The Princess Bride (1973)
Impression published on Sunday, 2012-09-09 | Novel | 4 stars
There is a very short list of novels whose film adaptation makes the original novel look lousy by comparison, and that list is mostly populated by satires.
The music-video kinetics and joyful abandon of Fincher's Fight Club movie beat the stuffing out of Palahniuk's tedious middle class iconoclasm;1 Kubrick's famously brutal adaptation of the "rehabilitation" of Prisoner #655321 is still controversial 40 years on, and Burgess' A Clockwork Orange is little more than a blandly preening, smugly self-congratulatory footnote to Orwell, interesting only because it inspired Kubrick's seminal work.
William Goldman's The Princess Bride, I am happy to report, has nothing in common with those books.
In fact, if the question were put to me--which Princess Bride is better, the movie or the novel?--I would do my best to defer and insist that both are very strong works in their own right.2
But that having been said, the source material is no slouch, and it brings a number of things to the table that the movie does not.
The novel's author, for starters, inserts a (fictionalized?) version of himself into what he asserts is merely an abridged version of "S Morgenstern's classic tale of true love and high adventure". The entirely fictional S Morgenstern, the reader is instructed, is the long-dead satirist from Florin who first set down the classic tale of Westley and Buttercup (in his, Morgenstern's, native "Florinese", of course) that Goldman, in the novel the reader now holds in his hands, has helpfully abridged.
So you get a different "meta" layer in the book, that ends up being much more persistent and complicated than the Fred Savage/Peter Falk thing in the film.
What's more, the Goldman character ends up being good for a great many laughs: Goldman the commentator/narrator/meta-character shows up fairly frequently to let the air out of S Morgenstern's "classic tale" and, indeed, the famously austere and fastidious genre (i.e. swashbuckling European romance) to which it belongs, with a comedically world-weary, sardonically avuncular literary jewishness that blends the self-deprecating impetuousness of Mel Brooks and the neurotic trifling of Larry David.
You also get a lot of character back story with the book that you don't get with the movie. The net result is not only that you get better, bolder characterizations--a more darkly villainous Humperdinck, a more nettlesome, willful Buttercup, etc.--but you also get a much better sense of what, exactly, Goldman the comedy writer is trying to say about true love and high adventure.
Which, I would argue, is the really great thing that you get from the book that you don't get from the movie: the novel takes, as its major themes, bathos and deferral, and tells a story of true love and high romance where a sublime moment is at least as likely to lapse into absurd trivialities as an inspiring moment is to turn into (yet another) complete disappointment. And while the film does a so-so job conveying that sense that purity is nothing if not transient and glory, if you even recognize it while it's happening, is in all ways fleeting, you don't get hit over the head with it nearly so hard as you do in the novel.
"Life is not fair", explains the author, as he describes what he thinks is truly great about S Morgenstern's "original" material. "The wrong people die, some of them, and the reason is this: life is not fair. Forget all the garbage your parents put out. Remember Morgenstern. You'll be a lot happier."
And, speaking of life's definitive unfairness, I am looking back over what I have just written and I cannot help but think to myself, "wow--how not fair it is that my only impressions of this novel are based on its differences from and similarities to its film adaptation."
Which, I suppose just goes to show that Morgenstern's maxim fits here as well as it does in his novel: this impression of The Princess Bride is most definitely not fair.
- I should clarify, here, that my dislike for Fight Club is purely aesthetic. From a technical standpoint, I think Palahniuk is a fine writer--I really enjoyed Survivor, for example, which I felt was expertly plotted--but as a stylist, I can't put him in the same league as Dave Fincher.
- And if I absolutely had to choose, I would probably choose the movie, but only because I have known the movie for longer and because, well, it's an outstandingly terrific fucking movie.