The Princess Bride: We love the book and the film

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review William Goldman The Princess BrideThe Princess Bride by William Goldman

Like many people, I was familiar with the 1987 film The Princess Bride long before I read (or even knew about) William Goldman’s original novel, the extensively titled The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. Like the film, the novel has a framing narrative that introduces the tale itself; unlike the film it is not of a young boy being read the story by his grandfather, but Goldman’s own experiences with the book both as a child and an adult.

Working with the conceit that it is a “real” novel written by the (entirely fictional) S. Morgenstern, Goldman discusses how he was introduced to the novel as a boy and then undertook the task of abridging the text in order to make it palatable to modern readers. The “original” text, as it turns out, was a long-winded satire on the culture and society of the novel’s imaginary setting — something that Goldman cuts out in favor of the adventure and romance. Throughout the course of the novel he interjects the narrative with his own running commentary on the editing process, the book’s inaccuracies and other anecdotes.

The set up is a little complex, and glancing over the Amazon reviews it would seem that a couple of readers are a little confused about this being the “abridged” version. Rest assured this is the one and only version of the book. Goldman’s claim of abridgement is a fictionalized background in order to better compare the difference between the jaded, cynical real world and the fairytale idealism of the novel. It is like a show-within-a-show (for example, Goldman’s wife and son as described in the foreword are nothing like his real family). Of course, for many this is as obvious as leaves on trees, but I’ve been surprised in discussions of this book at just how many people are under the impression that it’s all “for real.”

Furthermore, there is a strange anachronistic humor at work here. Though the setting is roughly Renaissance Europe (Guilder and Florin are named after European coins), the narrator tells us at various points that the story is set after stew, taxes and blue jeans, but before glamour and Europe. Just go with it and you’ll find that the droll humor is all part-and-parcel of the parody that Goldman has created.

Buttercup is fast on her way to becoming the world’s most beautiful woman (if only she were to gain some depth and understanding of personal hygiene), but she’s more interested in riding her horse about the farm and bossing around the farmhand. The handsome youth called Westley responds to her constant demands with the simple response: “as you wish.” But as she grows toward adulthood two things become clear: that her beauty is gaining her a reputation in the bordering countries of Florin and Guilder, and that she is desperately in love with Westley. Once their love is declared Westley decides to go in search of his fortune so that he may be worthy of her hand in marriage, only to fall prey to the Dread Pirate Roberts.

On hearing of his death, Buttercup goes into deep morning, and emerges from her bedroom as the most beautiful woman of the world, with hair the color of autumn, skin like wintry cream, and all the sadness of the world in her eyes. Drawing the attention of Prince Humperdinck, who needs to wed if he wants to inherit the kingdom of Florin, Buttercup is forced against her will into an engagement. Meanwhile, Florin and Guilder teeter on the edge of war, not at all helped by the war-mongering prince who is eager to invade his neighbors. The situation seems ready to erupt when Buttercup is kidnapped by three mercenaries who have been paid to place the blame for her murder on Guilder.

Pursued by a mysterious man in black, and by Prince Humperdinck and the cruel Count Rugen, Buttercup is helpless to do anything but watch as her captor, the hunchbacked Vizzini, sends his men out to kill her would-be rescuer. The man in black easily bests Inigo the Spaniard who is out to revenge his father’s death at the hands of a six-fingered man, and Fezzik the gentle giant who loves nothing more than to rhyme words, until it comes down to a battle of intellect between himself and the master-criminal. And that’s only the first few chapters.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe blurb describes the novel as “a tale of true love and high adventure, pirates, princesses, giants, miracles, fencing, and a frightening assortment of wild beasts,” which still only encompasses a portion of the book in its entirety. It’s also touching, thoughtful and hilarious, and certainly well-deserving of its “classic” status. Something that is also lost on several readers, even those familiar with the film, is that the book is largely a satire of the usual fairytale conventions. Yes, Buttercup is a rather terrible role model, but that’s because she’s a parody of the helpless damsel in distress. Miracle Max is a complete dues ex machina, but then, that’s the whole point. Westley and Buttercup’s relationship has only marginally more depth than your standard high school teenager and her morose vampire lover, but what can’t be denied is the strength of the feelings between the two. Sentiments like “my arms love you, my ears adore you, my knees shake with blind affection,” are as sincere as they are ridiculous.

