Monday, September 19, 2011

The Princess Bride and the Storyteller

My favorite movie is The Princess Bride. It has everything. To quote the storytelling grandfather in the movie, “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles . . .”

 What’s not to love? 

I shared this movie with my daughter when she was about ten, and it became her favorite too.  Like me, she knows the hidden meaning behind those three little words: “As you wish.” 

Every once in a while the subject of my favorite movie comes up, and people tell me I should read the book. William Goldman wrote the screenplay for The Princess Bride, which was based on his novel. I’ve been meaning to read it for decades, but never got around to it. Recently, I was participating in a Twitter chat for writers, when someone once again told me that I had to read the book. So I opened up my web browser to Amazon, found a used copy, and bought it on the spot.

Once it arrived in the mail, it sat on the shelf for a few weeks, because I was busy with other stuff. I had my own novel to edit, information about publishing and social media for writers to study and put into practice, and there were family obligations. But I kept seeing that book on the shelf. “Read me already,” it said.  

So I finally started to read it, and I told my Facebook friends they could stop pestering me about it already. That post received a lot of “likes,” but then someone warned me about the book.  

 While I knew many people who said it was their favorite book, I've also heard from many who said that the book isn't as good as the movie. I just didn’t know why. William Goldman wrote both, so how different could they be?

My Facebook friend explained: “The theme of the movie is ‘true love conquers all’ while the theme of the book is the more difficult and frank ‘life is not fair.’ One is a fairy tale and the other most definitely is not.


That almost put me off of reading the book.

But I started reading it anyway, and I discovered something rather surprising—William Goldman seems to have liked the movie better too.

I say this because the edition of The Princess Bride that I bought is the 30th anniversary edition, which includes both the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition and an even newer introduction.

First, to truly understand The Princess Bride, you must realize that this is a story within a story. The internal story of Buttercup, Westley, Inigo and Fezzik is almost identical in the movie and the book. Where the book and the movie differ is in the external story, the one about the storyteller and the audience. This is metafiction, and that’s probably one of the things I love the most about The Princess Bride

In the book, the storyteller is the character of William Goldman. Not the author, but the character. You can tell it’s the character, because in the book he has only one child, a boy named Jason, when in fact the real Goldman wrote The Princess Bride for his daughters. But that’s not all. The full title of the book is The Princess Bride, S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. In the book, William Goldman writes about how he came to abridge S. Morgenstern’s classic tale. However, S. Morgenstern doesn’t really exist. He’s as much a fictional character as Westley and company.

In the movie, a grandfather reads Morgenstern’s book to his sick grandson. Grandpa explains that this is the book his father used to read to him. At first the grandson is hesitant, but then he really gets into the story. In the very end of the movie, he asks Grandpa to come back and read the story again. Grandpa gets the final line in the movie, which is “As you wish.”

From a storyteller’s point of view, there could be no better ending. How could it end better than a request for more?

But the book doesn’t end that way.

Nor does it end with the much beloved last lines from the movie’s internal story: “Since the invention of the kiss there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind. The End.” That isn’t even in the book.

The book ends almost in the same place as the internal story, but with the storyteller pointing out that “in my opinion anyway, they squabbled a lot, and Buttercup lost her looks eventually, and one day Fezzik lost a fight and some hotshot kid whipped Inigo with a sword and Westley was never able to really sleep sound because of Humperdinck maybe being on the trail. . . . But I have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all."

That’s not exactly a fairy-tale kiss or an “as you wish.”

So why are the two endings different? And why do I think the real Goldman preferred the movie ending to the original novel’s ending, aside from the obvious answer, which is that Goldman wrote the screenplay years after he wrote the novel?

In the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition, Goldman—the character and the real author—talks a lot about the making of the movie, as well as some of the other movies he wrote. One of them was Marathon Man, which is a story involving a Nazi in New York City, a Nazi who kills and tortures some good people in the story. The Holocaust proves that life isn’t fair, but it’s fairer than death. It proves that it might be better to tell your children not to believe in fairy tales. One-and- a-half million children were killed by the Nazis, in part because these children believed that grownups don’t hurt children. They believed in that fairy tale, and the Nazis used it against them. Only those who could see beyond that fairy tale survived, and I think that might have been part of the reason for the novel’s original ending.  

But the storyteller in the original novel isn’t Grandpa. He’s a screenwriter named William Goldman, whose son Jason doesn’t want to read Morgenstern’s novel. The character of Goldman in the novel has fond memories of his father reading the story to him, but when he picks up the actual book, he discovers that his father had only read the good parts. So Goldman sets out to abridge Morgenstern’s tale, all the while commenting on what he left out, what his father left out or put in, and what he thinks of all of it. This matters a lot, because, as I’ve already said, the movie and the novel have almost the same internal story. It’s only this external story that changes.  

But in the introduction to the 30th anniversary edition, Goldman is now a grandfather. Not only that, he’s shared The Princess Bride with his grandson, who loves the story as much as his grandfather does. It took 30 years, but eventually the storyteller from the book evolved into the storyteller from the movie.

And although the novel still doesn’t end with “As you wish,” chronologically, it kind of does. Because chronologically, the most recent event, which is found in the 30th anniversary edition’s introduction, is Goldman offering to make his grandson’s birthday wish come true. “As you wish.” And what his grandson requests is something every Princess Bride fan dreams of: a trip to Florin to see the sword that was forged for the six-fingered man, Fezzik’s gigantic clothes, and many other wonders from the story. The grandson gets his wish, and we get to go along for the ride.    

But what about the theme, you ask? Is the theme different for the 30th anniversary edition too?

This edition has a few chapters from a supposed sequel to The Princess Bride, which is entitled Buttercup’s Baby. There’s not much of it here, but what is here is all about love, particularly the love we feel for our children. Fezzik loves Buttercup’s baby so much that he’s willing to give his life to protect little Waverly. That’s not romantic love, but it is true love.  

So in the end, while life isn’t fair, love makes it bearable. And that truly is love conquering all: the unfairness, the torturers, the Nazis, and even death.  


Stacy S. Jensen said...

I've never read the book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about it.

Shevi said...

Thanks, Stacy. If you do read the book, I hope it will be the most recent version.

Billy Elm said...

In his book 20 Master Plots, Ronald Tobias says "The public has a powerful drive for fairy tale (that is happy) endings. You already know that audiences have universally refused to accept GBS's unhappy ending to 'Pygmalion' and turned it into their own version called 'My Fair Lady'."
I think children especially need happy endings to build their capacity to hope, which is often lacking in the real world.

Shevi said...

Good point, Billy. I like hopeful endings.