OR Why The Princess Bride is one of the most faithful adaptations while also supposedly removing the entire conceit of the source material.
Because, well, it is.
The Princess Bride film is one of the most successful and best known of all those fantasy films from the 80’s that Hollywood was releasing to try and capitalize on Star Wars. It’s on several people’s best films and favorite films lists (including mine!) and for good reason, it is an excellent film. I mean come on, it’s got fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles– it’s got everything. It’s also adapted from a book, written by William Goldman, who also wrote the screenplay. It’s to the point that in the introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of the book, Goldman remarks “If you’re reading this, dollars to donuts you’ve seen the movie.” My copy is actually a very nice hardback that contains both the 25th anniversary introduction and the 30th, along with the original one that sets up the whole premise of the book.
Does it help that the author wrote the screenplay? Certainly, and Goldman certainly had experience with adapting– he also wrote the screenplay for his own Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and would later adapt Stephen King’s Misery which was considered unadaptable and is also the only King adaptation with an Oscar (Best Actress Kathy Bates).
But ultimately what works about the book was never going to work on film, and what works about the film is projected right onto the page. The biggest problem about a beloved adaptation of a book is that it can supplant the original images of the text, but given how close the text of The Princess Bride is to the film, it’s less of a concern than for most others. It really is that good an adaptation.
Of course, many would consider such a thing, well, inconceivable.
The Princess Bride both was and was not written by William Goldman. Technically, it was written by the Florinese satirist Simon Morgenstern. The original work was an anti-monarchist satire whose length and breadth probably rivaled Victor Hugo. William Goldman first heard the story when he had pneumonia and his father read it to him at his bedside. When he went to find a copy of it for his son for his 10th birthday, his son read the first chapter and then got bored. When Goldman went to read the book for himself (for the first time, he’d only ever had it read to him), he discovered the issue– his father had edited out all of the long, satirical description passages. Thus, he calls up his editor and says that his next project is going to be abridging Morgenstern’s The Princess Bride.
Precisely 0% of that is true.
Okay, post-modernism crash course.
The Post-Modern Bride
Post-modernism is a broad term for various artistic movements of the latter half of the 20th century, but for our purposes, we’ll be focusing on post-modern concepts of narrative and the relationship between a text, its author, and its reader. Post-modernism can be basically anything you want, but tend to draw on a bit of medium awareness on the part of the internal works. Think about how A Series of Unfortunate Events is written not as a story but as a biography of the Baudelaire orphans, and written by a narrator who is a character within the world of the story. Or think about how Welcome to Night Vale uses the medium of the radio show/podcast to make it so that we’re 122 episodes in and we still have no idea what the main character looks like. Or think about Homestuck, where–
Actually, no, don’t think about Homestuck.
The Princess Bride (the book) works within the layers of the texts to draw out the full narrative. Goldman calls Morgenstern a “master of narrative” despite every Florinese scholar insisting that his interests were in the satire that Goldman entirely cuts from the book. This is compounded by the fact that there are, of course, no Florinese scholars at any university. Because Florin doesn’t exist. Goldman’s first goal as a writer is to get you to believe that Florin and Guilder are real countries, and that the events of The Princess Bride are historical accounts– at least as much as Shakespeare’s Richard III is a historical play about King Richard III. But the best bit of post-modernism is the reunion scene.
Remember in the movie when Buttercup pushes the Dread Pirate Roberts down the hill and he yells out “As you wish!” and she goes down after him, realizing that it’s actually Westley and they have a great romantic moment together with the excellent line “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”? Yeah, Morgenstern’s version of the book didn’t have a reunion scene as such, and Goldman attempted to put one in himself, after commenting on Morgenstern’s comments about Mrs. Morgenstern that are throughout the story. Goldman says in the book that you can write to his publisher and receive the reunion scene that Goldman wrote. There’s a footnote in my edition that directs you to this website instead.
The movie… doesn’t really get that involved.
Adapting the Abridgement
From a writer’s standpoint, the biggest problem with adapting The Princess Bride to the screen was going to be this post-modern abridging. That would be impossible to put to film, without adding far too much biopic that would ultimately kill the movie. But there was a part of the framing device that Goldman kept when he adapted his work for film. Consider this section from page 250 of my edition:
I said, ‘What do you mean, “Westley dies”? You mean dies?’
My father nodded. ‘Prince Humperdinck kills him.’
‘He’s only faking though, right?’
My father shook his head, closed the book all the way
‘Who gets Humperdinck?’ I screamed after him.
He stopped in the hall. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end, somebody’s got to get him. Is it Fezzik? Who?’
‘Nobody kills him. He lives.’
‘You mean he wins, Daddy? Jesus, what did you read me this thing for?’
You might remember this scene:
While not the full ‘abridging a novel that doesn’t exist’, Goldman retained the “reason” for abridging it in the first place– as a nostalgic tale passed down through a family. A lot of the interjections that he makes throughout the book appear as dialogue for Kevin Arnold and Det. Columbo (who never actually get names in the film). It doesn’t go the whole nine yards in its post-modernism (see literally any Mel Brooks comedy for something a bit more post-modern, particularly Spaceballs), but it does maintain the comedy and the satire of Morgenstern’s original text. Well, not the intended satire, but you know what I mean.
Were other things changed? I mean, of course. The film cuts Fezzik’s backstory (which is how you find out why he was both unemployed and in Greenland) and distills Inigo’s backstory to just his relationship with Count Rugen. The shrieking eels were originally sharks and the lightning sand was called “snow sand”, but had the same effect. The biggest change is that the Pit of Despair in the book was called the Zoo of Death and was a menagerie of various animals for Humperdinck to set loose when he wanted to hunt something more exotic. The fifth level (it was buried underground, so this was the bottom level) was intentionally left empty for the one thing that Humperdinck found to be his equal.
If you guessed that Westley ended up there, yes, you’re very smart, shut up.
So, the film abridged an already abridged story that had a particular framing device and therefore adapted the key part of the framing device to keep a frame, as the story requires a narrator, and some of the dialogue from the frame in the book.
Makes sense to me.
True Love & High Adventure
I don’t have to make the argument that the film is great. You know it’s great. I watched it four times this week to prep for this. It’s fantastic.
The book is also very good. It’s the same story as the film, albeit with the abridging framing device. But it’s still got the Dread Pirate Roberts and the fire swamp. It still has Miracle Max and Inigo’s quest for revenge. It’s still got fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles. And it’s post-modern, but not to the same extent as If on a winter’s night a traveler or House of Leaves. I’d say it’s as good as the film. If you like the film, you’ll probably like the book.
Want to know more about William Goldman and his relationship with the Morgenstern estate? Want to list your favorite lines from the film? Leave a comment below! Also like if you can, and subscribe so that you don’t miss any new posts!