The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Del Rey, 1973, 283 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-34803-6

Ask around for opinions about THE PRINCESS BRIDE (the film), and you’ll get almost-unanimous agreement; everyone loved it to pieces. Many people will repeat snatches to the dialogue verbatim, from “Inconceivable!” to “My Name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!” While no one is too sure about who played who in the film (except for André the Giant, who everyone remembers), everyone who’s seen THE PRINCESS BRIDE loves it.

I’m no exception, though I remember liking the first half of the film a lot more than the second half, where the protagonist became as useful as a bag of potatoes and the tale slogged on despite, rather than because, of him. Still; you can’t beat lines like “You made one of the great mistakes; not ‘you shall not wage a land war in Asia’, but the other one!”

In any case, I was quite happy to be able to snap a mint copy of The Princess Bride at an used-book sale. Funny as the movie was, it was probably nothing compared to the mordant prose of William Goldman.

It turns out that while the book does indeed have more punchlines than the film, it shares with it a noticeable slowdown in the end.

One aspect of The Princess Bride that wasn’t possible to explore in the film is the whole metafictional conceit of the book. Goldman starts with a long (29 pages) introduction in which he details how his father read him S.G. Morgenstein’s “The Princess Bride” when he was young (that part is in the film), but when he tried giving it to his son, the result was unreadable (this part isn’t) so Goldman set out to re-edit the original so that it contained only the good parts. The following book is peppered with breaks from “Morgenstein”’s narrative in which Goldman explains his editing choices.

This makes The Princess Bride‘s parody of fairy tales a bit more obvious, not to mention an extra opportunity to insert modern punchlines to a historical tale. It adds another level of content as Goldman wiggles out of some difficult scenes or casually mentions some ludicrous “original” content. (“Morgenstein opens this chapter with sixty-six pages of Florinese history” [P.59])

In any case, the first half of The Princess Bride is pure fun to read and (on potential alone) would rank as one of the funniest books of any year. But unfortunately, Goldman takes the deconstruction a step too far and saps vital energy out of the tale.

I had always felt, while watching the film, that to make the protagonist physically useless halfway through the tale was a mistake. It removed the story’s most interesting character out of the action and placed too much emphasis on the secondary players. Yes, it so provided more obstacles for our heroes to overcome… but the way it was handled, it always seemed like a boring cheat to me. This is alleviated, somewhat, in the book (it’s not as visually ridiculous), but is emblematic of the flagging interest of the second half.

But then, alas, the ending… One of the most common errors in parodying a genre is to remove the qualities that make it so entertaining, by accident or design. One of the strengths of fairy tales, for instance, is the unwavering happy ending. (Pedantic note: We’re talking about modern Disneyesque fairy tales, not the grim Brother Grimm versions, in which social behaviour lessons were an integral part of the plot and body-counts rivalled today’s horror films.) While The Princess Bride isn’t exactly a downer by any means, it doesn’t end on a rightfully triumphant note, drowned as it is in Goldman’s heavy-handed “life isn’t fair” refrain.

Still, I’d be a chump to keep you from rushing out and getting The Princess Bride. A wonderful book despite its flaws. And if you haven’t seen the film yet, well, what’s your excuse?

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