As such the book is filled with two competing viewpoints on how to see the world: with rose-colored glasses, or with the glass half-empty. Goldman’s framing narrative is filled with disappointment and disillusionment, the book that he so adored as a child is filled with hope and miracles and good triumphing over evil. More than anything, this is a book about the inherent unfairness of life, and our attempts to assuage that by writing stories. As such, it’s a little tear-jerking when the beautiful but none-too-bright Buttercup stands up to her evil fiancé and declares: “there is a God, I know that. And there is love, I know that too; so Westley will save me.” If only it were that simple…

For those who have watched the film, it’s interesting to see just how well it intersects with the original novel. William Goldman wrote the screenplay, and The Princess Bride stands as one of those rare movie adaptations that not only does complete justice to the source material, but which over time becomes almost inseparable from it. Watching it again after reading the book, it’s apparent just how perfect the casting was for each character and how well the text and film compliment each other. I’d go so far to say that if you have one but not the other, you’re missing out on the full picture. In fact, the latest cover art portrays Westley and Buttercup as bearing a definite resemblance to actors Cary Elwes and Robin Wright.

There are some scenes from the book that didn’t make it into the film, such as background on Fezzik and Inigo’s pasts, but also some scenes in the film that did not appear in the book, most notably Inigo’s “guide my sword” moment as he tries to locate Westley. Some lines are directly quoted from page to film, though other bits and pieces have been changed around a little, for instance, I was amused that Westley’s famous line: “life is pain, anyone who says otherwise is selling something” originally belonged to (of all people) Fezzik’s mother.

The story is not necessarily for children — after the Fire Swamp the pacing slows considerably, and they certainly won’t find much interest in Goldman’s various asides and amendments. Likewise, discerning parents may be a little put off by the rather graphic descriptions of violence, torture and nightmares. The latest edition of the book contains a plethora of extra material, including not one but two introductions by Goldman (from the 25th and 30th anniversary of publication), a reading group guide, a map of Florin and Guilder, and the short-story sequel “Buttercup’s Baby,” which sheds extra light on our heroes whilst raising new questions in the process.

Essentially, The Princess Bride is a very simple story, told in a very simple way, but which is still revelatory. Ranging from touching to humorous, adventurous to romantic, tragic to nobly idealistic, it — like the film — is one of those stories that gets under your skin and stays a part of you, no matter how old or young you are when first experiencing it.

~Rebecca Fisher


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review William Goldman The Princess BrideWilliam Goldman is better known for his screenplays than his novels. The two-time Oscar award winning author wrote the screenplays for The Stepford Wives, All the President’s Men, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He is probably most recognized among current audiences for writing the screenplay for The Princess Bride, but most people who love that cult classic may not also know that the movie was originally a novel.

Unlike most books that are turned into movies, The Princess Bride stays remarkably true to the source material, with most of the dialog making the transition unaltered to the big screen.The Princess Bride contains all the elements of a great fairy tale and action adventure — fights, a beautiful princess, giants, pirates, torture, Rodents of Unusual Size, escapes, miracles, albinos, villains and “twue wuv.” When the Princess Buttercup is kidnapped before she can marry Prince Humperdinck, she needs someone to come to her rescue. But when that rescuer is actually the Dread Pirate Roberts, what does that mean for her future?

The Princess Bride is subtitled as an abridgment of the classic novel by S. Morgenstern. The book opens with a fictional autobiographical note from the author explaining how when he was a young child he fell very ill, and his father read him The Princess Bride multiple times while he recuperated. The book started his love affair with action books, and ultimately is responsible for him becoming a writer. When his own son turned ten years of age, he bought the same book for him and couldn’t figure out why his son hated it, until Goldman tried to read it himself. It turns out that his dad had read him “the good parts,” skipping all the political satire and history of the Florinese crown. So Goldman says he decided to create an abridged version, with just the good parts. (It isn’t really an abridgment, there is no original book; the abridgment idea is just a narrative device. I say that because the first time I read this book I really thought it was an abridgement of an early novel.)

