Few movies pull at all emotions quite like “The Princess Bride,” a fantasy movie from 1987 that has become a cult classic for its particular sense of humor, its blending of romance and action and its enduring list of quotable material. The movie’s passionate fan base has spurred one of its stars, Cary Elwes, to write a book about the making of the film; “As You Wish” has been among the national best-sellers for the past month or so that it’s been on the shelves.
The movie was written by William Goldman, the same man who wrote the source book. There are two quirks about this fact: 1.) Goldman doesn’t call himself the story’s creator; instead, he claims, on the official title and in the text of the book itself, that he is abridging the story from one S. Morgenstern. And 2.) The movie famously frames its narrative around a grandfather reading the story to his sick grandson, played by child star Fred Savage. This concept is borrowed from the book itself, as Goldman (or at least, the character of Goldman) begins with a prologue of how his father read the book to him when he was a boy, an event that kick-started his love for adventure stories.
The actual story told in the two versions is fairly simple: a beautiful teenage girl named Buttercup falls in love with her farm boy, Westley, who is shortly after thought to have been killed at sea by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Years later, she is set to be married to the secretly sadistic Prince Humperdinck, who is plotting to have her killed as an excuse to go to war with their rival country. Buttercup is captured by a group of three men, but they are all beaten in turn by the pursuing Roberts, who turns out to be Westley. Before he can whisk Buttercup away on his ship, however, he is overtaken by Humperdinck, who temporarily spares his life at Buttercup’s behest, but he hands Westley over to his trusted ally, Count Rugen, an expert in pain who tortures Westley to the point of (mostly) death. He also happens to be the target of a vendetta by one of the men who helped kidnap Buttercup, a Spanish sword master named Inigo Montoya, who reunites with his giant friend Fezzik to rescue Westley, revives him with the help of a miracle man, sieges the castle on the prince’s wedding night, kills the count to avenge his father and helps Westley save Buttercup and escape the castle.
… All right, so the intricacies can be a little convoluted. But the story purposefully deals in basic ideas — true love, revenge, friendship, action, evil nobles against good commoners — with a sense of humor and self-referential silliness that make for a light-hearted tale that can appeal to a variety of audiences. At least, the movie does.
Oh sure, the book contains a lot of goofy moments. Goldman frames his book as an abridgement of an older text, so he inserts “his own notes” into portions of the story when “the original Morgenstern” gets too caught up in things that bored Goldman as a child, such as taking out 60 pages of subtle commentary on Florinese royal ritual and occasionally interjecting with a recollection of when his father read him the story. The original Morgenstern also contains some amusing parenthetical notes, mostly trying to argue that the anachronistic items or ideas used in the story are not, in fact, anachronistic at all.
But the movie latches on to these moments and weaves them throughout its structure. It was not an expensive production, so the sets, locations and props are hard to take too seriously. So the catchy and quirky dialogue (most of which comes straight from the book, to the source’s credit) comes off as a lot more fun than it does in the book, which takes more turns toward the dark. Those darker moments in the movie (Westley’s torture, the battle with the R.O.U.S.s, “to the pain”) are a change of pace, but they’re followed up fairly quickly by a lighter scene, something that takes longer to get to in the book.
There’s also a lot more doubt between Westley and Buttercup about the seriousness of their relationship and whether it is wise to trust each other when they spent so much time apart. These portions are an example of how character development is stronger in the book. Inigo and Fezzik also receive extended backstories in the book, and they are well told. But they also interrupt the flow of the narrative for extended periods of time, and while it might take multiple viewings of the movie to catch those backstories, the movie moves along much more naturally and with a lot more levity.
And that’s the real key to the movie: It is a ton of fun. Ask 20 fans of the movie what their favorite scene is, and you’re likely to get 10 or 15 different moments. A lot of this comes down to the acting: Everybody, even the villains, has their own particular charm, and the chemistry just flies off the screen. It’s hard to pick just one scene that encapsulates the whole nature of the film, but this one does as well as any other. It pretty much goes exactly the way it does in the book, except it has a unique style and meta humor that captured the hearts of movie renters.
All in all, the movie contains much more charm than the original, and although the book has plenty of good points, pretty much everything that it shares in the movie fits more naturally on film.