The Princess Bride by William Goldman is one of those novels that I never though that I would read. To start with: I hated the movie. Just as unpopular a move as hating The Never Ending Story movie (which I do), but I could never get into the bland love story and murder of cute, giant rats. Fezzik and Inigo, of course, were always cool. I ended up picking the novel up to read this summer simply because the teacher who had my classroom before me used their Title 1 funds to buy a whole grip of them. Next year in Literature in the Media I am planning a unit on “classic movies (based on novels, read a book, darn it)” and I wanted to try a novel that the kids might actually, you know, like. They loved Harry Potter, but they also refused to read the book (not a huge loss as the movie is surprisingly close, though the book is subtly better). I know I want to teach Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I needed some more novels. Time to expand my horizons! Enter William Goldman.
The most notable difference between the novel and the movie is that, in the novel, the frame narrative is much more depressing. It starts with the adult Goldman failing to have an affair because he’s so obsessed with getting a copy of The Princess Bride, a real novel in the novel’s meta premise, for his son. Goldman’s wife is frigid, his son is fat, he hates them for sucking, true, but his hating them also makes it a little hard for us to like him. He is supremely likable when he reminisces about his father, an immigrant, reading the book to him as a sick child, and editing it mercilessly. (That’s where Fred Savage and Colombo come in movie-wise.) Amazingly this frame narrative is completely fictional, which is a relief, because it’s a downer.
The characters in the novel are notably different from their movie counterparts. In the novel, the way Buttercup and Westley fall in love is very naively sweet; the way she’s crushed by the news of his death is admirable, and gives her surprising depth. She couldn’t care less that she’s beautiful, but she stumbles over the fact that she’s a touch dumb. Westley, on the other hand, is a genius in everything, including humility. In the movie the characters are just too evenly matched to be interesting, it becomes almost bland.
There’s a ton of history added to all of the minor characters too (aside from Miracle Max, that part is practically verbatim in the movie), and the reader gets a lot of back story on Inigo’s life. His relationship with his father – his blind love – is really beautiful. Fezzik too gets his childhood fleshed out, and I found myself loving this giant with a child’s heart, it was all so sincere. In the movie the characters are more pointed, made into caricatures, which makes sense on the screen, but you lose so much that’s lovable about them in translation. They go from empathetic, lovable, and cool to just cool.
Prince Humperdink and Count Rugen are similarly changed. Humperdink is a master hunter, giant, and has a Zoo of Death full of animals he’s planning to kill. Count Rugen is a detached and sadistic pain expert (with six fingers), but who spared Inigo’s life when he was a child. I would love to know why he did spare young Inigo, because it seems so out of character for him. Humperdink is thoroughly evil throughout, and the sections on the Zoo of Death make you hate him all the more. Count Rugen is more complex, but when he tortures a dog to death to test “The Machine” before using it on Westley, you hate him all the more because of that complexity. There’s no way these things could have been left in a children’s movie without giving kids a whole host of nightmares, so it’s understandable that they were removed, but some of the depth of villainy goes with it.
In a lot of ways The Princess Bride is a novel for adults, the frame narrative and bleak (yet true) message that “life’s not fair” creates a structure that’s both too complex and too depressing for younger readers. The story itself, though, is really mesmerizing and I found myself unable to put it down. Strange to say, a movie I don’t really like is a novel that I enjoyed quite a bit. If that’s not an argument for not letting a movie turn you off a book, I don’t know what is. There are too many negatives in that sentence, oops.