Odds and Ends Shelf: The Princess Bride

“But from a narrative point of view, in 105 pages nothing happens. Except this: ‘What with one thing and another, three years passed.'”

The Princess Bride was a prominent movie during my childhood and the childhood of a lot of people my age, and why wouldn’t it be? It told a simple, charming story at a good pace, with just the right type and amount of self-awareness to make the audience feel chummy with the film without diminishing the stakes. Fred Savage’s character, a sick child whose grandfather is reading the story to him, telegraphs the reaction director Rob Reiner and author William Golding expect young boys to have to the movie, but by the time I realized how blatant it was, I was already fond of the movie and nodded in agreement. In other words, despite being faithful to the parts of The Princess Bride it adapts, the movie and the book feel much different.

If anything, the main character of the original book is William Golding himself, portraying himself as someone abridging the work of the fictional author Simon Morgenstern, who translated historical events of his fictional homeland, Florin, into a work of literature. If Golding is to be believed, Morgenstern’s original work is at its core the tightly-paced adventure portrayed in the movie, but it’s bogged down with tangents that Golding’s grandfather left out when he was reading it out loud. Like someone who was introduced to the actual Princess Bride via the movie and picked up the book decades later, he didn’t realize what got lost in translation, and endeavors to keep it lost so that people like his son can get the same experience with it that he did.

The experience plays out like one of the most unique examples of an unreliable narrator story I’ve seen. Maybe it wasn’t originally intended to be so, but the clue that kept me from taking Golding at his word comes in the afterword dealing with the fragment of a sequel, Buttercup’s Baby, where Stephen King, still in the context of Morgenstern and Florin being real, complains about an omission that Golding’s comedic interjections to the original text never mentioned. Without the afterword, the impression Golding gives of Morgenstern’s novel is that there are only a few places in the book where a straightforward adventure is interrupted for long periods with dry literary sections that would only be funny to a select niche of scholars. It’s hard to imagine any book with that structure being a success with anyone, or having the transitions between those styles of writing being smooth, but that one clue makes me think that Golding’s notes on what he changed bend the truth in order to justify those changes.

That afterword and the sample chapter of Buttercup’s Baby were added to the book in later editions, as were forewords that add brief stories about Golding’s work on the movie. Those stories are charming, especially the way Golding writes about Andre the Giant, but they are also mixed with Golding’s supposed visit to Florin’s history museum and the ‘real’ Cliffs of Insanity. They remind me of the Gorillaz biography, Rise of the Ogre, which mixes real info about the band and its first two albums with fiction about the cartoon characters presented as the face of the band, each treated as if they were equally true. I certainly hope the movie set stories are true, anyway. It was heartwarming to read about Andre getting in character, and intriguing to see Golding add new twists to an old book without changing the core of the text.

Now that I’ve read the book, the question that keeps coming to mind for me is whether or not Golding’s character was right to abridge a dead man’s work so ruthlessly. It reminds me of fanfiction that ‘corrects’ stories the author didn’t like, a concept that’s never sat well with me. Plus, if his legal struggles with the Morgenstern estate about Buttercup’s Baby and his publisher’s disagreement about his reunion scene are any indication, there’s room for debate on the issue. On one hand, when it comes to reading the classics as books, I prefer getting the full, original text whenever possible. It always annoys me when an adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels goes no further than Lilliput and Brobdingnag, and cuts out the satirical elements and scatological humor to make the story more kid-friendly. Give me Laputa or give me death, I say. Plus, I don’t mind digressive tangents if, as in Infinite Jest and the work of Thomas Pynchon, those tangents are consistent and part of the point.

The worst case scenario of something in need of abridging that I have experience with is an example Golding brings up in The Princess BrideMoby-Dick. I got engrossed in the parts of that book that weren’t just information on whales and the whaling process, and while I didn’t hate reading those parts, I can’t blame anyone for wanting to skip past them. I’ve joked that the book could use a chart like that of a long-running anime series that tells which episodes are inconsequential filler. In terms of hearsay, people tell me that Les Miserable has unpopular scenes that have been dropped from every adaptation of it. Changing a work for another medium makes more sense to me than changing it for another release in the same medium, though. In the end, since I’ll never get a second opinion on the fictional abridging, nor will I see the original, fictional Morgenstern, I can’t reach a real conclusion and this is just an interesting train of thought spurred by a funny book that isn’t taking the concept all that seriously in the first place.

I talk so much about the book’s meta elements because I assume that everybody reading this is familiar with the movie already, and everything else in the book is displayed accurately, with only minor changes. When the book isn’t talking about its metafictional elements, the characters and scenarios are just as fun as they are in the movie. Fred Savage’s distress over the events of the story and questions about life being unfair are reflected by a young Golding listening to his grandfather, and since this gets to the crux of why Golding’s character is so enamored of the story, it’s understandable why Rob Reiner kept that part of the metafictional aspect above all others. The book has an extra scene with Inigo and Fezzik in the Pit of Despair, and goes in detail about their respective backstories, but the movie is written in such a way that you know exactly what kind of people they are even without those scenes.

If you somehow haven’t seen the movie yet, make time for it, and if you don’t mind the author interrupting his own story with layers of artifice, read the book, too.

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