The Princess Bride

by William Goldman

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What elements make "The Princess Bride" a fairy tale and what elements do not?

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The quality that most sets the film version of The Princess Bride apart from the fairy-tale genre is its humor. The humor in the film varies from the ridiculous to the satirical, which are not adjectives that describe most typical fairy tales.

Some of the most ridiculous moments in the film involve funny words or tones of voice, and the success of these moments relies on the skill of the actors playing the funny parts. For example, two characters in the film, the clergyman and Vizzini, use silly-sounding manners of speech to get laughs. Their mispronunciations and their style of speaking are not laughable in and of themselves, but they can be entertaining when juxtaposed against events like the wedding or the poison-drinking contest that would seemingly require more formal speechmaking.

The humor in the film also mocks the melodramatic tone that sometimes characterizes fairy tales containing darker themes like revenge and death by poison. For example, when Wesley is tortured in the film, the magician who saves him from death makes light of Wesley's injuries for comic effect, describing Wesley's condition as "mostly dead." This satirical approach to fairy-tale telling does not take matters of life, death and torture too seriously.

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What an interesting question! It's generally assumed that The Princess Bride is a fairy-tale movie, particularly given the name, which alludes to an event common to many fairy tales: the wedding of a princess. However, in order to properly assess whether the film really is a fairy tale, we need to ascertain what a fairy tale is.

To begin with, a fairy tale is a fictional story, which The Princess Bride definitely is. Fairy tales also usually involve royalty, clearly defined heroes and villains, elements of magic, and a happy ending. In all of these ways, The Princess Bride adheres to the defined model. It also contains the common trope of a person being lifted out of poverty due to particular "good" traits and chosen to marry into royalty.

However, one major part of what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale is missing from this film. Most fairytales are folk tales, stories that have been told for centuries by parents to their children. The Princess Bride is not a story we have all heard many times before. Although it draws from the tradition of fairy tales, it is a new story in its own right.

We can also argue that "good" and "evil" are not as clearly defined in this story as we would expect from a traditional fairy tale. Inigo Montoya, in particular, is responsible for kidnapping our heroine, but he elicits the audience's sympathy to a certain extent because of the backstory he is given. Furthermore, the film does not end with the heroine happily married to her prince—on the contrary, she does not want to marry the prince; her love interest is a pirate, albeit a good one, and the wedding ceremony we do see is declared invalid. While The Princess Bride draws many elements from fairy tales, then, it also subverts these elements, toying with the audience's expectations to generate humor.

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Fairy tales are a unique genre, and the film version of The Princess Bride contains many of the elements that set fairy tales apart from other kinds of folk tales.

First of all, fairy tales often have a bit of romance in them. In this film, Princess Buttercup and Wesley have a love that is challenged, but ultimately, their love overcomes all the difficulties they face.

Additionally, fairy tales sometimes have dark themes and subtexts that are mitigated by the fanciful nature of the romance. In The Princess Bride, Montoya is seeking revenge for the murder of his father, and there are duels to the death; though the film treats these events lightheartedly, they are serious and can be scary to ponder.

Finally, fairy tales usually have clearly defined heroes and villains. In The Princess Bride, Wesley is a fairly uncomplicated hero despite his past as a pirate. He is good-looking, funny, and courageous. Princess Buttercup is lovely and in distress, and her need for a hero is clear. The villains are also obviously evil, like Prince Humperdinck, who wants to kill the princess rather than love her and respect her.

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Great movie!  Easily makes my top 5 favorite of all time.   I would definitely say it has more in common with fairy tales than not.  

For example, the film has a clear division of good vs. evil.  It's clear that Wesley is good and trying to do good, and it's clear that the six fingered man is trying to do evil.  Fairy tales also tend to focus on royalty in some way.  That is true of the film as well.  Buttercup is a princess, and she is in a situation where a royal wedding is going to take place. I would say the most obvious fairy tale element within the film is the presence of magic and mysticism. That's the main function of Miracle Max and his wife.  The story also ends with the standard happily ever after ending.    

The parts of the film that are not like standard fairy tales are fewer.  One example is that the hero is wearing black.  That color motif is generally reserved for identifying the main "bad guy."  While all fairy tales have some sort of conflict, The Princess Bride is definitely darker in its tone.  Sure the film is light hearted, but there is a lot of violence and emphasis on killing.  That type of thing exists in other fairy tales, but not to the extent that it is exists in the movie.  I would also make the argument that Wesley isn't as "pure" a hero character as other fairy tale heroes.  He is the current Pirate Roberts, but he is not the original.  He has assumed the title and will pass it down to another.  In essence, Wesley is knowingly perpetuating a lie. 

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