Anyone familiar with the movie knows how the action is periodically interrupted by the grandfather commenting on the action. “She does not get eaten by the eels at this time.” Those interactions are modeled after Goldman breaking into the book to talk about what got cut and why, pontificating on the theme of the book, “Life isn’t fair,” and reminiscing about his reactions when he heard the book the first time. The authorial notes make the book worth reading, even if you have already seen the movie. They are humorous, at times sarcastic, and deeply emotional at other times. They transform the book into something a bit darker and more adult than the movie, and make The Princess Bride a book any reader can enjoy.

~Ruth Arnell


fantasy book review William Goldman The Princess BrideI love this book! Read it, then watch the wonderful movie!

~Kat Hooper


The Princess Bride by William GoldmanI assume everybody knows and loves The Princess Bride film by Rob Reiner, one of my favorite fantasy films back in 1987, when I was in 7th grade. I fondly recall Fred Savage sick in bed with crusty old Peter Falk as his grandfather reading the story to him, as well as the hilarious group of inept kidnappers Vizzini (Wallace Shawn), Fezzik (Andre the Giant), and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin, who I was shocked to realize plays the heavily-bearded CIA operative Saul in the TV series Homeland). The villains are equally great, as we learn to despise the pompous Prince Humperdink and cold but cowardly Count Rugen. And who could forget the brilliant cameo by Jason Crystal as Miracle Max? Finally, the love story of Westley and Buttercup was something that I loved but was afraid to admit to anyone at school. The humor and wholesome fun of the film is perfectly achieved by Rob Reiner, who is already canonized thanks to his brilliant rockumentary Spinal Tap. I was at the perfect age to form a lasting attachment to the film, and I watched it again with my family after reading this, quietly hoping my 13-year old daughter would like it just as much (turns out she saw it at school, so clearly her teacher has a soft spot for the movie as well). It’s the kind of story that begs to be passed down from parent to child, just like in the film.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWell, it took me 28 years to get around to reading the book by William Goldman, which has the imposing title The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, which is an abridgement of only ‘the good parts’. This narrative device posits that the Morgenstern book, which was written in the imaginary country of Florin in Europe, was read to Goldman as a child, but that the real book is a long-winded satire of European social practices and his grandfather wisely skipped over these parts in favor of the exciting bits about piracy, fencing, giants, intrigue, bravery, and true love.

It’s a clever conceit, and while some authors would adopt this just for a couple pages, Goldman takes this much further. In fact, my copy includes two long introductions for the 30th and 25th anniversaries of the book. You may start to wonder when you will actually get to the story of Westley and Buttercup (it’s about 50 pages in, if you’re curious). The introductions give an entertaining overview of the lasting popularity of the book and later the film, and how this has been Goldman’s most successful work.

When you get to the start of Goldman’s narrative, you really get to know about his (fictional) life, including his cold and brilliant psychiatrist wife Helen, and overweight son Jason. Goldman was told the story by his grandfather, and now wants to bridge the gap with his overweight son by carrying on the tradition. Sadly young Jason isn’t really interested and gives up after the first chapter (though he pretends to have read the whole thing). Our narrator quickly reveals that his family life is not a happy one, despite being a successful screenplay writer. As he says repeatedly, “life is not fair” and it’s a cruel joke to pretend that it is in fairly tales. But he still yearns for the sweet innocence of The Princess Bride. This part goes on for longer than you might expect, but Goldman is a fairly engaging narrator, not afraid to expose his less flattering side.

