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Cannonball Read V: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

By Tyburn Blossom | Book Reviews | March 21, 2013 | Comments ()


coverprincessbride.jpg

I'm having an incredibly hard time writing this review, because I suspect it's going to be one of those extremely unpopular opinions that makes me a totally uncool geek, like not liking Star Wars or Neil Gaiman.

I grew up with The Princess Bride...the movie. I loved it. I still love it. I have both a VHS and a DVD copy, and I still watch it every single time I come across it showing on TV, no matter how much of it I might have missed.

As a matter of fact, there are a few movies and books that I use as a litmus test for friendship-it's ok if you haven't seen or read them, but if you have and you didn't like or actively hated them, I think that reveals some basic level on which we'll never get along. Friendship was just not meant to be if we don't agree on this short list. The Princess Bride is on that list.

It's taken me a long time to get around to reading the book, The Princess Bride. When there's a movie coming out or already out based on a book I decide I want to read, I try to watch the movie first. The reason is simple: the book will be better. If I go into the movie blind, I'll enjoy it (or hate it) on its own merits. Besides, a great movie won't ruin a good book, but a good book will easily ruin all but the best of movies. However, that hardly seems fair when you're talking about the book on which some childhood favorite was based. Still, I felt like my failure to read this particular book was a regrettable oversight. There's even a copy of it sitting on my bookshelf, making me feel guilty. And the screenplay was written by the author, so there'd have to be plenty to love, right?

That makes it so, so much harder to admit that I kind of hated the book, and I only finished it out of the desperate belief that it would grow on me.

Since this is a 40-year-old book, and a 26-year-old movie, I'm not going to be extremely careful about spoilers. If you really need a warning, consider this to be it. This is a case where it feels impossible to separate one from the other.

If you've seen the movie but haven't read the book, the format of the book will be familiar. In the movie, a grandfather reads the book to his sick grandson. In the book, the author's father reads the book to him while he's sick. As an adult, he discovered his father had skipped over all of the boring parts, reading just the good parts of the story. Now he is presenting an abridged, all good parts version of the original classic by S. Morgenstern.

In high school, a friend of mine who had read the book mentioned the author's asides-including notes about what he'd cut from the 'original' story. She actually wanted to read the many deleted pages about a character's hats, because that really had to be something. A little research shows that she was hardly the only one taken in by the conceit, and I can't blame her. I was already vaguely aware of it, but still put the book down at one point to look it up to be sure.

Since a considerable amount of the author's inserts into the story concern being rather cruel to both his wife and fat son (you get to read a great deal about how fat his son is), I was very relieved to learn that this was all fiction, too. He apparently has daughters, no sons. Here's hoping none of them are fat.

I get exactly what he was doing. Just because I understand it doesn't mean I have to appreciate it. For example, the full title is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. During one of his asides, he pokes fun at Morgenstern for having the gall to call his own story a classic before it had even been published. Of course, Morgenstern is as much a work of fiction as the story he supposedly wrote. It didn't make me laugh, it just gave me the vague urge to kick the author in the teeth.

The "good parts version" conceit feels unnecessary instead of clever. The author interrupting his own story frequently grated on my nerves, and knowing there really wasn't an original he was cutting down made me grit my teeth while reading him complaining about his imaginary author going on and on for pages that had never existed about trees. I think I'd have rather read about the trees.

Interrupting the story to tell what was coming next in order to deliberately break any tension has never felt like a good idea. It was one thing I disliked in the movie and hated even more in the book.

So much of the story suffers in comparison to the movie, too. I hate, hate, hated that Buttercup was stupid and that most of the time Westley was talking to her, he was condescending. Everyone sort of let her get away with being really dumb because she was super pretty, so that makes it all cool, right?

The ending was infuriating in and of itself, particularly since the author spent a while complaining about the ending, himself. He made his point and again, I get it. I just don't appreciate it.

Actually, what bothered me the most was that the whole story, including the author's asides, felt like Westley talking to Buttercup: the tone grated because it constantly felt like he was talking down to his audience. I'm not misunderstanding writing intended for children: there is a difference between talking at a child's level and talking down to a child, and even children are good at spotting it.

I can't guess how I would have felt about this book if I had read it years and years ago, or if I had somehow managed to read it before being exposed to the movie. I usually work hard to separate my feelings about a book from my feelings about a related movie, but it's just about impossible in this case.

