It is perhaps not entirely necessary to mention at this point that I watch a lot of 80s movies. It is probably equally superfluous to mention that I talk about 80s movies a lot. But in all my many years of watching and talking about 80s movies I have come across only one 80s movie that everybody – everybody – likes: William Goldman and Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride.
True, some (women, mainly, in their fourth decade, mainly) might love this film a little more than others – getting a bit too excited over the recent Princess Bride 25th anniversary, using a quote from The Princess Bride as the first line in their book which has nothing to do with princesses, brides or movies. But this film adaptation of Goldman’s 1973 novel is, going by my extensive talking-about-80s-movies experience, universally loved, and no other film from the decadecan claim such an accolade. To say The Princess Bride is your favourite film is like saying you love Some Like It Hot, or Edward Scissorhands: predictable, but still admirable.
The only question, really, is why – why do so many people love The Princess Bride so much? How does this film achieve the near impossible trick of appealing equally to boys and girls, to children and adults, of being one of the very, very few films that is just as good now as it was when you first watched it as a kid, and of being remarkably, astonishingly undated?
There are, I think, two reasons for all of the above: the original book, and the difficulties Goldman had in getting the film made. The nifty script, the dream cast and the spot on direction by Reiner all came out of those two factors.
Goldman talks a bit about the making of The Princess Bride in his very funny book, Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade, which, as well as being an nifty primer on how to knock out a script, contains nuggets of gossip from the various films he made (honestly, you will not BELIEVE who he and Reiner nearly cast in Misery instead of James Caan.)
But as much as I love and recommend this book, if you are only interested in The Princess Bride just buy the most recent edition of Goldman’s original novel. The updated introduction has most of the details you’ll read in Which Lie Did I Tell?, including the unforgettable and somewhat inevitable news that Fezzik was originally meant to be played by a certain Austrian bodybuilder who, by the time they finally made the film, was too expensive for them to hire, hence their recourse to a French wrestler, the far more appealing Andre the Giant.
Most fans of the film have probably not read the book. A shame because, first, I am of the very subjective opinion that the book is actually better than the film, and second, it is an objective fact that the former enhances the pleasure of the latter. For a start, the book shows how astonishingly clever the script was in giving an overall sense of each of the character’s backgrounds – especially of Inigo and Fezzik – without the extended biographical sketches that you get in the book. But these sketches in the book, especially of Fezzik (who Goldman admits was his favourite character) and Buttercup (who is given a much more comedic role in the book than she is allowed to have in the film), are extremely enjoyable and broaden out the characters marvellously. Also, certain tiny niggly things in the film that never made any sense to me (most importantly, how Fezzik figures out that the Man in Black is Buttercup’s true love, and somewhat less importantly, why on earth Miracle Max happened to give Fezzik a holocaust cloak) are explained in the book, satisfying my pestersome curiosity at last. It doesn’t, unfortunately, explain Kevin’s mother’s mullet at the beginning of the film but, hey, it was the 80s.
Most of all, the book shows how the film achieves its perfect balance of tone, treading just the right line between self-satire and earnestness, generic fairy tale and genre send-up.
The film, as everyone knows, is narrated by Grandpa (Columbo) who is reading the book to his grandson (Kevin Arnold), which is not just a clever way of conceding the fantastical nature of the story to the audience from the start (“Yes, we know this is a fairy tale – but it’s not supposed to be real, OK? So just park your cynicism and enjoy”), but also a clever spin on how Goldman sets up the novel – but it’s not as smart as Goldman’s original ruse.
Goldman originally started writing The Princess Bride as a series of stories for his young daughters when he was abroad working. Eventually he decided to try to make it into an actual novel, but he got stuck. As he recounts in What Lie Did I Tell?, he had all sorts of exciting set-ups in his head – sword fights, kidnappings, magic pills – but couldn’t figure out how to get from one to the next, and the between bits bored him. So he came up with the frankly ingenious wheeze and decided to pretend that he was awriting the abridgement of an extremely long story by a windy old chap called S Morgenstern, and that way Goldman could simply skip all the dull bits, explaining very briefly in author’s italics how character A got from B to C. It is like a post-modern update on Elmore Leonard’s rule that authors should “leave out the bits that authors tend to skip”, but with a typically Goldman-esque tongue-in-cheek element.
