Saturday, January 11, 2014

Books on Film: The Princess Bride

Unless you've come here from the planet Twilar, you've at least heard of The Princess Bride. And if you're like most people, you've seen the movie at least 10 times. After all, doesn't it come on cable like every day? But before it was a movie that everyone can quote, it was a book...though its origins still remain a mystery to many.

The Book

William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride in 1973, and the world was for ever changed. Now, the origins of the book are shrouded in mystery because Goldman is quite the jokester. At the top of the book he explains that it's an abridgment of The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, which does not exist. Morgenstern did not exist, either, until Goldman himself wrote a novel under this pseudonym (presumably to further his joke).


Buttercup lives on a farm in rural Florin, where she takes pleasure in being nasty to farm hand Westley. She calls him "farm boy" and makes him work for her. All he ever says to her is "as you wish." And, as the story goes, she comes to realize that he's really saying "I love you" to her. She loves him back.

But if that was the whole story, it would be boring and no one would ever quote it. That's just the beginning of the story. Buttercup and Westley are torn apart after he leaves to acquire enough money so they can marry. She hears that his ship was captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, from whom no one escapes.

She mourns him, and eventually agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck. He's the heir apparent to the throne of Florin, and though she doesn't love him she decides to let him wed her...for what does it matter, now? But all goes astray when Buttercup is kidnapped by three outlaws: the genius Vizzini, sword master Inigo Montoya and a mountain of a man named Fezzik. But there is a fly in the ointment: a masked man, wearing all black, is following them. Things start to get really great from there.

The Movie

The book was adapted into a movie in 1987, and it's been watched millions of times since. Rob Reiner directed and co-produced the film, and I firmly believe he's the only one who could have adapted it so well. Reiner, funny himself, captures the comedic flavor of the novel perfectly. It's irreverent and a little silly, and that's part of what makes the story so great.

The movie is really a story within a story. It opens with a sick young boy (Fred Savage), who's home in bed. Grandfather (Peter Falk) is on hand to sit with him, and he's brought a book. The young boy balks at first (books are boring), but Grandfather slowly draws him in because the tale has swordfights, adventure and lots of action. The story is interrupted a few times with comments and banter between the two, and it makes the movie even richer.

After Buttercup is captured, the Man in Black slowly thwarts all three kidnappers. Only then is it revealed that he is actually Westley, alive and well after all. But Humperdinck is on their trail, so they are forced to go on the run together. Humperdinck is actually a villain, and he engineered the kidnapping in the first place.

There's lots more after that, including the famous scene with Inigo where repetition is so key. But this version of the film almost never came to be.

Fox wanted to turn the novel into a film right away. They paid Goldman a cool half-million dollars for the rights to the book, and they even hired a director. But when the head of production at Fox was fired, the project was put on hiatus. Goldman bought back his own film rights, on his own dime. The book almost became a movie again when Christopher Reeve was interested in being Westley, but finally Rob Reiner decided he was going to do it. He received funding from Norman Lear, the one and only Archie Bunker, and the rest is history.

What Got Adapted?

Reiner created a faithful adaptation of the book, largely owed to the fact that Goldman worked on the screenplay himself. Some of the beginning of the book is condensed for the screen (Buttercup doesn't realize her love so quickly on the page), and in the book she's faced with sharks instead of screaming eels in the water.

There is more backstory in the book, particularly around Inigo and Fezzik. In the book they go on a much longer journey to find Westley, and the end is a bit less direct than in the film. But the story very closely mirrors that in the book, and in the film version you get Billy Crystal. I suggest you enjoy both the book and the film version of this least 10 times.

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