Could there ever be a better tale of winning love, fighting evil, pursuing evil and buckling swashes than The Princess Bride? Yeah, probably. But the movie is still a cult favorite today, and since I don’t want people coming after me with candles and ceremonial daggers and other cultish cutlery, I have to find a tactful way of trashing the book. Much like the Elixir of Life, the Loch Ness Monster, flying cars and universal wifi, mentioning in public that a movie might be better than its book runs the risk of having people cart you off to a hospital and giving you a coat with extra-long sleeves. Nevertheless, I’ve read the entire main story, some of the forwards and special messages, and the first few pages of the “sequel chapter,” Buttercup’s Baby, and I’m so underwhelmed with the story that I stopped writing in the middle of this sentence because cleaning up a backpack that my cat peed on sounded more interesting.
The Princess Bride, as a movie, is actually pretty good. I tried to pin down the class of people I remember from high school who would have heated it up and injected the film straight into their veins if they knew how. Of course there were the love-struck girls, the girls for whom torrid love affairs were a constant source of entertainment, the students of unknown sexuality (S.O.U.S.) who liked the idea of pretending to be straight while still dressing like a pirate, the drama students who routinely laugh in the face of copyright infringement by writing illegal stage adaptations, and the hipsters who just appreciate the witty dialogue. In fact, the film is so unobjectionable, that if we could capture its essence and spritz it around Washington D.C., we’d probably put an end to American politics as we know it.
So with such universal acclaim what does the book add to the experience? Short answer: about 400 pages and eight hours. Pretty much everything that happens in the film also happens in the book. Westley works on Buttercup’s farm until he declares his undying love by getting on a ship and sailing a few thousand miles away from her. Prince Humperdinck finds her, promotes her to princess, then plots to have her abducted and murdered because he’d rather start a war with a neighboring country than bang a hot chick every night. Westley returns to chase her abductors, gets captured and killed by Humperdinck. Fezzik and Inigo decide they’re so inept that they need help from a dead man, Miracle Max brings Westley back to life, then he saves the day.
There are cuts that were made for the movie, of course, but you could shave the gristle off of a steak and I’d miss it more. Rather than just Inigo’s back story, Goldman tells us about how Fezzik never wanted to be a wrestler. He repeats ad nauseum how much Humperdinck likes to hunt as though it were a vital piece of propaganda meant to sway the mindless masses. And Fezzik and Inigo have to fight their way through a Zoo of Death to save Westley, which mostly serves as an excuse to exchange a few wisecracks and play out a gag based on Fezzik’s hobby for rhyming.
But the major difference is the author, William Goldman’s biographical information about abridging the book, originally written by S. Morgenstern, that his father read to him as a child and that he wanted to adapt for his son Jason. These sections of the book are personal, sentimental, deeply meaningful, and completely fictional. Morgenstern, a contemporary of George McFly, Beedle the Bard and Kilgore Trout, is only slightly less fictional than the country he hails from. Goldman says he has a son, but in reality only had two daughters, meaning he talks about his children exactly the opposite way as would a disapproving father after his son came out of the closet. He also throws in stories and anecdotes about Hollywood and celebrities he’s met with all the veracity of a supermarket tabloid. The only thing he’s missing is a heavily photoshopped picture of a heroine addict he claims to be Andre the Giant after his stunning plastic surgery meant to fake his own death.
As the story goes, Goldman gave the book to Jason for his birthday, only to realize that his own father had heavily edited the story when reading it. Anyone who’s picked up classic literature will know that any highly respected author includes tangents so far off the main path of the story, they’re discovering new continents. Meanwhile, 21st century readers sit in utter confusion as to why they’re being asked to dwell on the spiritual philosophies inherent in whale lard for 200 pages. Morgenstern, apparently, is no exception, and Goldman constantly interrupts the story to tell us about a large section of text he cut out, and what is being described for how many pages and for what literary, satirical reason.
Now I have a master’s degree in English, I can recognize complex symbolism and metaphor on my first reading, and I pride myself in my skill for answering student questions with intelligent, well-thought out and meaningful arguments that I totally made up on the fly. But I have no fucking idea why Goldman wants us to know so much back story behind the story itself. His quest to eliminate long, irrelevant passages might ring a little more true if he didn’t replace them with even more long, irrelevant passages. Also, being more fictional exposition than fictional narration, it isn’t nearly as entertaining or—dare I say—meaningful as Columbo reading a fairy tale to the kid from the Wonder Years.