I'm going to have to go watch The Princess Bride soon, to get the taste of the book out of my head.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and for more of Tyburn Blossom's reviews, check out The Everyday Alchemy Lab.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Jezzer

    "So much of the story suffers in comparison to the movie, too. I hate, hate, hated that Buttercup was stupid and that most of the time Westley was talking to her, he was condescending."

    Because Buttercup was a highly intelligent woman of action in the movie?

  • Ben

    I actually managed to read the book before I'd ever seen the movie (I took far to long to see the movie) but I really enjoyed the book, and it left the movie feeling dissapointing. Esspecialy all the story that gets left out of Inigo Montoyas stuff.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I read the book in college - found it in the free book exchange! and it came in handy when my theater lab class decided to pitch a musical version of it (I can still sing "Buttercup's Lament" so suck on that Adam Guettel)

    I really liked the book. I like the way he makes fun of every classic you ever had to read - all those crazy boring non-sequiter exposition points you hated in Les Miz or half of Dickens? Nailed it. Every fairy tale you loved as a child? Boom. And yet, even though the author is dickish it doesn't bother me. I mean, I don't find him likeable, but I completely understand that desire to make those you love find that thing you love so awesome (is there anyone on Pajiba who *can't* understand this impulse?). The author wants to be a big player and an alpha male - he hates the fact that he isn't - not by his successes in career or love, not by his family. I don't find him that much more hatable than 90% of sitcom characters or any Roth protagonist.

    And all around that - you've got a fun & clever adventure story with characters who, miracle of miracles, actually grow, unlike most fairy tales.

    Sidebar: Miracle Max (or rather Billy Crystal's riffing, esp on MLT), though funny by itself, is a hugely jarring moment of the movie for me, because it is SO yiddish schtick and seems incredibly out of place/time.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    I admit that it's been many years since I read The Princess Bride (I think I was in 8th or 9th grade), but I remember really liking it. Of course, I'm a sucker for a clever conceit. I have several favorites in which authors insert themselves into stories, usually in some form of deconstruction of a medium or genre. I liked Grant Morrison writing himself into the Animal Man comics, and I even liked the controversial inclusion of Stephen King in The Dark Tower. I know it's supposed to be a cheap trick, but I buy into it every time.

  • Erich

    I'll add one to that - the revelation of Jack Kirby as God in Fantastic Four. true, it was written by Mark Waid in tribute to Kirby, but it made perfect sense and didn't feel out of place in the book.

  • AshBookworm

    One of my favourite movies ever. I liked the concept of the novel. Thought it was funny for a while but it got irritating towards the end.

  • Slim

    I love the book. I love the movie. To me they are cousins who grew up spending loads of time together and have similar experiences. They tell the same story but in different ways.

  • Captain_Tuttle

    Like you, I've owned the book for years. I'll pick it up, open it, and then put it down again because I'm afraid of being disappointed. It may just sit there for a while longer.

  • I read the book in a single sitting, long before there was a movie of it, and I found it hilarious at the time. I may have skimmed some of the self-referential stuff, but it has been so long, I don't recall. I do know that I desperately wanted to write a screenplay for it. Years later, I was doing a temp job at Tri-Star. Behind the desk were floor-to ceiling shelves with movie treatments. Including The Princess Bride. Hopes dashed, I took it down and read it anyway, and found it even more enjoyable than the book. So I think in this case it really might matter which you'd experienced first.

    Side Note: Blind Date was funny as hell in treatment. The abomination on the screen left out every. single. funny scene I'd read. How does that happen?

  • Bodhi

    I felt the exact same way. I felt all guilty for hating the book because I love the movie so much, but thats just how it goes sometime, I guess

  • badkittyuno

    I actually really liked this version of the book, and I have seen the movie enough times to recite the dialogue. My sister, who feels the same way about the movie, HATED the book. I think ShagEaredVillain (great name dude) is right: you really have to buy into the whole thing. I thought it was very clever, and while I would still pick the movie as my favorite, it was fun to read the book to flesh out the story.

  • Meghan

    I've always found that whichever one you see first (book or movie) tends to be the one you like better.

  • BWeaves

    We agree to disagree. I find that the book is almost invariably better than the movie, because it has to leave so much out. However, as I noted above, there are some movies that do improve on the book, and are actually better, but they are few and far between. It seems to make no difference which one I see or read first.

