April 24, 2003

Take One

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Originality is perhaps the most important key to success for those involved in the entertainment world. From directors and writers to actors and musicians, every artist is encouraged to develop a unique style and is motivated to strengthen his or her creative capacities. As important as novelty truly is, a screenwriter’s transformation of a book, play, or other previously written work into a motion picture is oftentimes just as impressive. Plenty of originality can be implanted in such alteration. To be able to take the images conjured up in one’s mind and translate them into images on a screen, and to do it successfully, is a rare and noteworthy gift. In the past, such imaginative foresight and innovation have converted excellent literature like J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, into visual masterpieces. But there’s one writer in particular who I want to discuss for the time being — Christopher Nolan, the writer and director of the critically acclaimed thriller Memento.

Nolan probably doesn’t get as much credit for Memento as he should. After all, it is often pointed out that the tale of Leonard and his timely forgetting is based upon a story written by brother Jonathan Nolan. Surely, then, the amazing narrative technique employed in the film was taken from his brother’s story, right? But how many people, after seeing the film, were compelled to find and read the story upon which it was based? Even I wasn’t, for a really long time, until I fortuitously stumbled upon it in the online version of Esquire magazine. I read it, and I was amazed.

The story, entitled Memento Mori, is merely nine pages long and is strikingly different from the film version. Common between them are their meticulous natures and their placid tones, but most of the details of the story are filled in by Christopher Nolan’s film version. The short story discusses “time as an abstraction,” and, in the most roundabout of fashions, centers its focus on a man named Earl. The ambiance created by the story is similar to that created almost single-handedly by Leonard (Guy Pearce) in the film. Consider this excerpt from the short story (and recall the sedated tone with which Leonard spoke in the film): “Your wife always used to say you’d be late for your own funeral. Remember that? Her little joke because you were such a slob — always late, always forgetting stuff, even before the incident.” Christopher Nolan created an entire plot around mere abstract ramblings from his brother’s short story. The climate of the two tales may be the same, but when comparing the two, each brother created entirely different works, each of which is just as artistic, just as inventive, as the other. I strongly recommend finding this short story and reading it for yourselves. And then watch the movie (again).

The Nolan brothers are not quite done entertaining us yet, however. They are collaborating on the on-screen version of Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel The Prestige. I’ve read some of the book, and believe it or not, it may be more complex than Memento. The focus is on stage magic, setting the, well, stage, for stunning theatrics and a multifaceted plot sure to stimulate as much discussion and controversy as did Memento. As Dave Langford pointed out in his review of The Prestige, the art at the heart of the tale is that of “not so much fooling the audience as encouraging them to fool themselves.” The story revolves around two magicians, each of whom is simultaneously consumed with awe and with intense jealousy of the other’s tricks. The secret behind a particular trick, entitled “The New Transported Man,” sparks an eerie and evocative rivalry between the two men, leaving the readers caught in the entangled webs of reality and illusion. With the creative geniuses of the Nolans behind the project, the film version is sure to be just as stirring, just as astounding, as the novel.

One thing I love about the Nolans’ work on Memento was their ability to portray complexity with the impression of simplicity. Leaving things intentionally ambiguous, they employ the viewer as an active third party, to basically fill in the blanks, to derive unique meanings and interpretations from a visual mosaic. As long as we engage in active thought while reading or watching, we get a lot more out of Memento, and we will get a lot more out of The Prestige. As Jonathan Nolan wrote in Memento Mori, “For a few minutes of every day, every man becomes a genius. Moments of clarity, insight, whatever you want to call them. The clouds part, the planets get in a neat little line, and everything becomes obvious.” Like magic.

Archived article by Avash Kalra