As for the story itself, the differences between the book and the film are not substantial, but there are more background details about Inigo, Fezzik, Westley and Buttercup. That is chiefly because after seeing his book get bounced around Hollywood studios for many years, Goldman decided to buy back the film rights and do the screenplay himself. Once he saw Rob Reiner’s Spinal Tap, he knew this was the perfect director for the book. Essentially the movie version is unchanged from the book, other than removing much of the framing narrative and changing the narrator from the jaded adult Goldman to the younger, more innocent youth hearing the story from his grandfather. I thought this was a wise decision, since it makes the narrator much more sympathetic and appealing to a younger audience.

The only downside to the book’s framing narrative by Goldman is that it doesn’t end when Westley and Buttercup head off into the sunset. Instead, we get a fairly long section that details what happens to Goldman when the old Morgenstern estate, which had been suing Goldman repeatedly over his plans to abridge the sequel, suddenly agrees to settle if he will simply agree to one small thing… allowing Stephen King to handle the abridgement! He is of course mortally offended by this lack of confidence. In the end, he talks to King and they agree that Goldman can do the abridgement, and the final 50 pages or so are the abridgement of the first chapter of the non-existent sequel Buttercup’s Baby, which I didn’t bother to read. Why would you start a book that has only one chapter?

The bottom line is, I didn’t mind the Goldman narrative while the actual story of The Princess Bride story was ongoing, but when that ended I didn’t see any point in continuing with it. It just seems quite self indulgent, and I have no interest in reading the first chapter of a book that will never exist. So really there are 100 superfluous pages in the book version that can be skipped if you don’t care about intros, the framing narrative, and Buttercup’s Baby. Since the book is very similar to the film, down to the actual lines of dialogue, I wonder whether you really need to read the book at all if you’ve seen and loved the movie. Then again, you can’t go wrong with either film or novel version if you are keen on a timeless romantic fantasy about high adventure and true love.

~Stuart Starosta

The Princess Bride — (1973) Young adult. Publisher: What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince of all time and he turns out to be… well… a lot less than the man of her dreams? As a boy, William Goldman claims, he loved to hear his father read the “S. Morgenstern classic, The Princess Bride”. But as a grown-up he discovered that the boring parts were left out of good old Dad’s recitation, and only the “good parts” reached his ears. Now Goldman does Dad one better. He’s reconstructed the “Good Parts Version” to delight wise kids and wide-eyed grownups everywhere. What’s it about? Fencing. Fighting. True Love. Strong Hate. Harsh Revenge. A Few Giants. Lots of Bad Men. Lots of Good Men. Five or Six Beautiful Women. Beasties Monstrous and Gentle. Some Swell Escapes and Captures. Death, Lies, Truth, Miracles, and a Little Sex. In short, it’s about everything. Eventually to be adapted for the silver screen, THE PRINCESS BRIDE was originally a beautifully simple, insightfully comic story of what happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince in the world — and he turns out to be a son of a bitch. Guaranteed to entertain both young and old alike by combining scenes of rowsing fantasy with hilarious reality, THE PRINCESS BRIDE secures Goldman’s place as a master storyteller.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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7 comments

  1. When I finally read The Princess Bride book I was very disappointed. It was long enough ago that I no longer remember the details, but I imagine it was for similar reasons that you mention here. One of the very few cases where I enjoyed the movie more than the book.

  2. I love both the book and the movie, but I give the movie an edge because of CARY ELWES!

  3. E.J. Jones /

    The bit about the abridgment and Buttercup’s Baby didn’t come with the original book. It was added for the 25th anniversary edition as an extra (I guess it was assumed that people who bought it had already read The Princess Bride). I do agree that reading all of it with the original 1973 story is a bit much, however.

  4. Jana and Kat, I can’t blame you for being fans of Cary Elwes. He was fantastic in every part of this film, and the chemistry with Robin Wright was electric as soon as he gave her his farmboy smirk and said “as you wish”, which really meant “I love you”.

    I was completely floored when I realized that Robin Wright plays the tough and ruthless wife of scheming congressman Kevin Spacey in the House of Cards TV series. She is so good, and shows she has incredible range after starting with the innocent young Buttercup almost 40 years ago.

  5. My family used to watch a fair few movies together when I was growing up. This one came up often! But isn’t it Billy Crystal who plays Miracle Max?

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