“Unadaptable” is a word that gets attached to a lot of books, and usually for good reason. For most books—pretty much all, really—the quality is derived from the skill of the writing more than the twists of the story. Just because a director replicates every narrative beat of a literary masterpiece, that doesn’t mean the result is a cinematic one.
Those who are only familiar with The Princess Bride through Rob Reiner’s beloved family film may be surprised to learn that translating the source material was difficult, even though author William Goldman was adapting his own work. Goldman (whose adaptation of Misery opened on Broadway in November, his first produced script since Dreamcatcher 12 years ago) not only had to capture the delicate whimsy of his book’s central story, a playfully teasing adventure yarn, but deal with the sophisticated literary device he had used to develop his themes. Remove the device and the entire story takes on less resonance; the book is about storytelling, not just the story being told.
Getting to the actual plot of The Princess Bride—that is, the tale of Buttercup, Inigo Montoya, and the Dread Pirate Robert—requires a bit of setup. In Goldman’s telling, he first encountered Bride—which he credits as the work of one Simon Morgenstern; the book purports to be Goldman’s “good parts version” of Morgenstern’s epic—as a 10-year-old child. While Goldman suffered from pneumonia, his father would read him the book, which swiftly became the boy’s favorite, sparking a lifelong love of stories and storytelling. He even credits the book’s “Cliffs Of Insanity” sequence with inspiring a similar scene in his Butch Cassidy And the Sundance Kid.
According to the book, when Goldman’s own son turns 10, he decides to continue the tradition, procuring a hard-to-find copy for a present. When the lad gets bored after chapter one, Goldman actually reads the book for the first time and realizes how much his dad had skipped over. He pitches an abridgment to his publisher, a reprinting that he will sculpt and shape. This edited manuscript is what makes up the bulk of the book, though Goldman frequently pops in with notations to explain what he’s cut and why, as well as to comment on “Morgenstern” and the man’s stylistic choices.
This framing device is extremely convincing, and the uninitiated will have no problem taking it at face value. Goldman mentions working on Sundance, and the fact that he makes himself unsympathetic—flirting with a buxom starlet while on the phone with his wife, mocking his son’s obesity (“paint him yellow, he’d mop up for the school sumo team”)—only adds to the sense of verisimilitude.
But Sundance aside, this device is entirely fictional. Morgenstern never existed; the “abridgment” structure and notations are pure literary inventions.
The gimmick is the book’s purpose for being. Goldman isn’t just telling an adventure story—and a pretty good one—he’s considering why the genre’s themes appeal to all ages as well as sending up the conventions and weaknesses of the category as a whole. As anyone who has slogged through Ivanhoe can attest, romantic literature can get bogged down in detail. Here, Goldman makes a big show of cutting pages that deal with dull ritual and descriptions of royal opulence. (He adds that the excised sections have been hailed as marvelous satire by Florinian scholars—that is, fictional studiers of the fantasy world he created.) Buttercup’s Baby, the start of an alleged sequel that comes bundled with modern printings, begins with the death of a beloved character. After starting the story with such a grab, Goldman immediately pipes in to say he despises the beginning for how it dismisses the character’s fans for the sake of an exciting start, a hilariously transparent method of having it both ways.
This is a hard trick for a film to duplicate, and that the filmmakers attempted it at all is almost as surprising as the fact that they were mostly successful in doing so.
In the film adaptation, Goldman’s first inspiration was to roll his two stylistic conceits into one, creating a framing story wherein a grandfather (Peter Falk) reads Morgenstern’s book to his grandson (Fred Savage), who’s sick in bed. While this story doesn’t really have a payoff (compared to the similarly structured The Neverending Story), it preserves the idea of the book sparking a child’s imagination. Savage’s character goes from playing video games to being open to the ideals of “true love and high adventure” that Goldman originally put down. The familial back-and-forth also serves as the kind of commentary Goldman made in the book’s notations. Where the Goldman-the-author complained at the scale of Morgenstern’s dullness, Savage is annoyed at being read “a kissing book,” and wants to know when it’s going to get good.
