Thu
Jan 12 2012 1:30pm

Bowie and Tesla: The Prestige Connection

David Bowie as Nikola Tesla

There’s a lot to love about The Prestige. Stage magicians. The Batman team of Bale and Cain. But perhaps the best thing about the movie, in my mind, was David Bowie assuming the role of Nikola Tesla. It seems that kind of perfect Hollywood casting, not only for Bowie’s wonderful performance, but for the similarities between the two men. 

The moment we meet Tesla in the movie, he’s walking through a field of electricity, unfazed, untouched. It’s a thrilling introduction, and one that reflects both Tesla and Bowie. 

Director Christopher Nolan apparently always wanted Bowie for the role, knowing that he needed someone who wasn’t a Hollywood star, but someone who would stand out in the part. I think he sensed that the character of Tesla demanded someone different, someone with that same theatrical presence. Bowie initially refused until Nolan flew out to meet with him and told him he was the only choice. Bowie accepted. 

The two men, Bowie and Tesla, were, of course, separated by decades as well as by backgrounds — Tesla was a Serbian inventor and engineer, Bowie was an English musician — but they have more in common than is at first obvious. 

Nikola Tesla

Both men were innovators in their respective fields, taking them in new directions. Tesla started his career in the United States working for Thomas Edison, but while Edison backed direct current, Tesla developed the superior alternating current. Bowie started out writing songs in a kind of folk rock style, but starting with The Man Who Sold the World, he began using a heavier rock style and exploiting his own androgyny to help create an identity. Later experiments in creating personas resulted in the massively popular Ziggy Stardust character, the ultimate rock star from Mars. Biographer David Buckley said it “challenged the core belief of the rock music of its day.”

Tesla was a polyglot, speaking eight languages. Bowie plays at least eight different musical instruments, including the saxophone. Both men also demonstrated skills outside of their chosen fields. One of Tesla’s friends said of him, “seldom did one meet a scientist or engineer who was also a poet, a philosopher, an appreciator of fine music, a linguist, and a connoisseur of food and drink.” Bowie is also something of a renaissance man himself. In addition to being a singer, songwriter and musician, he’s been an actor, a mime, a fashion icon, a painter, a writer, and even flirted briefly with video game creation and design (in Omikron: The Nomad Soul). 

David Bowie

Both men were/are natural performers. Tesla would hold public conferences with his Tesla coil blasting electricity, something that often scared his audience. His demonstrations of his inventions has been compared to the work of stage magicians (something that no doubt mandated his inclusion in The Prestige). Bowie, as mentioned, studied mime with Lindsay Kemp, and that helped introduce him to a more theatrical presence and the ability to create personas to present to the world. He’s said of the process, “Offstage I’m a robot. Onstage I achieve emotion. It’s probably why I prefer dressing up as Ziggy to being David.”

As such talented people often do, they were friends with other creative contemporaries as well. Tesla, for example, was friends with Mark Twain and others like Robert Underwood Johnson. Bowie famously was friends with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed and also other musicians such as John Lennon and Mick Jagger, as well as having friends in the film and fashion worlds. 

Both men held questionable beliefs at times. Tesla was a proponent of eugenics, while Bowie, in his Thin White Duke phase, flirted with an appreciation for fascism, something he later blamed on his addictions and getting lost in that character. 

Of course, there were stark differences between the two as well. For example, Tesla believed celibacy helped his work while Bowie notoriously bedded men and women before his marriage to Iman. Tesla died a poor man despite his many patents whereas Bowie is also an accomplished businessman who has turned his musical success into massive financial success as well. 

What’s undeniable is that both are remarkable individuals and, in my opinion, they come together perfectly in The Prestige. I consider them both geniuses, with a touch of mad scientist and David Bowie will leave behind a musical legacy as rich and affecting as Tesla’s technological one. 


Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator, and blogger who takes inspiration from both Bowie and Tesla. He is currently working in his lab to create a hybrid creature called Bowsla who will revolutionize the world. His website is www.rajankhanna.com.

9 comments
Reed Jackson
1. Reed Jackson
I'm all for Bowie and Tesla , but the movie version of "The Prestige" was a nonsensical, insulting an arrogant piece of claptrap that made a hash of a bizarre and wonderful book.
Chris Lough
2. TorChris
Me and Bowie Tesla are gonna have a baby named Rapscallion and the first thing we're going to do is teach it how to fence.
Rajan Khanna
3. rajanyk
@Reed Jackson I actually haven't read the book the movie was based on. I've heard some people like the movie better, and some people prefer the book. Was Tesla's role in the book very similar to his role in the movie?
Reed Jackson
4. JamesPadraicR
This was a nice, creepy film.
Having either Tesla or Bowie would've been enough for me to watch it. Put them together and how could I not?

One historical note, though. Tesla's lab wasn't on the foggy side of Pikes Peak, it was in the middle of a dairy pasture, several miles away from the Peak (which isn't nearly as atmospheric). I live about a mile from where it was, it's all 50s era houses now. The only sign of it is a Historical Marker at a nearby park.
Scott Silver
5. hihosilver28
@rajanyk & Reed Jackson
I saw the movie and then read the book afterwards. I feel that the movie captures a large part of how the book felt, and extremely enjoyed both. The movie removed the frame story of the book, but other than that they were "largely" similar, including the role of Tesla. Of course there are some deviations. This isn't a comparison of quality, but as far as accuracy goes, it felt similar to Watchmen. I think The Prestige was handled much better than Watchmen, though.
Reed Jackson
6. Christopher Priest
Hi -- it seems a bit odd, to say the least, that someone should rave about the film of The Prestige on the Tor Books blog ... and not mention that the book is, or at least was, a Tor title. I'm glad people like the film (it seems to grow in stature with every passing year) but the book is the primary form of the story. I would think that, wouldn't I? ... but the Nolan adaptation touches on only a fraction of the book's story and complexity. A lot of people have found this out for themselves, and don't need me to tell them, but the book is still selling strongly around the world, and I wouldn't mind my US publishers bragging about it from time to time. Do you still have it in print and on sale, chaps?
Greetings from the other side of the pond!
Chris Priest
Reed Jackson
7. Dax
The Christopher Priest?

I've read the book and seen the movie and thoroughly enjoyed both, though they are both different beasts in their own right. There are things the book does, in my opinion, better than the movie and vice versa, but this is mostly due to a different focus.

A major part of the book had to do with the magicians starting out as enemies due to one acting to be a paranormal medium, which, in a way, reflects Houdini's enimosity with many a magician/paranormal charlatan in his time. This, and also the framing narative, was completely omited from the movie.

Interestingly, the film focusses (slightly) more on the phylosophical complexity of murdering an identical copy of onseself, something the book didn't really touch upon.
Simon Hemmings
8. bartokian147
For me the book and the film are both wonderful, and compliment each other very well. For some reason the nearest book and film for me which have the same relationship to each other are PKD's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' and Scott's 'Blade Runner', both different but absolutely infused with the same DNA and atmosphere. As an ex-pat from Bath, UK now living in Denver, I was working in a bookshop in Denver and whenever a copy of Mr Priest's novel came in I would write a recommendation for it and stick it on display...
Reed Jackson
10. aditya09
i did not see any such scene in the movie " the prestige" , whose pic (the very first one with tesla holding a red book in his hand) u have used here.
so did i miss any scene in the movie ?
where did u get this picture from ?

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