feel about writing. Gradually, the novel became a kind of parallel text: it was about magic, but it was also about writing books. I couldn’t just do it, though: I had to conduct a lot of practical research. From books and films, mostly, but I also went to several live performances. It’s a difficult subject to research properly, because magicians are (understandably) secretive. But that interested me too — the book is ultimately about secrecy.
What do you find to be the allure of writing about magic?
Magic tells a story: the beginning of a trick always looks simple, and simple to understand. But remarkable and inexplicable things start happening more or less straight away. Good novels work like this too. When I’m writing, I usually have something “up my sleeve” which I plan to spring on the reader at a crucial point. The main plot turn in my novel The Affirmation, which comes more than two-thirds of the way through the story, was an example of that. I still love hearing from readers that that moment shook them.
I want people to enjoy this sort of thing. When you go to a magic show the audience is laughing much of the time. And most people read novels for pleasure. I never forget that.
Your latest novel, The Adjacent, also focuses on magic. How did you come to write The Adjacent? What was your inspiration?
The actual first thought was nothing to do with magic. I read somewhere that during the First World War, the British were losing a lot of aircraft to anti-aircraft fire from the ground. They tried several methods of camouflaging the planes: painting them blue or silver underneath, and so on. They were trying to make them invisible! That’s right up my street, so I was immediately interested.
Some authors can be very protective of their work. What made you feel comfortable about letting your 1995 novel The Prestige be adapted into a film? Did you ever go through the experience of seeing a novel optioned, only to see nothing happen?
Well, they give you a shitload of money, which has a wonderful neutralizing effect on instincts of protection!
In the case of The Prestige, I was impressed by Christopher Nolan’s first studio film, Memento. He seemed to have a genuinely original imagination. When his company bought the option for the film, and I found out he would be directing, and his brother Jonathan (who wrote Memento) would be writing the adaptation, I felt in safe hands. I backed off and let them get on with it. I’ve never regretted that.
Options on novels are taken out more often than you might think… they almost never come to anything. Most of my books have at one time or another been optioned. Usually for a nominal amount of money. People keep coming back to them, in an odd way. The Glamour has been optioned and adapted four times in the past (it’s currently on its fifth attempt). For years, I had a regular (very small) income from my novel A Dream of Wessex, which went through option after option.
But the rule is that they rarely go to the next crucial step. The Prestige was different, though. I had a hunch from the start that Nolan meant business.
Personally, The Prestige may be Christopher Nolan’s smartest film, in that each viewing provides more and more insight into the characters. How do you feel about the adaptation? Were you at all involved in the production of the film?
Because I backed off, I had no involvement at all with the production. For one thing, I was busy doing other things, they clearly knew what they were doing, I knew full well that Hollywood studios really couldn’t give a damn about the writer of the original book … and so on.
Like you, I rate The Prestige high in Christopher Nolan’s films. It and Memento are clearly the best he has made, for all the show-off techniques of his Batman films (which look increasingly silly and dated as time goes by… love those Nokia mobile phones!). I thought Inception was one of the worst films I saw that year. It had a truly dreadful script (“Is this a dream, or is this reality?”), the sort of snowmobile sequence you see in James Bond movies, and so on. The fact that it had one brilliant-looking special effect after another was more or less irrelevant. You can’t make a good film without a good script. I keep wishing and hoping Nolan will return to less flashy films: the sort of original and thought-provoking material he worked with in Memento and The Prestige. He could then emerge as one of the great directors. But he must get other people to write his scripts.
You even provided the novelization for David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. When writing a novelization for a film, how much leeway are you given to kind of make the story your own? How does it compare to writing an original piece of work?
A novelization is a job of work, and your best hope is to turn in a readable and professional book which will offer some insight into the film. You really don’t have the material to hand to do more. In the case of eXistenZ, by a director whose work I have admired for years, I was thrilled to be offered the job. But I found the treatment of virtual reality rather shallow, and for all the skill and wit of Cronenberg’s writing, the story was basically about having dinner in a Chinese restaurant. As I had just completed a novel of my own about VR (with the oddly coincidental title of The Extremes), I felt there really ought to be more to say than that. But that’s not the job of a novelizer. I did what I could. Followed the script, made it into a book.
You’ve also written an original screenplay for a film called The Stooge. Can you tell us a little about that? How was it writing for film instead of the printed page?
The Stooge was originally written as a short story, a sort of footnote to The Prestige. After it was finished and published, I suddenly thought what a perfect little plot it had for a short film. So I wrote it, and put it away somewhere. Much later, I was in contact with a filmmaker friend of mine called Rogelio Fojo, who for years has harboured an insane and suicidal wish to make a feature out of my novel Inverted World. We were talking about that, talking about The Prestige, and I suddenly thought of The Stooge. When I showed it to him he grabbed it, and has had an option on it ever since. I think raising the necessary money is the main problem, because his interest in it hasn’t declined. If anything it has increased: he sometimes says he wants to expand it into a full feature. Meanwhile, we wait and see what will happen.
Do you have anything else lined up for the future?
A new novel, currently in progress. (Writers always say that, don’t they?) I’m committed to a couple of short stories, but they’re some way off, I think. There’s a stage-play version of The Prestige due to open in London’s West End later this year. And there’s a film of The Glamour on its way.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with Screen Invasion! The Adjacent is available on Amazon.