If anything, the inter-textual comments about story make more sense in the movie. When Princess Buttercup (played by Robin Wright) swims in dangerous waters (infested with sharks in the book, shrieking eels in the movie), it’s understandable that Falk would stop reading to reassure his scared grandson. It makes less sense when Goldman pauses to reminisce about how his father would reassure him at that same place.
In both versions, the framing device gives us permission to have a sincere emotional reaction to what is essentially a silly story. Given the tone and simplicity of the tale, a Princess Bride that took place solely in Florin would come off as goofy and corny. It needs something in the real world to ground it: the real world.
The self-consciousness makes the story more complex and lasting, but even without it, Bride’s tone and simplicity would likely have made it a cult favorite. Simplicity can be a virtue in works like this, with stereotypes becoming archetypes and the lack of complex emotions becoming a wealth of pure ones. More than anything else, capturing Goldman’s tone is what makes Reiner’s version such a perennial favorite.
In the book, Goldman walks a tricky line, making jokes out of the emotions at play but not diminishing them entirely. We laugh, but not so much that we can’t relate. The following passage between Buttercup and Westley (who speaks first) captures the warmth and giddiness of new love, despite the modern goofiness (which itself becomes an unspoken running joke whenever Goldman insists this is a work of antiquity).
“Stop talking about the Countess! As a special favor. Before you drive me maaaaaaaad.”
Buttercup looked at him.
“Don’t you understand anything that’s going on?”
Buttercup shook her head.
Westley shook his too. “You never have been the brightest, I guess.”
“Do you love me, Westley? Is that it?”
He couldn’t believe it. “Do I love you? My god, if your love were a grain of sand, mine would be a universe of beaches. If your love were—”
“I don’t understand that first one yet,” Buttercup interrupted. She was starting to get very excited now. “Let me get this straight. Are you saying my love is the size of a grain of sand and yours is this other thing? Images just confuse me so—is this universal business of yours bigger than my sand? Help me, Westley. I have the feeling we’re on the verge of something terribly important.”
That dialogue is dropped in the movie, but that tone is still carried throughout the film. When Westley (disguised as The Man In Black) fences master swordsman Inigo to rescue the kidnapped Buttercup, their solemn respect takes a similarly light note.
The modernity of their exchange is key, but everything in the scene works to achieve the right balance. The set is atmospheric but transparently and stylistically fake. Mandy Patinkin plays Inigo with a heightened realism—no doubt a product of his musical theater background, which calls for sincerity through excess—while Cary Elwes is suitably dashing while not taking any of this too seriously. (This was undoubtedly the role that led to Mel Brooks casting him in Robin Hood: Men In Tights.) Like Goldman, Reiner gets to have it both ways, delivering a successful version of something that he’s teasing at the same time.
Contrary to the film’s kiss-kiss finale, the book’s Morgenstern section ends on a “lady or the tiger” note of ambiguity until Goldman butts in to insist the ending has to be happy. What’s made The Princess Bride last these many decades is that while it can be viewed as comedy—with the tone and performances putting ironic quotations around the themes of true love and honor—the enjoyment can also be straightforward. The book’s ending stresses the importance of uplift in an unfair world, and while many art lovers naturally gravitate toward the complex, uncertain, and dark, everyone can understand the occasional appeal of just settling in and going with the flow. Sometimes “true love and high adventure” seem laughably inadequate. At other times, what more could you ask?
Start with: Lots of movie adaptations have overshadowed their source, but this case feels particularly unfair. Goldman’s book is an absolute delight, laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely rousing in the best adventure tradition. Plus, it features the “Zoo Of Death”—an elaborate hunting ground which the heroes raid as part of a daring rescue operation—a setting the film discards. Good luck enjoying the movie with the knowledge that you’re missing out on a sequence where gentle strongman Fezzik punches a giant snake to death.
Reiner’s film is a worthy adaptation, but it feels smaller than the book—in both ambition and execution. Given how many people have seen The Princess Bride, the book really should be better known and more widely read. If you’re a fan of the movie, limiting yourself to just that is inconceivable.