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Pimping the Book: The Princess Bride

The Book: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

So I was properly appalled this weekend to learn that so many of my writer friends had never read The Princess Bride. Bad writer friends!!! They had all seen and adored the movie but had never been moved to read the source material. So now I'm going to tell you why you should and hope that you will rush right out and do so and report back to me about how right I was. There's time. I'll wait.

What You Miss by Not Reading the Book

Reason Number One: Big Tricks

The book is an elaborate, witty literary hoax. Gone is the crusty grandpa frame of the movie. Instead what you have is author Goldman himself describing how he wanted to purchase an old book for his son's tenth birthday. The book was The Princess Bride by Simon Morgenstern, a book his father had read to him when he was ten. The book had made a profound impact on Goldman's life. It changed him from an aimless boy to an avid reader and provided him with direction. He even references scenes from his own works that were inspired by scenes from The Princess Bride.

When his son fails to respond to the book as he did, Goldman is crushed. But when he opens the book and tries to read it, he understands why. See, he never actually read the book himself. Over the years, that was an honor solely left to his father. And what Goldman never realized was that his father was abridging the book the whole time, leaving out the boring stuff (and there was a lot of boring stuff) and only reading "the good parts."

So Goldman decides to do a proper, printed abridgment of the novel, "the good parts version." What you get as you read is Goldman occasionally breaking into the narrative to explain what he has cut and why. Most of it is dry politics or lengthy descriptions or even pages and pages of lists of clothing. (And Goldman fears reprisals from Columbia University's department of Florinese Studies for the cuts he makes.) The only important part he cuts is a love scene between Westley and Buttercup, but you can write to the publisher for a copy of it if you want to read it. (But if you did write to the publisher back when it was originally published, what you got was a letter from the lawyers of the Morgenstern estate, explaining why you couldn't have the cut scene.)

Now the thing is, many many people fell for this hoax! They believed S. Morgenstern was a real author and that somewhere out there, there really were copies of the original unabridged novel (in both English and Florinese.) To this day, there are still people who leave irate Amazon reviews, furious that Goldman was allowed to butcher a classic.

But it's all a joke. Morgenstern never existed. The original book never existed. William Goldman had no sons. He had daughters. He was never married to a psychiatrist named Helen. It's all made up! (Anniversary editions which extend the hoax get a little campy, involving Stephen King, who is supposed to be of Florinese descent. While the beauty of the original is how straight Goldman plays it. But it's still great fun.)

Reason Number Two: Best of the Best

The movie abandons one of the keystones of the book: superlatives. Everyone in the book is the "best." The most beautiful woman in the world, the greatest fencer who ever lived, the strongest man, etc. All of that is gone and it's important stuff. It underscores that pain and unfairness come to you regardless of who you are.

Reason Number Three: Stories Within the Story

The movie doesn't have time to give you the backstories on Inigo and Fezzick. But in the book, you learn about their childhoods and how they ended up as members of Vizzini's gang. Knowing where they came from, you understand them better and care about them more.

This is particularly important in Inigo's case, as his is one of the most powerful journeys in the story. He has one of the greatest lines, that appears on t-shirts and coffee mugs to this day. "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." (Okay, that's three lines. Four if you count "hello.")

But anyway, that line loses a great deal of resonance if you haven't lived through the pain Inigo lived through. You don't really understand what he is doing when he kills Rugen because you didn't get to see their history, the death of Inigo's father and the years he devoted to revenge. (And now i'm sounding like the LOTR nerds who know the life histories of all the lesser elves.)

You also learn little of Count Rugen and his History of Pain, so the whole Machine thing isn't built up to be as terrifying as it is in the book.

Reason Number Four: Arguments and Asides

Buttercup's parents are hysterical. Oh, you didn't know she had parents? Well, she does and they are a hoot. They pretty much hate each other and the first chapter is filled with their unending battles. The book keeps track of their argument tally. ("Thirty-two to twenty-four and pulling away." "But he had made up a lot of distance since lunch, when it was seventeen to two against him.")

Another of the delights of the book is the asides. The author (Goldman? Morgenstern?) frequently steps aside from the text to explain to you that this story takes place after stew, but everything is after stew. But it's before glamor. And you get the history of kissing as well as an explanation of why we relate the color green to jealousy. It's all charming stuff and not at all intrusive.

Reason Number Five: More Missing Parts

Okay, I know it's just a two hour movie and they couldn't include everything, but there's some great action stuff missing or that didn't translate well onto the screen. For me, many of the sets feel claustrophobic. Like the fight on the Cliffs of Insanity between Inigo and the Man in Black. Why on earth wasn't this filmed outside? It ought to be sprawling but instead it feels closed in and overly choreographed. (That flip over the bar is so silly and kills any sense of tension the fight ought to have held.) And the trek through the Fire Swamp looks like they just keep cutting and sending the actors back to walk over the same twenty-five foot set over and over.

