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Print to Projector: Carter Beats the Devil

By  · Published on March 13th, 2010

As the only literate Reject, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest and the untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to. This week, Print to Projector presents:

Carter Beats the Devil

by Glen David Gold

“He wasn’t always a great magician.”


This fictionalized biography tells the life of Charles Carter, a magician who thrived in the early 1900s. He’s investigated in the death of President Warren Harding, duels with his nemesis Mysterioso, falls in love, out of love, in love again, and manages to escape life’s harshest dangers even when they have him bound in a straight jacket and thrown into the river.


It is my firm belief that everyone on the planet should read this book. However, I realize that my love of it stems directly from its elements. I grew up watching David Copperfield specials, and in my nerd past, actually worked for a time doing magic at parties and events. But nerdiness aside, magic is one of those things that we all seem to relate to across cultural divides. We all want to believe that beyond the boundaries of our normal, boring lives, there is a bend in the way things work as we know them.

Secondly, the book effortlessly fictionalizes the history of the United States by using one of its most famous figures who has, for whatever reason, dropped off the radar. Charles Carter really was a magician who became famous during the 1920s, but in this book, his life is transformed into a grand mystery, mysteries that are accounted for by increasingly fanciful explanations (that tend to bring up even more questions than they answer).

As a biography, it’s written beautifully. An entire life is spread out onto the pages with flowing language and intense sequences of intrigue. Of course it’s fake, but that doesn’t matter. The story being told here is an astounding one.

As a piece of fiction, the novel benefits from its balance of the lighthearted and the severe. The best example is the intense rivalry between Carter and Mysterioso which fluctuates from friendly competition to deadly sabotage. Add that to the pile of Secret Service agents hunting Carter for possibly killing the President of the United States and a revolutionary secret that will change the country forever, and you’ve got one hell of an exciting story.

Gold brings all of that together with the antique language that evokes the time. He also manages somehow to juggle plot lines with circus-like skill. Sharp characters, suspense, and an endlessly interesting premise make this book a perfect candidate for the big screen.

Potential Problems

The most notable problem is how long the book is and how much ground it covers. The novel shoots through Carter’s childhood all the way until near the end of his life, and there’s a lot of people, places and things to get to in between. However, it wouldn’t be the first biography to see the screen, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. It would require some solid funding, especially considering that the film would need to take Carter not only through time, but around the world.

Other than the sheer size of it, the film version would lose a bit of spark that the book has simply because of the medium shift. One of the most lovable things about the book is the descriptions of the magic acts – told as though we’re sitting in the audience with our eyes widening at the marvels on stage. Adhering to the magician’s code, Gold exaggerates the act the same way a schoolchild would retell it to his friends. In one performance, for example, Carter chops off President Harding’s limbs and head and feeds them to a lion. The description is not much more detailed than that, but works palpably on the imagination to create a very real scene of magic, even if we know President Harding is going to show up back on stage eventually, limbs in tact.

That might be tough to bring to the screen. With CGI, it might lose some of the naturalistic tone or look dumb, and with practicals, they might not be able to achieve the hyperbolic nature of some of the acts. Still, we’ve seen similar situations brought to life in both The Prestige and The Illusionist.

Which brings up my third and final point. From a marketing and cultural standpoint, it might just be too soon to bring another conjurer to cinemas after the Armageddon-style (or was it Deep Impact-style?) collision of on-stage magicians in historical fiction back in 2006.

But who cares. This movie would be damned outstanding.

The Pitch

It’s a strange kind of history that requires a strange kind of magical mind.


Last year, we had a writer/director prove he could work well to bring a certain time period to life. Rian Johnson (and his design team) handled the early century brilliantly and vibrantly in The Brothers Bloom. He would have to scale back some of the modernism of that film and maintain his humor to tackle Carter, but he has a solid grip on tangled stories of intrigue. Imagine Johnson being able to meet the tone of Brick and Bloom right in the middle and tell a murderous, fantastical story about one man’s unbelievable life. The most important thing is Johnson’s ability to bring a sense of awe and wonderment to the screen.


On stage! For one night only! Marvel and Wonder at their spectacle brought to life!:

Adrien Brody as Charles Carter: I admit upfront that Brody doesn’t look anything like the real Charles Carter, but damn does the guy have flair. He would bring incredible life and energy to Carter – a consummate showman and an electric figure that demands someone endlessly likable to portray him. He can also delve deep into the dramatics and has worked with Johnson before. The team would do well to pair up again.

Barry Pepper as Agent Jack Griffin: Griffin is a secret service agent, and the lead man on Carter’s track after the assassination attempt on President Harding’s life. The novel is mostly told in flashbacks showing us Carter’s life, but the real-time story focuses on Griffin finding Carter and finding the truth. Pepper plays haunted well, and he brings a realism and intensity to a former veteran (considering he was in Flags of our Fathers and Saving Private Ryan) who is now working in governmental protection.

Carey Mulligan as Annabelle Bernhardt: Bernhardt is a striking figure that works as an assistant for Carter’s nemesis, then works for Carter, then they fall in love. Mulligan strikes a sparkling figure to fall for and can break down when she needs to.

Charlize Theron as Phoebe Kyle: Spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the book – Carter marries twice in his life. Kyle is the true love interest that perforates the main story. She’s a confidante that Carter finds he can trust after a lifetime of hiding things from people and being a general man of mystery. As a blind woman in the early 20th century, she’s also got somewhat of a tough road. There’s no specific characteristic that makes Theron perfect for Kyle, but she’s an incredible actor, and it would be a lot of fun to see her play off Brody.

Stanley Tucci as Mysterioso: With perhaps the dumbest name in all of magic, Mysterioso is both a minor annoyance and a cut-throat, dangerous villain. Tucci actually read the audiobook version of “Carter,” and he’d be perfect for this role.

…with Jude Law as Harry Houdini: Houdini plays a small but important role in the flick and seems to pop in just at the right time.

…and Frank Langella as President Warren Harding: The man I wanted to dreamcast in this role was Lane Smith (yes, the guy who played Perry White on “Lois and Clark”), but he’s dead, and Langella looks like every president we’ve ever had.

Who Owns It:

After the novel became a hit in 2001, there was news floating around that it had been optioned by Paramount and Tom Cruise with Mission Impossible writer Robert Towne writing/directing (with help from Michael Arndt apparently). This is actually a fairly decent idea, but it’s one that has never come to fruition. I assume that Paramount still owns the rights, but it was difficult to find any updated information on a project that looks like it just won’t get off the ground.

On a side note, Jude Law was also rumored at one point to be in the driver’s seat as Carter for the Towne version, and that’s definitely not a bad idea.


This is a beautiful novel that has many, many cinematic qualities to it. The story is a huge adventure, set in a romantic time, featuring magic, pirates, suspense, murder, fire, attempted straight jacket drownings, a haunted childhood, and the devil. There is no way that this adaptation would be dull, and with the right personnel, it could be brought to life in large period piece proportions.

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