Adapted for the screen in 1979, Magic proved to be an obscure footnote in Attenborough’s directing career, wedged into the cracks of a CV crammed with sumptuous epics such as Gandhi, A Bridge Too Far and Cry Freedom.
I remember some random images from the movie – mostly of the ventriloquist doll Fats, with those bulging dummy eyes, red cheeks and neat centre parting. Anthony Hopkins played the deranged protagonist a full decade before he was launched to stardom thanks to some similar onscreen lunacy.
At the time, William Goldman, the writer of Magic, both the book and the movie, was one of the first screenwriters to stick his head above the parapet. His non-fiction memoir/writing manual Adventures In The Screen Trade was an unlikely bestseller – and remains still one of the best books about the business.
This was the guy who wrote Butch and Sundance, All The President’s Men and Harper for the screen – and many others. But I remember as a kid being absolutely blown away by the first shocking chapter of his novel Control – a thriller which is, mind-bogglingly, out of print these days. He also adapted his own novels Marathon Man and, of course, The Princess Bride.
So I was interested to see what I made of Magic all these years later… and, hell, what a novelist that man was – sadly, Goldman’s last fiction was written in 1986. It’s almost impossible to discuss without giving some of the game away, so here goes…
Corky is a talented but failed magician, whose career only takes off when he incorporates a dummy called Fats into his act. When he’s offered a TV show, Corky goes on the lam, frightened that executives will discover that it’s Fats who increasingly calls the shots in Corky’s head. He heads back to the Catskills where he meets his old childhood crush Peggy Ann. Throw in Corky’s wizened agent and Peggy Ann’s oafish husband, and things start to get murderous in the woods as Fats’s true nature is revealed.
As you can tell, Magic is a book which is very much in the Psycho mould, a claustrophobic chamber-piece. It takes a couple of chapters to warm up, but when it does it really delivers as a portrait of a damaged personality. Despite his, er, homicidal issues (and some hints that he’s got previous in this area) Corky is a hugely empathetic character in the George Harvey Bone mould.
Fats gives Corky confidence, he gives him a voice, and he give him an act with which to present his beloved Magic. But one part of Corky’s brain is increasingly fighting a disastrous rearguard action against the other half. We root for Corky to pull himself together and yearn for him to find happiness with his lost love even as we know that the worst is yet to come.
As you’d imagine from a screenwriter, Goldman’s dialogue is to die for. It just zings off the page and straight into your brainstem. Magic is tight and focused and would make Ira Levin proud, with some nail-biting set-pieces, including one fabulous scene where Corky’s agent, alarmed by his relationship with the dummy, challenges Corky not to speak as Fats for five minutes, just five minutes…
If this book was written now, or filmed as a movie, the chances are, the publisher would want more shocks, more out-and-out horror moments, but like all the best horrors, Magic is absolutely rooted in character. And the biggest character of them all is Fats, a malevolent little guy with tiny wooden legs. His voice, charismatic and sarcastic, rings fully-formed in your head as you read.