And the rescue from the snow sand (not lightning sand) is also silly. They just drop out of sight and you sit there and wait until they appear. In the book, it is an agonizing three page fight for Westley to find Buttercup and pull her out of the sand. It's important in the struggle they've gone through that ends in futility when they finally leave the swamp. But in the film, it's almost an afterthought.

But the biggie is the Zoo of Death. I can't even remember if there is a Zoo of Death in the film. In the book, the Zoo of Death is something Humperdinck set up for himself so he could go and kill things without having to travel the world to do it. The zoo has seven levels, each housing the most terrifying and deadly creatures on earth. (But see, in the film, you don't even know that Humperdinck is the greatest hunter in the world, that he lives to hunt and nothing else, so you wouldn't know there was a reason for him to own a Zoo of Death.)

But the bottom level of the Zoo is where Count Rugen takes Westley. It's where he houses his Machine. When Inigo and Fezzick go to rescue Westley from the Zoo, they enter through the wrong entrance on the first floor and must make their way through each level, battling the deadly creatures as they go. And then on the final level...well, I will leave that to you to discover because it's genius. But it ain't in the movie, I'm saying.

Reason Number Six: Casting

And I know this is subjective and everybody imagines characters in books they way they need to imagine them, but I have some serious issues with some of the choices in this film. A#1: Inigo. He ought to be whip thin, like a young Gilbert Roland. Mandy Patinkin is just too....genial for this role. And lawd help me, that dreadful wig! And while Wallace Shawn is terrifically funny and an outside-the-box choice for Vizzini, at no time is there any sense of menace and Vizzini ought to be menacing. Did you ever for even one split second think it was a remote possibility that Wallace Shawn would cut Robin Wright's throat? Me neither.

The Biggest Reason of Them All: Cough Drops

I actually think Billy Crystal is fine as Miracle Max. EXCEPT FOR ONE THING. The filmmakers (and I know this includes Goldman himself, which is why I have an air of puzzlement behind all of my criticisms) let Crystal have his head and allowed him to ad-lib. But the one unforgivable ad-lib destroys the greatest line in the book. That line is not:

"True love is the best thing in the world, next to a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, when the mutton is nice and lean, etc. etc."

It drives me MAD the way Crystal draws that out and chews on it like a Borscht belt comedian. The line is properly:

"True love is the best thing in the world, next to cough drops."

Simple, succinct and TRUE!

Thematically Speaking

The two "Brides" have differing perspectives, which is especially strange, I think. It's almost as though the filmmakers were afraid to take the project seriously. And I don't mean I think it should have been starkly realistic and humorless. There's plenty of humor there, but there's a serious underlying theme that they sort of giggled nervously away from.

The theme of the movie is "True love conquers all." While the theme of the book is the more difficult "Life is unfair." It's just fairer than death, that's all. One of these stories is a Disney fairy tale and one is a little more Grimm. Ha ha! But they are not the same story and that, at heart, is the issue I have with the movie.

And that's enough of that. But I do hope you will read the book.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 19th, 2011 03:55 pm (UTC)
I love The Princess Bride book! I read it long before it was a movie (I was a Goldman fan way back then) and it took me a long time to see the movie because I loved the book so much. Now I love both for different reasons.

I agree with you though, don't miss the book!
Sep. 19th, 2011 04:19 pm (UTC)
I fell in love with the book in high school, long before the movie came out. And I like the movie fine. But I think it's one of the oddest cases of book-to-film conversion because it is essentially telling a different story! And the weirdest thing about it is that Goldman wrote the screenplay. The only thing I can think is that the book is high satire and satire isn't a big box office draw in this country. And while the film is one thing and it's a very nice thing, it misses the essence of the book almost completely.
Nicole Matero
Sep. 19th, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC)
Well, now you have inspired me. This will go on my list of "books to read but never have the time".

This commentary was hilarious and I will be swiping a line from it. Whenever one of my kids says, "Life (or anything else) is unfair!" I am going to respond with, "It is fairer than death.".
Sep. 20th, 2011 12:34 am (UTC)
I am honored to have added to your list!
Sep. 19th, 2011 08:44 pm (UTC)
Shaking fist at you - now i have to add this book to my already huge list of books I want to read! :) Thanks for a superb post though. I loved the movie and never even thought about reading the book (I know I know, shame on me). xo
Sep. 20th, 2011 12:38 am (UTC)
I am adding to the lists left and right! I think you will love the book too, especially knowing going in that it's different. It is satire but it is hopeful satire and a fun read to be savored.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )