Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Title: The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's classic tale of true love and high adventure: the "good parts" version
Author: William Goldman
Publisher: Ballantine Publishing Group (1998); originally published 1973

Michael (of Lazy Thoughts From a Boomer fame) and I are back with another set of reviews for a book that has been adapted for the screen.

Click here for Michael's review of one of the awesomest movies ever made!

Continue reading below for my review of a book that was published some years back. (Oops! Have I already given away my tepid-at-best feelings toward this book?)

Review: the "good parts" version - The Princess Bride is, basically, a big spoof that works much better as a movie than as a book.

Review: unabridged version - Buttercup has grown up on her parents' farm and has been happily mistreating Farm Boy for many years. (During this time she is also becoming one of the most beautiful women in the world, this is outlined by the narrator as she moves up in the top twenty.) One day she realizes she is in love with Farm Boy. He has loved her for years (no idea why) and wants to provide a nice farm for her so he sets off to "seek his fortune" but he is captured and killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts on his way to America. Devastated, Buttercup swears to never love again. Some time and events pass and Prince Humperdinck decides that Buttercup will be his wife. (Don't worry, she doesn't love him.) In the weeks leading up to the marriage, she is kidnapped by a trio of mercenaries but then re(?)kidnapped by the Dread Pirate Roberts.

A note on the narrator: I've read this book 2 times now and still can't figure what the shit Goldman was thinking with this narrator. The idea is awesome but in reality, well... In brief, Narrator's dad used to read him the awesome Princess Bride story by S. Morgenstern. Narrator wants his son to experience it as well but when they start to read the book on their own it turns out Narrator's dad had edited out all the long/boring stuff (thus, the "good parts" version). So as you read along in The Princess Bride the Narrator often cuts in to explain what he edited out. It's a fun idea, and certainly amusing at times, but the Narrator is such a right, royal jizzwad that he completely ruins the story. Seriously! I'm sitting there trying to enjoy The Princess Bride but all I can think is how I want to poke ice picks into Narrator's eyes. I skipped most of his parts this time around and I suggest that if you are the type of person who can have a story ruined by the proximity of dickish behavior that you skip his parts, too. At the very least, pass up on the introduction.

Ok, on to the book...

I go back and forth between thinking Goldman made a truly fantastic spoof or just a total crap book. "Let me explain. No, it would take too long." (hahahahaha) I'll list a few things I liked and then get on to what it is about the book that grates on my last nerve.

Good stuff -
Inigo and Fezzik
Prince Humperdinck
The word "humperdinck"
The Fire Swamp
The presence of the mysterious "holocaust cloak" is explained and it's something I'd always wondered about in the movie.

Other Stuff -
The writing/plot/characterization are completely wooden if you don't understand fantasy/adventure stories (and a little bit even if you do). I want to think this is part of the spoof. The idea here being that you accept all these ridiculous things because you do understand fantasy/adventure stories and it's part of the spoof. The thing is, I love spoofs but something about this one falls hella flat. I spent most of my time being annoyed rather than amused.

Buttercup is the most useless individual alive in the story's two fictional countries - and possibly the world. She may as well have been a mussel for all she brought to the book. Seriously! Why did Westley (our erstwhile Farm Boy) ever fall in love with her? I mean, yeah, the depth of his character was illustrated by the fact that he reads Books* so there's not much to him either but throughout the story we see that he Reads,* has ambition, is a great swordsman, is very strong, is an excellent strategist, is loyal, is funny and Buttercup is... holy hell she's too boring to even come up with a derogatory term. I'd say she's stupid (this is the girl who spent 6 months in "princess classes" and can't even fracking spell divine) but that seems to be attributing more to her character than was intended. Gah! But again, I'm hoping this is the spoof. You have your typical More Awesome Than Awesome hero and your Too Useless to Live heroine. But again again, it's more annoying than anything else.

Inigo and Fezzik are pulled straight from the canon. They are not unique or developed. They both play into caricature types that are meant to appeal to readers on an immediate emotional level. These two and Prince Humperdinck are what work well within the spoof framework. They embody archetypes we've seen done well and done poorly and done ad naseum but they are still likable in their own right and bring much to the story. That's good spoofing.

I made a few notes on this read through with the intention of being a bit more in depth and including examples of why the book didn't work for me but the idea of flipping through to the relevant sections simply bores me (a bit like the book). For whatever reason this spoof/story just does not work for me in book form. Maybe if I didn't love^ the movie so much the book would have worked better but, alas, it's not to be. I will once again leave my movie thoughts for over at the movie review but trust me when I say that the true genius here was Goldman turning this into a screenplay. I wonder if he, too, realized this story wasn't made for a book and a movie was the way to go.

So be sure to skip this book and go straight to the movie, and the movie review by clicking here!

*Books being a generic description of never-actually-named books that characters read when authors are not interested in properly developing characters (these characters are closely related to those who Quote (hat tip: Jed))

^love as in luuuuuuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrve with big smoochie xxx's and a giant throbbing heart

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Coming up next:
The Lathe of Heaven

Links to previous joint posts:
A Scanner Darkly
The Children of Men
The Minority Report


  1. A fine review, Rachel. I've not read the novel so your perspective (and your past book reviews) really help to frame it in my mind. Buttercup in the film does seem like the object being fought for in the film adaptation rather than a complete character. I'm wondering if this was Goldman's way of criticizing the fairy tale genre by making her so boring? It seems like all the male characters got all the good lines.

