SPOILER ALERT, prepare to be spoiled.
"Life isn't fair. It's just fairer than death, that's all."
One quarter adventure, one quarter comedy, another quarter fairy tale, and a final fourth romance. The Princess Bride is a hybrid pie in the grand tradition of the beach panana or the rueberry, whipped up by a prince of pastries.
Hungry for fiction on fiction on fiction? Here we have the friggin' Smith Island cake of fiction. Presenting the work as an abridgment of a novel by S. Morganstern. Goldman even includes false autobiographical material. (He was, in reality, inspired to pen the tale when his two young daughters requested stories about a princess and a bride, respectively. Moral of this story, let girls run at least a fair amount of the world.)
It's one of the most ingenious framing devices I've come across: Goldman's father read him Morganstern's masterpiece when young Will was beset by pneumonia. So when Goldman's own son is under the weather, he reaches for The Princess Bride and makes a stunning discovery--what his own father read to him all those years ago was not The Princess Bride. Well not entirely.
Morganstern's book was a lengthy satirical take on royal excesses (including one fifty-six page chapter devoted to luggage-packing). Mr. Goldman showed his son mercy by focusing instead on "the action stuff, the good parts." William, older and with a successful career as a writer, approaches a publisher about a "good parts" abridgment. Which is what--after forty pages or so--we are reading.
More or less. Goldman can't resist interjecting throughout, either to put Morganstern in context or to explain his own editorial decisions. This tangential trickery works (by which I mean, enhances the ostensible "main story") since Goldman is a writer gifted with dizzying wit and inventiveness.
In the Renaissance European nation of Florin (actually the name of a currency used throughout the continent from the 13th to 16th centuries) lives a farm girl named Buttercup. Life should be ideal for a Top 20 Most Beautiful Woman in the World, but her parents have a notoriously combative union that helps explain her status as an only child, so she chooses to avoid them whenever possible, riding horses and bickering with dashing farmhand Westley who falls into the "true love" after mere weeks.
When the Count and Countess bless the farm with their presence, the latter makes little secret of her attraction to the farmhand. Buttercup is beset upon by a top five wave of jealousy, and finally lets Westley know the depths of her feelings. True love! It can wait until it cannot!
Westley heads out into the world to earn his fortune and be worthy of such a fine young woman. After several years pass with no word whatsoever, a bitter and passionless Buttercup agrees to wed Prince Humperdinck. Before the wedding can go down, Buttercup is captured by hired goons Vizzini, Fezzik and Inigo Montoya, with the aim of instigating a war between Florin and Gilder. Westley--under the guise of the Dread Pirate Roberts--comes to the fair maiden's rescue.
If you know the movie, you knew all of that, and you know the rest of the book. More or less.
You know Vizzini is a Sicilian blowhard who fancies his mind one of the master type. You know Inigo is on the hunt for a six-fingered daddy slayer. You know Fezzik is big and silly. There are duels, dramatic set pieces of fantastical construction, and logic-defying acts of uncommon bravery. And thanks to a decreased remove between writer and reader, you don't know much of anything.
Basically, Papa Goldman took a boring if artful cultural satire out to lunch, plied it with mead, and gave the leftovers to his son. That's nice, but it's not a whole meal. Is that bad? Depends. Satire tends to be wasted on the young. Whereas, everyone loves a good romance with plenty of action.
William Goldman is the ultimate Unreliable Narrator. He tells us constantly about his son, when in fact he had daughters. He also reminisces about working on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which he provably did. Westley and Buttercup are an all-time love story, but only because Goldman says they are. The Princess Bride ends happily, but only because Goldman says it does.
And because I want to believe him.
"Anybody want a peanut?"
One of the most fondly-remembered movies of humanity's greatest decade is a love story, through and through. It's a breezy adventure set in the Middle Ages. It's a revenge fable. But the heartbeat underneath the action never slows.
William Goldman was brought on to adapt his own work. Smart move the first. Goldman brought over as much of the framing device of the novel as possible. Smart move the second. Goldman retained much of the plot. Smart move the third.
It's a blast watching Westley and Buttercup bedeviled first by hired goons of varying threat, then by lightning sand and "Rodents of Unusual Size." Not so much a blast when I realized Buttercup is lamentably more passive here. (If your girl can't put up a fight in the face of ginormous rats, maybe she shouldn't be your girl.)
But the good guys win because love wins and good guys aren't afraid to love.
Love, that which transcends the human construct of class. Love, that which surpasses the human failing of vanity. Love transforms Westley from strapping farmhand to the swashbuckling "Dread Pirate Roberts." He can out-duel and/or outwit anyone. (That Buttercup, she sure built him up. Ha. Ha ha. Charlie Brown wall of HAs. Oh Lord, I'm sorry.)
Doesn't mean lovers should carry a movie. Smart move the fourth. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright do very well, but then consider Wallace Shawn (who makes Vizzini a right bumptious blowhard. This? Totally his idea.) or Mandy Patinkin (who is clearly loving every other minute of the Inigo-portraying experience). Hell, you'd better consider Andre the Giant as lovable behemoth Fezzik. (You think Paul Wigt can do anything akin to what Andre does here? You can go fall down a weeellllll!)
Billy Crystal can't even maim the joy, that is how great this movie is.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Faithful to the source's sardonic wit, deadpan delivery and message of "Love conquers all, or at least most…all right, love conquers quite a lot," The Princess Bride is terrifically acted, deftly directed, splendidly paced--and still clearly inferior to the book.
This is no fault of Rob Reiner. He and Goldman deserve bushels of huzzahs for turning a masterwork of meta-fiction into a buoyant, but the latter's aptitude with text surpasses the former's with film. This film does not have layers, which is only a knock against it in the context of this review series.
You will come across many who are of the opinion that the movie damn near equals the source, or even edges it out, and I can get why they feel that way.
And I can't deny, some things actually are better seen than described, such as a comically-overgrown "Turk" with a predilection for hurling rocks and rocking rhymes.
Still…no Zoo of Death? Boo of Death. The mental image of Andre, face contorted in arachnophobic panic, crashing through a door….
MIND THE GAP
The Princess Bride by William Goldman is a feat. An actual factual literary feat. The Princess Bride by Rob Reiner is a lush, bright, hilarious treat. So is a slice of lemon meringue pie with a cube of hash in the middle.
What a writer considers vital to their story, what information a reader needs to know, The Princess Bride plays hide-and-go-fuck-yourself with all that. Goldman skewers the publishing industry, the movie industry, weaving fact with fiction, at the same time he skewers an entire form of literature.
The movie is just really damn great.