I know, I know; it’s a movie. One of my all time favorites, actually, and in one poll I saw, no. 9 of all time. I would never have bought the book, however, if the movie had come first. It was published in 1973, two years before I was born, which doesn’t seem right because it feels so contemporary (the movie came out in 1987). For some odd reason, movie adaptations are horrible. It’s almost a rule, like video game movies or games based on movies. I suppose much is lost when transliterating one medium into another, except for the rare instances when a book is made into a great film, and The Princess Bride is definitely among those rare gems.
I stumbled upon The Princess Bride while looking for something upbeat to read. I am seriously getting tired of gloom and doom fiction these days. Where are the Ozs? The Neverlands? Anyway, The Princess Bride seemed like the perfect contrast to what I’ve been reading, something fun and lighthearted and optimistic, a fairy tale for adults. But how does it compare to the movie? Well if you haven’t seen the movie yet, all I can say is, your life is missing something. Go rent it now, or better yet, buy it. You’ll thank me. The book, of course, is better in the usual ways. Without time and budget constraints, authors can tell their stories in greater depth. When people ask me if I’d like to be a filmmaker, I tell them no because I prefer having that freedom also. If you’re familiar with the movie, you’ll be thrilled to learn more about Inigo Montoya and Fezzik, about their childhoods, and how they came to be partnered with Vizzini. It’s like watching a 3 hour extended cut and all of it counts. Of course, I expected that much. The surprise came from the twin narration from both the author, William Goldman, and the “original” author, S. Morgenstern. Confused? I sure was.
If you’re familiar with the movie, you’ll remember the meta-fiction technique employed by the filmmakers, where an elderly grandfather reads The Princess Bride to his sick grandson. It was a wonderful way to tell the story and I have never seen it used to such effect. Typically, meta-fiction feels like a cheap trick, and more often than not makes the movie feel inconsequential, like an “it was all just a dream” story. Not so with The Princess Bride. But what surprised me in the novel was the second layer of meta-fiction, where we not only learn about how William Goldman’s father read the story to him, but learn of the “original” Florinese author, S. Morgenstern. Goldman’s novel, we are told, is “the abridged version,” with all the boring parts taken out. Just as Edgar Rice Burroughs relates the tale of his “uncle,” John Carter, so Goldman is telling Morgenstern’s story. I was almost convinced this was true, until I checked Wikipedia to be sure. No such person as S. Morgenstern has ever existed. I was puzzled as to why Goldman would bother with the details of this fictitious author. His father as narrator would have sufficed. Throughout the book, Goldman discusses what he cut from the original and why. He describes Morgenstern as a political satirist, and claims that The Princess Bride was never intended as a romantic adventure. The parts he removed were the politics and the satire. But why even mention it? Anyone familiar with the film will tell you, there’s very little subtext. The Princess Bride wears its heart on its sleeve. What I, and I believe, many other people love about the movie is its unabashed romanticism. My theory is that Goldman felt he needed two narrators to make his sentimentality more palatable: the author himself, representing innocence, and his alter ego, Morgenstern, to appeal to more cynical readers. Sadly, it would seem, even in 1973 there were a lot of jaded people. But Goldman really doesn’t address his childhood, or innocence, by the end of the book, and after seeing how well the movie played out, all I can say is, I could have done without S. Morgenstern.
Overall, The Princess Bride is a quick, enjoyable read, but I can’t say it’s necessary if you’ve seen the movie, which works just as well. Ultimately, Goldman seems better suited to screenplays, which he’s made quite a successful career out of. My advice: rent or buy The Princess Bride, and if you want to know more about the story and its characters, by all means get the book.