**Spoiler Alert! If you’ve been living under a rock since the 1980s, you might not want to read this review. However, given the existence of a really popular movie based on this book, I’m not holding back. You’ve been warned.**
I am really close with my dad. No doubt about it, but it’s pretty obvious that he and I are basically the same person – same sense of humour, same tastes, same shaped toes. The one thing I could never understand as a kid though was his love for the movie The Princess Bride. Sure, it had adventure, humour, and an okay plot, but it seemed for a while that it was the go-to movie in our home and, while I didn’t mind it, it wasn’t high-up on my list of things that I wanted to watch. Regardless, I respected his choice in flicks and would watch it with him (even though the R.O.U.S. scared the pejeezus out of me, and even then I didn’t find the relationship between Westley and Buttercup to be well developed).
My next contact with the story came from a friend who recommended that I read the book that the movie was based on – she sold it as a really engaging read, with a twist (more on that later). Since she hadn’t steered me wrong in the past with book recommendations, I took her advice and picked it up. And fell in love with the book. I didn’t, however, develop a full appreciation for why I loved it so much until I took an undergrad English course on the adaptations of books to film (but more on that later too).
So, plot. Very simple – boy and girl realize they love each other, boy leaves to make his fortune promising to come back for girl, boy is reported dead, girl accepts a marriage proposal from someone else, boy returns from the dead, and boy and girl are reunited. That’s the basic over-view – in reality, there are a whole host of variables: boy always loved girl, but girl disdained him at first; boy leaves for the New World only to be shanghaied by the Dread Pirate Roberts, whose identity he takes over; upon learning of boy’s death, girl agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck, and spends years learning to be a princess; boy returns from the supposed-dead just in time to rescue girl from an assassination attempt, which is where we meet the most lovable case of supporting characters ever known to man; and boy and girl are reunited after boy is killed and brought back from the dead, girl is rescued following her marriage to the Prince, and they (with their helpers) flee. And there are some Rodents of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.s) in there too.
The real plot to this book is not the Westely/Buttercup saga though. The real plot is this: William Goldman (the author) begins the book with a bit of a bio on his childhood – at age 10, while recovering from a near-deadly bout of pneumonia, his father (a native Florinese) decided to read him The Princes Bride, by S. Morgenstern, the most famous Florinese author. The Princes Bride’s subtitle, “S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure” says is all. Goldman wasn’t much of a reader, but The Princes Bride captured his imagination in a way that made him an avid bookworm and set him on his future career path. He always knew he would want to read the book to his own son some day, and when his son turns 10, he gives him The Princes Bride as a gift. However, it turns out his son hates the book. Heart-broken over this inability to connect with his son on a similar level to the connection he had with his father, Goldman picks up the book to find out what went wrong, only to realize that the original Morgenstern is almost 1,000 page, and heavy on both useless detail and political satire. As it turns out, his father read to him the interesting bits, and left out huge chunks of the original story. In order to make the book more palatable to American readers, to honour his father’s memory, and to (maybe) find a way to connect with his son, Goldman sets out to abridge the original Morgenstern into what we know today as the story of The Princes Bride. (In reality, and here’s where I tell you there’s no Santa, it’s all bunk. The childhood, the parenthood, and the abridgement - The Princes Bride comes straight from Goldman. Sorry. But the Easter Bunny is real, I promise.)
While sitting in the English class on adaptations from page to screen, I came to a realization – it’s very easy for a screen-writer to come along and take all the characters, setting, and plot action from a book and put it down on film. It might be easy, but it’s rarely done right and in a way that makes it as engaging as the original book. What’s harder to catch in adaptations is the feel of a story. And, with The Princes Bride (the book), the feel is what makes the story so engaging. While reading, I’ll often times turn on some classical music just for some background ambiance – this week, while reading The Princes Bride, I tried that several times, only to shut the music off within a page or two. Why? The feel of the book stood, all on its own, without the ambiance – it’s odd to explains, but it’s almost as if the book created an ambiance in the room all of its own. At several points when I put the book down to grab a cup of tea, or feed the cat, it became (suddenly) very quiet in my apartment – almost as if I had turned the TV off, or muted some music: it was the lack of ambiance that I was feeling that I could only connect to while reading.
This is the only book I have ever read where that ambiance, and my admiration for it, has over-ridden the plot and the characters. If you go back and read through some of my previous posts, what you’ll note is a consistency in the points I touch on about books – what I thought of the plot development, what I thought of the characters (engaging characters are one of my most important criteria for liking a book), and an author’s writing style. In the case of The Princes Bride, I find the plot to be ho-hum, and the characters to be somewhat likeable and engaging (with the exception of the Montoya and Fezzik, and those are the secondary characters). Where this book really shines is in the author’s writing style. This may be the only book I have every read where I’ve cared more about the author and his abilities than what he was writing. It’s an amazing dynamic that makes me think I want to read everything Goldman has written.
And that brings me back to the movie. Goldman (who is the acclaimed screen-play writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Misery) also wrote the screen-play for the flick. But, somewhere between the Morgenstern and the Reiner of it all, The Princes Bride looses that special spark, that ambiance that makes the book so damn enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, with an adult’s perspective, I now think the flick is an entirely serviceable way to spend two hours, but now that I know of Goldman’s ability to craft an ambiance though words on the page, I’m at a loss to why anyone would chose the movie over the book.
So, final verdict? Come on. I’ve written almost twice as much for this review as most of my others, and that’s simply because I’ve been trying to sell you on reading this book. I may have knocked the plot a bit above, but it’s still a wonderfully fast-paced tale full of adventure; I may have disregarded my normal assessment of the characters, but they’re still worth getting to know; and if I’m guilty of debasing the plot and characters, it’s only in favour of spending as much time and space as possible telling you about how masterfully Goldman has crafted an ambiance for his readers. The Princes Bride (the film) is one of those ‘cult following’ flicks that children of the 80s all know – I wish, however, that the book were held in the same regard. I would highly recommend that everyone out there rush to read this book, it’s amazing.
My edition of The Princes Bride contains the first abridged chapter of Buttercup’s Baby, the purported sequel to Morgenstern’s original. It also contains a preceding explanation from Goldman about what happened to him after the release of The Princes Bride, and what led him to start abridging the sequel.
I read through that bit about Goldman’s experiences, but only got a few pages into the chapter from Buttercup’s Baby before realizing that I wanted to let The Princes Bride stand on its own, without any additions to my memory of it.
This decision was made easier following a simple Google search, during which I learnt that Goldman has yet to finish writing Buttercup’s Baby, and he’s stalled over it, because he wants to get the story just right. If and when he ever finishes and releases it, then I’ll consider picking it. Until then, I’m content to live with just the original Princes Bride.