Sunday 23 April 2023

The Narrative Wonder of The Princess Bride... twice

"When I was your age, television was called books"

If you've ever watched (and loved, because how could you not?*) the 1987 film The Princess Bride, you should probably consider picking up the book.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman is not a novelization (despite the stupid movie-poster cover); written in 1973, 14 years before the movie came out in 1987, it forms the basis, fairly closely, of what you see on the screen. 

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Here's what the Cranky Book Reviewer thinks: it is as good, if not better, than the film; you get insight into your favourite characters. It foreshadows the perfect casting of the movie (from Peter Cook to Andre the Giant to Mandy Patinkin to... well, all of them. Each character jumps off the page), and if you can quote the movie like me, you can hear them speak in their voices while you read. And, if you're paying attention (and a book nerd), you'll also be dazzled—dazzled, I say!—by the complexity and form of Goldman's storycraft. 

But be prepared when you sit down with the novel; it is not the movie. It was written in a very different time, and many Princess-Bride-the-movie fans hate it


Goldman's narrative devices are complex. Well-executed, for sure, but not what you'd expect if you've only watched the movie. But, to the right reader, they're absolutely magical. 

So, let's get technical. The novel has three narrators; it's framed, twice: the Real Narrator (first person, limited, breaks fourth wall) is ostensibly the voice of William Goldman himself, fresh off the success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a little bitter over his rather-loveless family life: he's got a brilliant-but-cold psychologist wife and a sullen, fat son (this was the 70s) who's turning ten while the Narrator's on this business trip. He's bought him a bike, which isn't really appreciated, and — for the big, sentimental present — decides to track down a copy of his favourite book, the one that his dad used to read to him, the one that sparked his love of reading and turned him into a writer. It has the feel of being cynically autobiographical, full of wry, self-depracating humour and a sort of sadness. (This plot frame is left out of the movie entirely.) The story jumps back and forth between where he is telling the story from and his memories of being read to as a kid. 

Enter narrator #2: You can hear Peter Falk right away: "Chapter One: The Bride." The Narrator's father (who never really perfected spoken English, having grown up in the fictional country of Florin and moved to America as an adult) had read The Princess Bride to his son (the Real Narrator) when he was about ten, and he interjects comments throughout, as remembered by the Narrator. Anyway, he's a third-person limited narrator, as recounted by the Real Narrator. 

Finally, narrator #3 is S. Morgenstern himself, the fabled Florinese author of The Princess Bride. Also fictional. He's the one who "wrote" the story that the Narrator is reading, with his father's voice in his head. (The movie does this with Peter Falk and little Fred Savage.) Morgenstern is third-person omniscient; that is, he knows everything that each of his characters is thinking, but he mostly chooses one character as the focus of each scene, and writes from their point of view. Usually. 

So, what's the problem?

In the novel, you get fantastic backstories for all your favourite characters, that are just want you wanted to know (Inigo's childhood! Fezzik's childhood! Buttercup! The Prince!). But there are several characters and plot points that didn't make it into the movie. Buttercup and Westley are not quite as clever or respectful as they were scripted to be. Also, there are no shrieking eels.**

However, the whole point of the book (the real book, not the fictional book) is that it's not what the Narrator remembers his father reading to him: it's longer, much more boring, with pages and pages that he's never heard. (I feel that this is mostly where movie fans lost it.) Throughout the Morgenstern parts, the Narrator "abridges" the original book with comments in italics, describing what his father had cut out while reading it to him (e.g. 50 pages of the history of Florin and Guilder, 20 pages of packing suitcases, etc.), and what his father said about this part and that, what he thinks of Morgenstern's writing, or —like the movie—what he as a child had said at which part. ("Is this a kissing book?"). 

The novel, as written by William Goldman, frames the beloved, absurd, witty story of The Princess Bride, as seen in the movie, in a haunting story about relationships between fathers and sons and expectations and growing up.

As you wish

So, no, fans of the movie won't find the book as likeable a story, or as much of a fairytale. And literary snobs may find the movie too frivolous. But me? I love them both, equally, and in different ways

In fact, to (mis)quote Miracle Max: [Both the book and the movie] "...are the greatest things in the world... except for a nice MLT, mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich when the mutton is nice and lean, and the tomato is ripe.”

What do you think? Which did you prefer, and why?

The Cranky Book Reviewer contains multitudes, and can like two things equally. (Image: author's own)

* Naturally, you couldn't not; it would be inconceivable.

** Inconceivable!

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