Saturday, May 21, 2022

William Goldman, The Princess Bride


Opening Passage: The book is deliberately structured so as not to have a definite beginning. We could start with the first part of the story that is called "The Princess Bride" in the table of contents:

This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it. (p.1)

Or we could start with the beginning of the story that occurs within the frame story:

The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette. Annette worked in Paris for the Duke and Duchess de Guiche, and it did not escape the Duke's notice that someone extraordinary was polishing the pewter. The Duke's notice did not escape the notice of the Duchess either, who was not very beautiful and not very rich, but plenty smart. The Duchess set about studying Annette and shortly found her adversary's fatal flaw. (p. 39)

Or we could start with the 25th Anniversary Introduction or the 30th Anniversary Introduction, each of which is presented as part of the frame story, thus pushing back the frame story's beginning, although I won't quote them here.

Summary: 'William Goldman', i.e., the character in the book rather than the author, grew up enjoying, as his favorite story, a book by S. Morgenstern, called The Princess Bride. Morgenstern was an author from a place in Europe called Florin, and Goldman's father had been a Florinese immigrant, and read the book to him when he was boy. Naturally, at some point Goldman decides to give it to his son, Jason, with whom he does not have a particularly close relationship. (Again, this is the son of the character, not the author; the author William Goldman had only daughters.) It turns out to be extremely difficult to find a copy, and when he does find a copy, it falls flat as a gift; Jason can't get past the first chapter. Disappointed, he starts reading it himself -- and discovers that he can't get past the first chapter, either. He had never actually read it, himself; his father had always read it to him, and what he discovers is that his father skipped large sections of the book, which were satirical passages extending over many pages on various features of Florinese history and politics. Because of this, he decides to abridge it; it's clear that he wants to keep this connection with the story of "true love and high adventure" because he has none of either in his life.

You'll notice that so far, everything in the story is a (fictional) account of making the story. In fact, the fictional William Goldman is one of the main characters of the story, and keeps popping up in editorial notes and footnotes. The other main characters in the novel are the main characters in the story-within-the story. Thus it's only on page 39 in my edition that we get to Buttercup, and only on p. 42 that we get to Westley, and p. 45 when we reach the primary antagonists, Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen. The frame is not merely a frame; it is structured as the primary story, interacting with the subset secondary story, S. Morgenstern's The Princess Bride. And that book could perhaps be considered another main character. This is in part a story about our connection to stories.

Buttercup is a farm girl in Florin; she is even when young one of the most beautiful women in the world, and will eventually, for a while, become the most beautiful woman in the world. She spends her days riding her horse, named Horse (Buttercup is consistently presented as not having much imagination), and teasing the hired farm boy, whose name we eventually learn is Westley. They eventually fall in love, but Westley leaves for America. He never makes it; the ship is seized by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never takes prisoners. Meanwhile, Prince Humperdinck chooses her to be his bride -- he does not particularly want to marry, because he would much rather be hunting, but practically speaking needs to do so, and Buttercup by this point has reached the top position among the most beautiful women in the world. However, as we discover, he has more to his agenda than this suggests. Before her marriage, Buttercup is kidnapped by three criminals: a Sicilian, named Vezzini; a Spaniard, named Inigo Montoya; and a Turk, named Fezzik. However, as they are escaping with her, they find themselves pursued. Long story short (which after all the very conceit of this book), Westley will have to team up with Inigo and Fezzik, at least after he comes back from being mostly dead, to rescue Buttercup from a terrible fate.

The book, written in 1973, was adapted into a 1987 film, The Princess Bride, which is rightly considered one of the great classic movies of the 80's. It's interesting as an adaptation; allowing for occasionally slight modifications and abbreviations, it follows the subset story quite closely (except in one regard, which I will note in a moment), although it massively simplifies and modifies the frame. This means that the movie is both very like and very unlike the book. As I noted in introducing it, one difference is that the book is pitched to a narrower audience; it is not a children's book. A further difference is that the frame in the book puts a much greater distance between the reader and the "true love and high adventure" than the movie puts between the audience and the same. This difference culminates in the one significant change that I mentioned: the movie deliberately gives a fairytale ending, and the book deliberately denies that it can give one (although it doesn't give a definite unhappy ending, either). The movie tells us that true love and high adventure exist and triumph; the book tells us that we can at least tell stories about them, and maybe they even do exist and triumph sometimes.

Given that the book and the movie are doing different things, it perhaps doesn't make much sense to say which is better, but the book as a book is a good book; the movie as a movie is an excellent movie. The movie benefits from a much cleaner structure. Although the subset story is billed as an 'abridgement', the actual story we get is not abridged; William Goldman (the character, again) has just replaced S. Morgenstern's digressions with his own, although to be fair to him, he is apparently much less verbose. But the movie is also almost the Platonic Idea of a movie adaptation; all of the changes that are made make sense, the casting is practically perfect, and the screenplay written by Goldman (the author, not the character) strikes a near-perfect balance in what to show and what to imply offstage. I suspect that this is because of a convergence of a number of factors. Goldman (the author) was a professional screenwriter; the novel is clearly written to be adaptable to the screen; the screenplay was written by the author of the novel; the director, Rob Reiner, was very committed to bringing it to the screen, despite the legal obstacles that had developed due to the screenplay's languishing in 'production hell' for a number of years; and the casting was done well. The movie actually did only OK when it came out; but it was a perfect kind of movie for the VCR generation, and it did extremely well on home video, and it consistently makes Top 100 lists for movies. Rightly so, I think; I've watched it several times in my life, including the year it first came out on video, and re-watching it again for this fortnightly book, it was quite fresh.

The anniversary editions of the novel have additional frame material. We learn that Goldman, the character, divorces his wife and develops a better relationship with his son, and eventually has an even better relationship with his grandson, also named Willy. Goldman and Willy visit Florin, because Goldman is interested in abridging Morgenstern's sequel, Buttercup's Baby, but it's unclear whether the latter will ever happen, because Morgenstern's estate wants Stephen King (in the novel, he is of Florinese heritage) to do it instead. We get a peek of a 'first chapter' in which a number of things happen to the characters, but in such a way that it's clear that we don't actually know what will happen to them, and that is that. And I suppose that is the fate of all fictional characters; we follow them for a why, but outside the bounds of the story, anything could happen, and we can only guess.

Favorite Passage:

I'm not trying to make this a downer, understand. I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn't fair. It's just fairer than death, that's all. (p. 358)

Recommendation: Recommended. The book is genuinely good. But also, in honesty, given a choice between the book and the movie, the movie is still the choice to make.


William Goldman, The Princess Bride, Harcourt (New York: 2007).