So you’ve watched The Princess Bride on AMC and you think you know all there is to know about the story, eh? Inconceivable!
There’s an old saying-older than dishwashing detergent, but not quite as old as rope-that goes something like this: The book is better than the movie. I think the phrase was coined by a novelist; I’m pretty certain it wasn’t coined by a screenwriter. But who can ever really know these things, right? At any rate, the phrase “the book is better than the movie” certainly applies in the case of The Princess Bride.
Now, don’t go running for the tar and feathers, I’m not saying the movie isn’t good. In fact, I believe it to be the best thing that everyone involved in it has ever done; certainly that is the case for Billy Crystal, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright (Penn), Rob Reiner, Andre the Giant, and Mandy Patinkin, who should have won an Oscar. And it certainly ranks in the top three things ever done by the master, Wallace Shawn.
But there is a distinct philosophical difference between the book and movie versions of The Princess Bride. (Philosophy, as you may not know, was discovered almost by accident by Christopher Columbus on his second visit to South America, or as he referred to it New Oldtown.) The philosophy of the movie version of The Princess Bride can be summed up in three words: children’s movie. The philosophy of the book version, by William Goldman-the greatest novelist of the 1970s-can be summed up in three words also: Life isn’t fair.
Remember the opening of the movie, with that kid from The Wonder Years being visited questioned about a murder by Columbo? Well, that’s not in the book. In the novel, the opening section is a modern day-and by modern day I mean post-1850s-recounting of how the author, William Goldman-the greatest novelist of the 1970s-came to translate an edition of S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure: The Princess Bride.
Goldman’s delightfully dry wit is on hand as he informs the reader of the background behind how he, as a young boy, fell in love with the book that was read him by his father as he lay on his deathbed. (That would be Goldman on his deathbed, not Mr. Goldman.) Only after he grew up and read the book for himself did he realize that his father had engaged, with extreme prejudice, in some quick editing of S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure: The Princess Bride .
Now as you may not know, William Goldman-the greatest novelist of the 1970s-is also William Goldman, the greatest screenwriter of the 1970s. He won Oscars for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as All the President’s Men. And despite winning two Academy Awards, he is still regarded as the greatest screenwriter of the 1970s. All of which is to explain why the first part of the novel that you think you know from having seen the movie The Princess Bride takes place inside a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.
The comic high point of this introductory part of the book is the gut-wrenchingly sad yet milk-through-the-nose funny scene that takes place between Goldman and one of the most eager starlets in Hollywood history (right above Fatty Arbuckle, but just below Irene Ryan) Sandy Sterling.
Goldman has decided that for his son’s sake, and because he knows The Great Waldo Pepper will flop two years later-that he must take it upon himself to edit the translation in same way his father did, resulting in the story most of you know somewhat: Buttercup, who has finally ascended to her place as the most beautiful woman in the world loses her Westley, her one true love, to the mortal sword of the Dread Pirate Roberts and thereby feels free to marry the Republican Prince Humperdinck.
But Buttercup is kidnapped by the dazzlingly genius known only as the Sicilian, the remarkable swordsman Inigo, and Fezzik, a giant with a knack for rhymes. They are all pursued and then overcome by a mysterious man dressed all in black who turns out to be none other than the infamous Dread Pirate Roberts. And the rest of the story you already know, so I won’t detail it here: There’s a fire swamp, a man with six fingers, Miracle Max, a turning of the tables in which Fezzik and Inigo are revealed to be not villains but heroes, and, for me at least, the finest part of the novel: Inigo extracting revenge upon the murderer of his father.
In the hands of a comic genius like William Goldman-the greatest novelist and screenwriter of the 1970s-with his deft handling of both irony and romanticism, the story of The Princess Bridge that you think you know is one that is even loftier and more nuanced with profundity than the story told in the movie.
For instance, there are extensive flashbacks detailing the long histories of both Inigo and Fezzik that considerably deepen their characterizations. Inigo Montoya is my second favorite novel character of all time-right behind Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces-and I’ve always really considered The Princess Bride to be more about this story of revenge than about true love between Buttercup and Westley overcoming all.
But the biggest reason that the novel is so much better than the movie is also the most important reason why that is so. The movie’s frame doesn’t allow for the commenting upon the action that the novel does. In the book there are passages of the story that are interrupted by the voice of Goldman inserting satirical asides on everything from writers who insist on describing every single detail to the (bogus) history of Morgenstern, his novel, and the process by which Goldman is translating, to the single most important lesson to be derived from novel, a lesson that clearly is missing from the movie, perhaps because it’s just way too dark for a children’s story.
I won’t tell you what the lesson is, even though I already have, because that would be a killer of a spoiler, but if you’re browsing through a bookstore and pick up a copy with an interest toward learning this valuable lesson and applying it to your own life (I assure you, it will be far more important than anything you’ll learn in a math class and only slightly less important than anything you’ll learn in culinary arts), I will tell you that the lesson is repeated in the final words of the novel.