The Princess Bride – William Goldman

I hereby solemnly swear (my word as a Spaniard) not to commit the cliché of using the “I” word in this review, in any context.

And once again: it’s been ages since I read this. So very long. So – many thanks to the #GeekGirls Book Club (also here) for making this the December book – it might have been another age before I got around to it again.

I remember the sheer and utter delight of reading something that hadn’t been butchered in the film version – which has, of course, much to do with the fact that William Goldman wrote the screenplay. I’m sure it’s been said before that if this book is the “Good Parts Version” of S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure (which, in case there’s somehow, bizarrely, any question, is fictional) (there’s no such person as S. Morgenstern) (just saying), the movie is the “Good Parts Version” of this book. The book is lovely – but my first love was the movie. (Reading the pertinent section: What do you mean sharks? They were shrieking eels! I’m telling you, you’re messing up the story! Now get it right! ) I’m ashamed to say that it took some time for the book to grab hold of me this time. But once I was hooked I was well and truly hooked, and loved every minute.

I remember seeing it in the theatre: it was one of those movies whose commercials hit every right button and exerted a strong dragging force toward the nearest cinema. But my sister and I dithered or were busy or what-have-you, and finally went to see it a couple of weeks into the run. It was only playing in Southington, and Southington, for me at least, is a terrible, terrible place, by which I mean I’ve never been there but I got very, very lost. Not merely lost – where-the-hell-am-I hours-and-hours lost. And, yes, that night we got lost. A little. It wasn’t me driving, so it was just a little. And we were a bit late – not hours and hours, since I wasn’t driving – and when we went into the theatre the previews were over and it was pitch dark. We stopped dead just inside the doors, and one of us said she hoped we didn’t sit on anyone, and we gingerly made our way on in and sat down. And when the screen cast some more light on the audience we laughed, because we would have had to have tried to sit on someone: there were two other people in the place.

It was an instant addiction, and we both quoted it inaccurately for months until the VHS came out (or we could see it on HBO, whichever came first), and then we quoted it incessantly and more correctly. I was thrilled when I discovered the book, and devoured it immediately. But I think I’ve only read the book the once, whereas I watch the movie fairly regularly.

And then when I started wandering about online I came to find that The Princess Bride is the gold standard of geekdom. Whatever else you’re a fan of, if you’re a geek you know TPB. Whatever your accomplishments or abilities (or lack thereof), if you can answer “Stop it now! I mean it!” appropriately, you’re acceptable. If you can do the whole “Bye bye boys!” scene, you’re good. If you can do the whole iocaine powder sequence verbatim, or perhaps Miracle Max’s scene in its entirety, then you have indeed reached a pinnacle.

Sadly, I think my problem with the book is that there is no “Stop it now! I mean it!” moment, as such. Fezzik rhymes, yes, but not then and there – and that is symptomatic of why it took me weeks to make my way through the first third of The Good Parts Version. The whole scene surrounding “I don’t think it means what you think it means”, for example, is much wordier and less streamlined than the movie scene; that happens several times, and it’s a revelation to see how much is done with a look or one line in the film that takes a paragraph in the book. That was what took so long to get used to, Goldman’s chatty, Oy Vey style; at times it was a little like Miracle Max telling the whole story – only not quite as whiplash funny. Still funny, very (“The Sicilian Crowd (two was company, three a crowd, even then)”), but paced very differently. For example, the simple line “Unemployed? In Greenland?” was far more succinct and simple (and funny) than the explanation in the book. The upshot: the book is outstanding – but the screenplay’s editing of the book is genius. The scenes that did not survive into the film feel like DVD bonus features – Oo! A long deleted scene where Fezzik and Inigo have to make their way through the Zoo of Death!

On the other hand, with a little more room for expansion and exploration than the movie affords, we get to know Buttercup’s parents and Fezzik’s parents, and also Domingo Montoya (a book line I plan to use: “‘You’re an enemy of art and I pity your ignorance,’ Domingo said.”); we see how Inigo got the scars and the vendetta. And the overall theme – life is not fair – can be taken more seriously than the book (or film) readily allows.

“Life is pain,” [Fezzik’s] mother said [a line appropriated by the Dread Pirate Roberts in the film]. “Anybody that says different is selling something.”

Goldman says when someone explained this to him when he was young, he rejoiced – and I love that. There’s a certain weight taken off your shoulders when suddenly it’s made clear in no uncertain terms that: Life Is Not Fair. It’s not supposed to be. It’s not meant to be. You can stop being disappointed by the steady stream of crap life throws at you, and embrace reality: Life Is Fundamentally Unjust. Any fairness you happen to come across is either accidental or a state that was fought for and hard-won, and transient (or bought). The stories lie. A gentler way to put that is that the stories are not true, they’re fairy tales, illustrations of what might be or might have been or never will be – but the core of it is that the stories lie. The wrong people get married. The wrong people get the wrong jobs. The wrong people die.

Fortunately, in Florin there are Miracle Men who can help with that.

However, Miracle Men – and others – make mistakes. That’s life.

Purity and loss of innocence are deeply underscored in the novel. Where the film was mostly a marvelously fun comic fantasy, the book digs a bit deeper, bites a little harder. I’m not about to commit an attempt at literary exploration of the themes; I’ll leave that for the experts. Where I can speak from authority is on my own experience. The movie never made me well up when the boy demands to know “Who gets Humperdinck?” To which the response is, of course, “Nobody.” It’s like William Goldman’s fictional(?) epiphany about life not, in fact, being fair. The incontrovertible fact that Prince Humperdinck richly deserves, in fact needs to be “got” does not, in fact, mean that he will be “got”. Humiliated, beaten, stripped of the success of his plans and of some allies and of his prized Whites and so on, yes. Killed as he so richly deserves, which would be a satisfaction on a par to that felt when Count Rugen gets his? No. Sorry, kid. I really am sorry.

Changing tacks: Fezzik in the book (not in the movie though) kept reminding me of someone, and it was after his reunion with Inigo that it struck me who that is. Fezzik is Pooh Bear. He is the self-proclaimed bear of very little brain, not learned or very quick thinking, but not ashamed of his lack, and possessed of an unexpected level of wisdom. (This would make Vizzini … Rabbit, perhaps? And I think Inigo must be Christopher Robin. Humperdinck might be a Heffalump.)

It would be very easy to render this review as a sort of left-handed compliment, to hold it up against the unimaginably wonderful movie it spawned and let it fade a bit in the comparison. But I am not left-handed, and, in the end, this retains its adoring five-star rating.

Guilder. Not, as I've seen it, "Gilda". That's a whole 'nother story.

Relevant links:

What happens when you request the Reunion Scene

What you get when you request the Reunion Scene

And of course I have a quotes page


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