There’s no way I, as a good Gen-Xer, was going to let 2017 go by without a nod to one of the movies of my generation: The Princess Bride. It’s the film’s thirtieth anniversary, no less. Let this opportunity pass? Inconceivable! This is the movie we learned inside and out, and we quoted it to each other. All the time. Lines such as “Mawwige,” “As you wish,” and “Have fun storming the castle!” are right up there with “Use the Force,” and “Think, McFly, think!” Maybe I haven’t reviewed this movie before because I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it justice.
We begin with a grandfather (Peter Falk) reading a very old, worn nineteenth century-ish copy of S. Morgenstern’s The Princess Bride to his sick grandson (Fred Savage), who’s reluctant at first because it’s…a book. Grandpa is undeterred. “When I was your age, television was called books.”
The story that Grandpa reads is a romantic fairy tale. Buttercup (Robin Wright) lives alone on a farm, loves riding horses and tormenting the farm boy, Westley (Carey Elwes), who only ever answers her orders with “As you wish.” As time goes on, however, Buttercup realizes that “As you wish,” really means “I love you,” and it doesn’t take long for her to love Westley back. Seeing as he’s dirt poor, though, Westley has to go away to seek his fortune before he can marry Buttercup, and word comes back that he was killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never takes prisoners.
Except that it’s not that cut and dry. Those who have seen the film will know exactly what I mean, and those who haven’t…well, there’s only one thing to be done. 🙂
If anyone needs further convincing, here’s a small sample:
Unlike a lot of adaptations, the film and the novel it was based on have a remarkably close continuity. For those who came to the movie first, the book has a “But wait, there’s more!” feeling. We have time to find out the backstory of many of the characters and get a fuller setting. Among other changes, Buttercup and Westley weren’t alone on Buttercup’s farm–her parents were also there, squabbling constantly. Buttercup only becomes conscious of loving Westley after a count and countess pay a visit to the farm and Buttercup gets jealous of the way the countess stares at Westley.
But I really don’t want to talk about all the differences between the book and film either, although that would be fun. What I’d like to know from anyone who reads this is: How many of you fell for Goldman’s epic flimflam?
I sure did. When I found out the film was based on a book, I thought the author was S. Morgenstern, and The Princess Bride was an antique. NaÏve child that I was, I scoured every library and bookstore for it, always coming up empty. One of my friends was no help when she swore up and down that she’d read the Morgenstern and loved it. It was a good thing my eighth-grade core teacher had a copy of the book in her class, or I might never have learned the truth: I had been barking up the wrong tree. It might sound funny now, but there was obviously no Google back then. We didn’t yet know the joys of the answers being a mouse-click away. Even when I finally got a copy of The Princess Bride, I still bought the idea that the old Morgenstern version was still out there somewhere.
Yeah. Not quite.
The Princess Bride kicks off with a lengthy intro. Goldman regales the reader about how his Florinese father read the book to him when he was recovering from pneumonia, which got the young William hooked on the written word. Years later, he’s a sought-after novelist and screenwriter, with his psychiatrist wife, Helen, and a son, Jason, and they all live in Manhattan. When Jason turns ten, Goldman searches high and low for the book his father read to him, and after tons of phone calls to used bookstores, finally finds a copy of the long out-of-print Morgenstern. Jason hates the book, and upon thumbing through it, Goldman quickly realizes why: It’s got a lot of boring padding. Ergo, his dad had only read him the good parts of Bride. Goldman decides then and there to abridge the book, the narrative of which is liberally sprinkled with his notes about what he snipped and where. Supposedly this process took place in 1972, when the dusty old Princess Bride found a whole new audience.
Except, as I’ve since learned, nothing was cut out. There were only new audiences and not old ones, because Morgenstern and the abridgement were all fake. Morgenstern is Goldman’s pen name, which he also used when he published his novella, The Silent Gondoliers. So yes, the film and the novel of The Princess Bride are both by William Goldman. Goldman’s wife isn’t named Helen, and he has two daughters, not a son. Smooth, huh? Yes, William Goldman knew how to troll long, long before social media, and he did it on a grand scale. The first sentence of the intro even says, “This is my favorite book in all the world, even though I’ve never read it.” If that’s not trolling, then I don’t know what is.
Looking back as an adult, I should have seen it coming. There’s a scene in the novel and film where Vizzini warns, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia!” and that’s a pretty big clue that Bride’s origins were a bit closer than they appeared.
I wasn’t the only one who believed Goldman’s fake-out. Remember the part when Westley rolls down the hill and Buttercup comes tumbling after him? What they say at the bottom isn’t in the book, but there’s an address where people can write in and request Goldman’s version of the scene. Yep. It’s fake, too. Only enough people were fooled by it that Goldman’s publisher, Harcourt Brace (now Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt) sent anyone who wanted to read the scene a letter saying that they were unable to deliver due to legal battles with Morgenstern’s estate.
Still, a few of the details of the book have a basis in fact. Goldman really did have pneumonia, only he had it as an adult, and he started writing The Princess Bride during his recovery. The twenty-fifth anniversary edition includes some legit information about how the film came to be made as well. Fifteen years passed between the releases of the book and the film, namely because the 20th Century Fox executive who greenlighted it to begin with was ousted, and Goldman had to find a backer. It’s a very common tale in Hollywood. There’s also quite a bit about what the actors were like, and a fun incident when Goldman and Bride‘s producer, Rob Reiner, go to lunch with Andre the Giant. Besides a few actualities, Goldman stuck to the previous charade of the shrink wife, Helen and the son named Jason. Why stop a good story if there’s more to be told?
At the risk of seeming overly-adulating, I believe the dialogue, plot structure, and execution of both the film and book of The Princess Bride are, bar none, some of the best ever done. It’s slyly funny, it’s in earnest even if Goldman was trolling, and it injects a teensy bit of modern sensibility into a Middle Age setting without seeming at all presentist or contrived. That’s basically the writer’s equivalent of a soprano breaking a wine glass with her voice. Plenty of movies since have tried to emulate what Goldman did, and none of them quite cut it. I honestly don’t think they ever will touch Bride, because the film casts too big a shadow, with everything else seeming derivative. The Princess Bride is a classic in the purest sense.
Check back here tomorrow because I’ll be starting a new series. Thanks for reading, everyone!