Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1862
Author: William Goldman (b. 1931)
First published: 1973
Director: Rob Reiner (b. 1947)
Screenplay by: William Goldman
Starring: Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, Chris Sarandon, Peter Falk, Fred Savage
During the 1980s, fantasy films experienced a boom in popularity among moviegoers, and films in that genre were common in American movie theaters. Some of these films, such as Legend (1985) and Willow (1988), were set entirely in fantasy worlds, while others, such as The NeverEnding Story (1984) and Labyrinth (1986), bridged the gap between the real world and a fantasy realm. The 1987 film The Princess Bride is unique in that it does not truly fall into either category; rather, the film features a fantasy narrative nested within a real-world frame narrative that grounds the comedic yet high-stakes fantasy action in reality.
Much like the film, the 1973 novel The Princess Bride blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Although written entirely by novelist and screenwriter William Goldman, the novel is ostensibly the creation of S. Morgenstern, a writer from the fictional European country of Florin. Goldman presents himself as the abridger of what the title page describes as “S. Morgenstern's classic tale of true love and high adventure,” claiming that he has retained only the “good parts” of the narrative while eliminating various long digressions on subjects such as Florin's history and politics. By excising such sections, Goldman supposedly transformed the novel from a lengthy political satire into a romantic, adventure-filled tale about a beautiful young woman named Buttercup, who agrees to marry the scheming Prince Humperdinck after her true love, Westley, is presumed killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts. When Prince Humperdinck hires three men to abduct and kill Buttercup and frame the rival country of Guilder, Westley—who, rather than being killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, has instead taken on his mantle—makes it his mission to save her. He ultimately allies himself with two of the abductors, Inigo Montoya and Fezzik, to defeat Prince Humperdinck and his right-hand man, Count Rugen. Goldman periodically interrupts the narrative to prove brief glosses of excised sections and other editorial comments. The abridgement conceit extends even to Goldman's introduction, in which he not only presents a fictionalized tale of the book's development but also includes a completely fictional depiction of his family life.
When it came time to adapt The Princess Bride for the screen, Goldman was an ideal candidate for the job, having previously won two Academy Awards for his screenplays, one for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and the other for his adaptation of All the President's Men (1976). The Princess Bride was directed by Rob Reiner, a filmmaker and actor who had previously directed the critically acclaimed film Stand by Me (1986) as well as the cult comedy This Is Spinal Tap (1984). Although he was well known for his dramas, Reiner would become equally known for his comedies, of which The Princess Bride is a particularly notable example.
As both a novelist and a screenwriter, Goldman was uniquely suited to adapting The Princess Bride, a novel with a distinctive spirit and brand of humor that could easily have been lost had the task of adapting the book fallen into the wrong hands. Remaining faithful to the original work was of great importance. At the same time, however, some elements of the book that were effective in the context of a literary work were essentially unfilmable. In adapting the novel, Goldman had to strike a careful balance, retaining elements of the novel's unique character while reshaping the narrative to one better suited to the screen.
The film begins in the real world, as a young boy (Fred Savage) is recovering from an illness. His grandfather (Peter Falk) visits and begins to read him the book The Princess Bride. The main narrative of the film continues on from this point, with occasional interruptions by the boy or the grandfather. For example, during a romantic scene between Buttercup (Robin Wright) and Westley (Cary Elwes) early in the film, the boy interrupts his grandfather and asks suspiciously, “Is this a kissing book?” Later, when Buttercup is in danger of being attacked by shrieking eels, the grandfather pauses his story and reassures the boy, “She doesn't get eaten by the eels at this time.” Such brief interruptions both remind the viewer of the underlying conceit and add comedic or touching moments in keeping with the original novel's tone.
The scenes featuring the boy and his grandfather form a frame narrative that surrounds the main plot of the film. A number of 1980s fantasy films mixed fantasy scenes with scenes set in the real world, and The Princess Bride is a prime example of this trend. However, the film's frame narrative serves a significantly more important purpose than merely conforming to trends in the genre. Among the most notable potential challenges in adapting The Princess Bride was capturing the conceit that the novel is an existing work that was abridged by Goldman. In adapting the novel for the screen, Goldman could have opted to eliminate that conceit altogether and instead written a straightforward fantasy screenplay. However, doing so would have eliminated much of the novel's unique character, and the film's overall adherence to the novel indicates that doing so would be counter to Goldman's goal. At the same time, interspersing the fantasy narrative with interruptions by the writer abridging the story would be a strange choice for a film.