  • BWeaves

    It's so refreshing when a movie is actually better than the book:

    Frankenstein
    The Princess Bride
    LOTR's long version (I'm sorry, I love the book, but I like the movie better. It's a pity The Hobbit movie sucks.)

  • InternetMagpie

    I loooooooved Big Fish the movie, but the book was just all over the place. Not good.

  • Pontypool is one of my favorite horror movies ever. I make everyone I know who likes horror movies watch it. It may actually overtake The Princess Bride, Labyrinth, and Army of Darkness as my most frequently watched movie (although it's got a lot of high school repetitive watching to overcome).
    The book, Pontypool Changes Everything, is by the same author. And I unreservedly hated every damned thing about that book. I don't keep it on my bookshelf with my other books for fear that it will somehow be a bad influence.
    I never even managed to finish reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter after having seen the first season of Dexter.
    It's rare, but it's absolutely possible for the movie to be better. It's just...really jarring when it is.

  • Kenshiro70

    I had the same reaction the first time I read the book - I hated the author inserting himself into the story. It was only on the second read that I started to see the genius of that: it distracted me from looking to closely at the conceit of the second author.

    Admittedly, there were some fairly jarring character differences (Fezzik stating that he thought they should just kill Buttercup on capturing her, for example), but the background on the characters, particularly Inigo's, was wonderful.

    In the end, it's best treated as a book of wonderful scenes. I'll occasionally go back and read about the Zoo of Death (the one section that's better than the movie.) Sadly, I realized when reading other Goldman books that writing scenes is all he's really good at - Tinsel was a great example of a wonderful set of scenes but a poor novel with too many characters and no narrative arc. Enjoy the scenes and you'll enjoy the book.

  • The problem is that there are so many other books out there I haven't read, so why return to one that felt like a real slog to read?
    Inigo was always a favorite of mine, and getting to know more about him in the book was one of the things I did really enjoy.

  • ShagEaredVillain

    If you buy into the conceit that S. Morgenstern was real, it's a lot more enjoyable. Even with obvious references to places that didn't actually exist, I remained willfully ignorant. It kept things enjoyable.

    That still doesn't make it better than the movie. This is a rare instance, but it was the actors who made this story come to life. Miracle Max was totally flat on the page, as was Vizzini.

    Did you read the version with the epilogue, the supposed first chapter of Buttercup's Baby? It was heart-wrenching farewell to Andre the Giant.

  • Yeah. My library had the latest edition available for kindle. And I was honestly annoyed as hell by his fake lawsuit to prevent him from writing his sequel as a cheap excuse for not following through on promises he made. And also his whole torturous discussion with King.
    Also, he specifically talks about how there's some eagle that swoops down and saves Fezzik and the baby, so while the scene would have been utterly heart-wrenching, he deliberately ruined it.

  • To be honest, I'm right there with you. I saw the movie in the theaters with my brothers and my parents when it first came out and I was enthralled. I still love it to this day. It's a great date night movie and it's also a movie you can show to kids with no qualms (although I've let an eight year old watch 'Aliens' with no qualms, so take that for what it's worth).

    I found the book in the library a few years and snatched it up, thinking it was going to be as good as the movie...but I was wrong. Everything Tyburn says about the book is exactly right, plus the version I got had some sort of torturous prologue/preface kind of thing in front about Goldman being in LA and trying to sell a screenplay and being bad at cheating on his wife.

  • Yeah, I read that, too. His fictional wife divorced him and he spends a bit wanking about it like it's some kind of mystery, and it's because she just never loved the book. And I know that it's fictional and I know it never happened and I know he made it all up, and by the time I finished the book, I was like, dude...you spent your whole book being horrible to your son and saying terrible things about your wife. Then you spent a while describing how you totally would have cheated on her but you suck at it. I can't imagine why she'd leave you.

  • KatSings

    I just read this (well, audiobook) in the last 6 months and I totally agree. I was underwhelmed, and there are some things in the book that I was really glad they changed/cut for the film. It's that much harder because you WANT to love it, due to love of the movie based on it, so when you can't bring yourself to do so, you feel badly. Or, at least, I did.

  • gnibs

    You can't say that you "read" a book you had read to you.

  • KatSings

    You read a well written review like the one above, and this is what you choose to comment on? Nitpicking my choice of word? Fine, I "listened to" this book in the last 6 months.

  • gnibs

    Correct.

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