I won’t get into too much detail about the book here – other than to say, once again, that it is really ace and you should stop reading this blog now and go out and buy it – but this twist of Goldman’s, to structure these stories that were written for his daughters within a very clever narrative frame, is precisely what gives the film its tone, its gentle satire around a golden heart. It is also, I reckon, why it is superior to Shrek, the 21st century’s answer to The Princess Bride, which does a similar sort of thing of playing with fairy tale conventions, but with just a bit too much knowingness, too many jokes for the parents. (On the other hand, it does remind me a little bit of Faerie Tale Theater, a lovely American TV show that ran from 1982 – 1987 and which formed something of the spine in my literary education.) The Princess Bride doesn’t need modern eyes to be funny, or require references from outside the film, or poke-poke-poking awareness of the famous cameos: it is wholly funny and sweet and romantic in and of itself. It works entirely in its own little world of Florin.
As for the making of the film, this, too, worked (eventually) in Goldman’s, the film’s and ultimately the audience’s favour. Goldman writes in his updated introduction with retrospective amusement at its nightmarish gestation, with his script stuck in development hell for years, frequently appearing in movie magazine lists with names such as “The best scripts that have yet to be filmed”, which, for the writer of such scripts, is surely the definition of a bittersweet compliment. However, all this palaver turned out to be something of a blessing as it meant that the right director eventually got hold of the script, and for the right reason. Just as in the book Goldman pretends that his father used to read him S Morgenstern’s original fable, and just as in the film Columbo tells the story to Kevin Arnold, Rob Reiner came across Goldman’s novel when it was given to him by his father, Carl Reiner. Already, therefore, the perfect start. Moreover, in Reiner Jr Goldman had the perfect captain and in Norman Lear, an American comedy god who financed the film, the ideal moneyman: Lear gets the funny – the big crowd-pleasing funny – and Reiner gets the satire (This is Spinal Tap) and the sweetness (Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally.) And by the time the movie finally got made, Goldman had been toting it around long enough to know exactly how he wanted it to look and, in Reiner, he had a sympathetic collaborator.
The casting, as is generally agreed, was nigh on spotless, with my own personal accolades going to Sondheim’s muse, Mandy Patinkin, as Inigo (honestly, who can be scared of Saul in Homeland – he’s Inigo!), Wallace Shawn as Vizzini (it was always difficult to take Shawn too seriously, what with that voice, that appearance and his fascination with sex, post-Vizzini, it became, for me, impossible) and Christopher Guest as Rugen, so good he is almost unrecognisable. Also, Cary Elwes deserves a lot of credit as playing the romantic lead surrounded by comic turns can be a black hole of a role (just imagine if Julian Sands had played the part) but he gives Westley a nice dash of fun. (Crystal, I maintain, doesn’t entirely work, and that’s because he adlibbed most of his lines so they don’t really fit in the film – fortunately, they’re all very funny so it’s not a disaster), the comedy brilliant, the chemistry between the characters adorable and the catchphrases timeless. But, to paraphrase the last line of an aforementioned all time classic, nothing’s perfect.
Certainly the movie marketing men thought so who had no idea how to sell a movie that wasn’t one thing but was everything, and for everybody. And so, on its release, the film barely made $30m. Not a flop, but not exactly a success. But cream, rising, top and all that. Eventually.
My only problem with The Princess Bride is the princess bride herself, Buttercup. She’s boring. She is also the perfect epitome of the previously discussed Smurfette Principle, being the only woman in a group of men, there purely to be stolen and saved. In the book, as I mentioned, Goldman has a lot more fun with her, making her hilariously dippy and occasionally petty, giving her an actual back story with family and all. In other words, she has a life and personality beyond being Westley and Humperdinck’s quarry and while it may not be a personality to get Andrea Dworkin citing her as a feminist icon, at least its something. It’s a shame, really, because Robin Wright can, when given the chance, do more than look beautiful, but Reiner seems to have been so enamoured of how ridiculously beautiful she was then that she is offered nothing more than the opportunity to swish her blond hair over her shoulders one more time.
Obviously, this is in no way a deal breaker. I’ve watched this film probably about 17,894 in my life and I will be disappointed if I don’t watch it at least 34,792 times more. The Princess Bride may not be entirely “aaassss youuuuu wishhhhhhh”, but it is pretty damn near close. Perfection only happens in fantasies, you know. The Princess Bride, on the other hand, is the real deal.
Next week: Boys home alone – Risky Business and Ferris Bueller