Thus, rather than reproducing this conceit completely in the film, Goldman instead incorporates a portion of the novel's introduction into the film, adapting it to form the frame narrative. In his heavily fictionalized introduction to the novel, Goldman claims that he was first introduced to the novel The Princess Bride as a child, when his father, an immigrant from Florin, read the book to him while he was recovering from pneumonia. As the novel contained numerous parts not of interest to a young boy, the father abridged the novel as he read, eliminating the political satire and historical digressions and retaining the adventure and romance. Goldman explains that he followed his father's example in abridging the novel, keeping his own son in mind as the potential reader. As such, the novel features various interjections by Goldman. At the beginning of the second chapter, “The Groom,” for example, Goldman includes a note stating that he has chosen to cut most of the chapter, as it dealt not with the titular groom, Prince Humperdinck, but with “sixty-six pages of Florinese history” (67). In fact, Goldman's entire story about his childhood experience with The Princess Bride and his later efforts to abridge the novel is fictitious; the country of Florin does not exist, Goldman has two daughters rather than a son, and the entire novel was written by Goldman himself. However, Goldman's fictionalized childhood provided the inspiration for the frame narrative, with the grandfather taking on the role of Goldman's father and the boy representing Goldman himself.
In addition to featuring a frame narrative that echoes the fictionalized origin of the novel, Goldman's screenplay captures the heart of the novel's main plot while streamlining it for the film. The novel features a number of segments that provide information about certain characters' motivations and backstories through flashbacks or other digressions. For example, the book's fifth chapter features two lengthy sections detailing the origins of Inigo and Fezzik, chronicling through flashbacks the former's quest for revenge against the man who murdered his father and the latter's career as a professional fighter. The film, however, does not feature such flashbacks and devotes minimal time to providing backstory for Fezzik (André the Giant). A bit more attention is given to Inigo (Mandy Patinkin), who provides a brief explanation of his quest to Westley prior to their fight at the Cliffs of Insanity. Although it concerns a secondary character rather than the protagonists, this particular bit of backstory is essential to the main narrative, as the murderer Inigo seeks is revealed to be Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), crony of the villainous Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). While including only the essential details about Inigo and Fezzik's lives in the film does render them somewhat less developed than their novel counterparts, doing so also eliminates the need for lengthy flashbacks that could potentially distract from the core plot.
At the end of the film, Buttercup and Westley flee Prince Humperdinck's palace on white horses and, their escape successful, ultimately share a passionate kiss. The novel's conclusion, however, is quite different: although Buttercup, Westley, and their allies escape the palace successfully, Humperdinck and his men give chase, “and the night behind them [i]s filled with the crescendoing sound of pursuit” (327). In a note just before that ending, Goldman explains that he long believed that the book had a more traditional ending in which Buttercup and Westley lived happily ever after, as that is how his father told the story when he first read the novel to the young Goldman. In ending the film in such a fashion, Goldman not only provides the sort of ending expected of such a narrative but also echoes his original work, demonstrating once again that a film adaptation can differ significantly from the original work while still capturing its spirit.
As a unique film mixing elements of fantasy, comedy, and romance, The Princess Bride was a difficult film to market. In his 2014 book As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, written with Joe Layden, Cary Elwes notes that the poster for the film depicted Savage and Falk as the grandson and grandfather and did not give any indication that it was a fantasy film. Despite such marketing difficulties, The Princess Bride proved to be a modest financial success following its US release in the fall of 1987, grossing nearly US$31 million domestically. Critical response to the film was mixed, with some reviewers expressing confusion regarding the film's mix of genres and its offbeat sensibility. Nevertheless, a number of critics praised the film's mixture of comedy and fantasy action, deeming it suitable for both adults and children. While The Princess Bride was only modestly successful when it was first released, it found a significant cult following over the subsequent decades, becoming widely considered one of the most significant comedies of the 1980s.
- Ebert, Roger. Rev. of The Princess Bride, dir. Rob Reiner. RogerEbert.com. Ebert Digital, 9 Oct. 1987. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-princess-bride-1987>.
- Greene, Richard, and Rachel Robison-Greene, eds. The Princess Bride and Philosophy: Inconceivable! Chicago: Open Court, 2016. Print. Popular Culture and Philosophy 98.
- Maslin, Janet. Rev. of The Princess Bride, dir. Rob Reiner. New York Times. New York Times, 25 Sept. 1987. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9B0DE2D8133DF936A1575AC0A961948260>.
- Elwes, Cary, and Joe Layden. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride. New York: Touchstone, 2014. Print.
- Goldman, William. The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure; The “Good Parts” Version, Abridged. 1973. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007. Print.
- “The Princess Bride.” Box Office Mojo. IMDB.com, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=princessbride.htm>.