Cannonball Read V: The Princess Bride by William Goldman
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.
(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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