Why You Need to Read The Princess Bride Right Now

In which Emily is inspired by the recent release of Cary Elwes’s book about the making of the movie of The Princess Bride to revisit her love of William Goldman’s novel.

The film of The Princess Bride is amazing. Seriously. If – by some sad twist of fate – you find yourself reading this post without ever having had the pleasure of watching the film of The Princess Bride, do yourself a favor and rectify that immediately. It’s a movie in which includes, as Goldman writes in his book,

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It’s a wholeheartedly camp fantasy movie with swordsmen who are desperately bent on revenge, Sicilian masterminds who keep misusing words, miracle men who are rather fond of Yiddish schtick, and an epic love story between the most beautiful woman in the world and the dashing Dread Pirate Roberts. The film of The Princess Bride has fantastic writing and great comic performances, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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(Source: http://onceland.tumblr.com/post/92560594492)

Indeed, this is the film that launched a thousand memes. (If you’ve been spending much time on twitter recently you’ve likely seen the delightful #feministprincessbride hashtag.) The Princess Bride is incredibly iconic. And appropriately so.

But as awesome as the film is, the book (written by William Goldman, who would go on to write the film’s screenplay) operates on a whole new level of awesomeness.

As Goldman explains in his introduction to The Princess Bride, his project is to translate and abridge the great Florinese writer S. Morgenstern’s classic adventure-story-cum-political-satire of the same name. When Goldman was a child, his father had read Morgenstern’s Princess Bride to him (leaving out the long-winded satirical bits). Now, Goldman explains, he has decided to adapt and abridge The Princess Bride so as to provide new generations of readers with the same “good parts” version of The Princess Bride that his father had read to him.

Goldman is drawing upon his memories of his father to rewrite an epic satire into a children’s adventure story and, as he does so, he reflects upon how books can function as markers of relationships and how reading becomes a communal activity.

But what makes this Goldman introduction so wonderful is the fact that it’s all fake. Florin? Not a real place. Morgenstern? Not a real writer. The Princess Bride? Not an anti-royalist satire. The parts in which Goldman reminisces about his father reading him the Morgenstern classic? Totally untrue. Goldman’s making it all up.

So as he tells about his process of abridging Morgenstern’s book, both in the introduction and in a number of sidebars throughout The Princess Bride, Goldman asks us to reflect upon why we want the “good parts version” of a book in the first place. Perhaps, he suggests, it’s because life isn’t fair: marriages fall apart, great work goes unrecognized, and wonderful books fall out of print. But at least within the realm of story, a dead man can turn out to be only mostly dead and a bereaved son can get closure on his father’s murder. Reading is, in some ways, about escaping from our problems, but it’s also about confirming that our hope and optimism about the world is justified. We want the good parts version because sometimes we just need to be reassured that the girl gets her guy and the evil count doesn’t get away with it. Goldman’s fictional process of adaptation highlights our quest for the “good parts version.”

But Goldman’s book is so weird and wonderful because he doesn’t just leave behind his fictional metanarrative about writing the book once he’s set up the idea of the good parts version. Instead, both in the introduction to the first edition and in introductions and postscripts to the 25th and 30th anniversary editions, Goldman keeps spinning out the story of this semi-fictional media event which begins with the popularity of Morgenstern’s novel and continues through the popularity of the Goldman “adaptation” and then the (aforementioned) Rob Reiner film. As he does so, telling fake stories from the set (apparently Andre the Giant recommended that Goldman visit the Morgenstern museum in Florin) and recounting the made-up legal battle with the Morgenstern estate over a sequel (they wanted Stephen King, not Goldman, to translate Buttercup’s Baby), Goldman widens his scope to consider the role of popular culture within our lives and societies.

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(Source: http://onceland.tumblr.com/post/98536994202/buttercup-is-marrying-humperdinck-in-little-less)

In these introductions, Goldman reflects upon the power that we give to media objects. In one moment, he’ll be highlighting our overarching investment in the movies we love as he answers hypothetical audience questions about incidental behind-the-scenes moments on a movie set. In the next moment, then, he’ll be describing the experience of standing awed in front of Inigo Montoya’s six-fingered sword at the Morgenstern museum (apparently Morgenstern’s novel was based on historical events). Goldman is keenly interested in the way we become fascinated by and obsessed with stories we love and the objects associated with them. At the same time, Goldman is telling stories that aren’t actually true and – as he presents them as “what actually happened” – is undermining our faith in our ability to tell the difference between true stories and fictional ones.

Indeed, given his fascination with why we tell stories, Goldman is writing a postmodern meditation on the place of literature in the modern world. Instead of being able to find meaning in an authentic Truth or in a certainty about the way that our lives will work out, Goldman suggests, we gain meaning from our relationships with pieces of art and the people who experience them with us. In an odd way, then, Goldman’s novel becomes a fascinating context in which to place Elwes’s book which is, of course, actually a behind-the-scenes account of the filming of Reiner’s Princess Bride.

So basically, you should go read The Princess Bride. And do read the most recent edition of it that you can find, since Goldman has decided to enjoy himself by writing additional weird introductions and afterwords in the recent anniversary editions.

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