Page to Screen: Adapting “The Princess Bride”

Rob Reiner’s 1987 film The Princess Bride represents that most remarkable of rarities: an excellent movie based on an excellent book. Typically the handling of a fine book is fumbled en route to the silver screen, and on a few rare occasions the film is a marked improvement. But in the case of The Princess Bride, both William Goldman’s 1973 book and Reiner’s film offer an easily loveable, engaging adventure story with a brightly funny, smartly satiric bent. It certainly must have helped that Goldman – who wrote the book in response to his two daughters, one requesting a story about a princess, the other a bride – happens to be a well-established screenwriter, and adapted his own novel for the screen. And it couldn’t have hurt that all of the casting is spot-on. As The Princess Bride’s hero Westley, Cary Elwes doesn’t only look the part (with, as the novel specifies, “pale blonde hair” and “eyes like the sea after a storm”), but also possesses the wit and bravado essential to bringing the character to life. Then-newcomer Robin Wright shines as Princess Buttercup, imbuing the character with a noble bearing that few other young actresses could and sharing considerable chemistry with Elwes; and there are fine turns by Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Chris Sarandon, and others in supporting roles. As the giant Fezzik, Andre the Giant was literally the best person on earth for his role.

Yet though it is wonderful fun and relatively faithful, Reiner’s take on The Princess Bride does noticeably reshape its source material. A few changes were practical – budgetary concerns meant cutting the Zoo of Death in favor of the more cost effective Pit of Despair – but most of the changes are in the interest of softening the story’s tone. The film version is decidedly sweeter, lingering less over the novel’s more disturbing elements and reducing the cynicism that pervades Goldman’s novel. There are subtle differences in focus and dialogue that help to achieve a lighter tone for the film. For example, though Westley is killed and later miraculously resurrected in both versions, only in the book does he despairingly wish he stayed dead after being apprised of the facts. “Why didn’t you leave me to death?” Westley wonders. “This is worse. Lying here helpless while my true love marries my murderer.” No such lines appear in the film, and though comically limp and wobbly after his revival, the filmed version of Westley does not suffer frightening relapses into death as he does in the novel.

The book and film also have differing frame stories for the fairy tale, a change that makes a notable impact. In the book, Goldman presents The Princess Bride as the abridged version of a classic novel by S. Morgenstern, and includes italicized notes on the text as its supposed editor. Morgenstern is a fictional author, and in his notes Goldman details fictionalized events from his own life, including stories about his father reading him Morgenstern’s novel aloud, and anecdotes about his troubled relationship with his (equally fictionalized) wife and son. Coming from the point of view of a rather unhappy adult, the textual notes in the novel mix a sense of nostalgia for childhood and fairy tales with a series of tart reflections on life. “This book says ‘life isn’t fair,’ and I’m telling you, one and all, you better believe it,” reads one of Goldman’s notes. This idea is repeated again and again in the novel, particularly in the editor’s notes, almost becoming a refrain: life isn’t fair.

For the film, Goldman cuts his novel’s frame story – already complicated on the page and unlikely to translate well to the screen – down to something simpler: a grandfather reading to his sick grandson. It’s interesting that at one point, when Norman Jewison was attached as The Princess Bride’s director, (the project languished in development hell for years) the plan was for the grandfather and grandson sequences to take place during the Great Depression. This scenario would have retained the novel’s bittersweet tone to a considerable extent, but the screenplay evolved as the project changed hands. Ultimately, in Reiner’s film, the grandfather and grandson are members of what is by all appearances a comfortably middle class family of the 1980’s, their main problem being the grandson’s reluctance to spend time with his grandfather and a book instead of playing a videogame. With Peter Falk as the grandfather and a very young Fred Savage as the grandson, the scenes come across as touching and gently funny, and the pair do some wonderful bonding over the book. Their increasingly warm interactions stand in strong contrast to the fraught familial relations of Goldman’s fictionalized version of himself and his family in the novel.

Also notable are the differing ways in which the book and movie end. In the book, the editor acknowledges that when his father read him the story, he always concluded with “They lived happily ever after,” and skipped over a final paragraph in which the heroes are still being pursued and might not necessarily escape. The editor only discovered the book’s real ending when working on the abridged volume. He concludes that he still believes that the heroes escape, but casts doubt on whether they necessarily live happily ever after, guessing that Westley and Buttercup probably “squabbled a lot,” adding, “I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

The film hews more closely to “happily ever after.” “They rode to freedom,” narrator Falk tells us, “And when dawn arose Westley and Buttercup knew they were safe.” With that, the story is sealed with a kiss, and a charming coda to the story gives us Savage quietly asking Falk to read him the story again tomorrow. It’s a more palatable, more Hollywood ending, to be sure, but it’s no cop out. It works beautifully with the upbeat, romantic tone exuded by the movie as whole. As if wasn’t clear by the way that the film has been embraced over the years, Goldman and Reiner knew what they were doing when it came to filming The Princess Bride. Their sure-footed adaptation is informed by careful decisions about what will and will not work onscreen for a wide audience. The novel’s sharp edges make it a fascinating, multilayered read, but Reiner’s take on The Princess Bride is something else: a feel-good movie in the absolute best sense. There’s no real cause to fault either. Better to treasure them both.

Victoria Large is a Massachusetts-based writer who has also contributed to Bright Lights Film Journal and Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

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