    I'm glad someone somewhere explained that holocaust cloak reference. It was such a throwaway line in the film but seemed like it should be a more important device. I have a real affection for the Inigo and Fezzik characters. Good to hear that Prince Humperdinck still comes across as a likable character (great villains have that quality... I guess I'm thinking about Hans Gruber from DIE HARD when I write that).

    So, you think Goldman's spook/satire of the fairy tale doesn't pay homage to the convention in the novel. In my mind, the film version successfully did that and kept that true love sentiment intact. But, then again I'm an old softie sometimes ;-). Perhaps it is as you say and the story was better for the screen.

    And what a great idea that you've placed links to the past joint posts, and the future one on tap. Always fun to do one of these reviews, Rachel. Thanks for this.

  2. Wow, I haven't read the book in many years, but I loved it. (Full disclosure: big William Goldman fan, from Soldier in the Rain right on through The Gondolier) I didn't want a movie made of it because I was so sure Hollywood would screw it up. (They didn't -- excepting Billy Crystal's performance, which irritated me.)

    It *was* campy, all very nudge-nudge-wink-wink, but with some good old-fashioned fairy-tale swashbuckling. I liked the Narrator's interruptions - I don't know why but maybe because I recalled my own parents reading fairy tales to me. My favorite moment with the Narrator is the one where he cut the romantic scene between Buttercup and Wesley, and said that the reader could write to the publisher for that missing scene.

    So I did. And received a funny, tongue-in-cheek form letter (clearly written by Goldman also) informing me that due to legal issues with the S Morganstern estate, that scene could not be released after all.

    Don't let this book put you off reading Goldman's other novels. The only other book he wrote that is even remotely similar to this one is The Gondolier.

  3. Michael -

    I do think (and hope) that Goldman was making a point about heroines in adventure tales. The males got all the great lines and all the great parts and all the fun stuff to do. She does two useful things in the book (I counted - as you can see, easy to keep track) and one of them totally back-fired. Jeez, how dead boring!
    Anyway, I think he was making a point but, for me, it went to far. (As I mentioned over at your blog re affirmation, this is where it was lost for me. In going too far the possibility of playing on the convention while simultaneously affirming it is lost.) I found the film to be very deft in all these things and the book to go on and on and on until I was no longer thinking, "How clever for him to notice and highlight all these things" but instead "My gosh, are we still on this? It just isn't funny anymore!"

    YOu know what's funny about the holocaust coat scene in the movie? I always loved it as I thought it was just another nod/wink about plot devices in fantasy. I thought it was great but I was always wondering WHY a holocaust cloak of all things? I thought the randomness was part of the joke but it did actually come from a scene in the book. :)

    I absolutely agree about villains. I might have liked Humperdinck even more in the book because you got to know him so much better. He was the one character where more worked for me.

    No, I don't think the novel pays homage. Even the true love sentiment didn't come through for me. Again, it was just too much of all the ridiculous. I don't know how anyone could like Buttercup in the first place much less go through all the hassle to rescue her. I do think that was done on purporse; we are supposed to see how ridiculous these "true love" scenarios are but it went past the point of winking at me. Felt more like the book pepper sprayed me, actually.

    And many thanks to you, as well! Can't wait for the next one!

  4. Naomi -

    Is that right? Well, wow from me too since I disliked it so much. I'd love to hear more about what you liked because "new eyes" can help you see things a tad differently. I don't know that it would change my mind but it might at least get me closer to seeing other interpretations.

    You can probably guess from my reply to Michael that the campy didn't work for me as I thought it went too far. What I did like were the darker fairy tale aspects and getting more into Humperdinck's character. That was something the book did perfectly as a spoof: all the supporting characters were more interesting than the mains. So common, I think, in fantasy.

    I actually liked the narrator asides IN THE STORY but after his initial introduction it really didn't matter how amused I was at his asides I already hated him. All that stuff about the divorce and what he thought of his son made my skin crawl. (Maybe it's my combined hateration for Narrator and Buttercup that make it impossible for me to like this story.:)

    I heard about the letter re the missing scene. That is awesome that you wrote in to get it. How funny!

    What did you think of "Buttercup's Baby?" I thought it was such a random way to leave off with the story.

    Actually this HAD completely put me off reading Goldman's other stuff so thanks for the tip. I'll know to avoid The Gondolier and try his other stuff.

  5. "...mussel..." *snork*

    I think I'll give the novel a pass

    I think I'll watch the movie again, this time with my kids (minus the fire swamp part for the middle and little ones)

    Why in the world has Carey Elwes not had the career trajectory that Robin Wright did?

  6. R.O.U.S.'s might be too much for the lil' ones...

    I think it might have something to do with that chin problem I mentioned over at Michael's blog. ;) He was actually a recurring character on my all time fave TV show (The X-Files) and I didn't think he did well. It was partly the part and partly his acting. Maybe he was made for spoofs. PB and Robin Hood: Men in Tights are his best if you ask me.

  7. AnonymousJune 11, 2014

    In fairness to Buttercup, her best lines of the entire book were inexplicably cut from the very ending of the movie. I especially enjoyed the visual impact of her vocal delivery, as formatted on the printed page.

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Anon. It was fun to revisit this post as I hadn't read it in quite a while. Would you be willing to share some of these lines you liked so much?