Novel Films Blogfest: The Commentary

Hello there! Now that we've established my list of experienced book/movie combinations for Scribble and Edit's Novel Films Blogfest, let's jump right to the fun part—commentary!

The Princess Bride

Misty golden background. White horse in foreground. In middle ground, a pale-skinned man with long blondish hair and a blousy black poet shirt is passionately kissing a pale-skinned woman with long blond hair, an elaborate tiara, and a silver gown.

Of course I saw the movie first. And when I finally tracked down the book, I loved that too. And one of the reasons I keep coming back to this book/movie is that the way William Goldman uses framing devices is really, really interesting. Both the book and the movie have a real-life narrative that supports and comments on the fairy-tale narrative, and in adapting the book for the screen Goldman simplified the frame while keeping true to its emotional heart.

In the book: narrator-Goldman is a sad-sack father, mostly absent, trying but continually failing, until he recalls how his own father told the story and does the same thing for his son, to great acclaim. Now he's presenting this abridged fairy tale to the world. There are a lot of asides where narrator-Goldman talks about how it feels to read a book he thought he knew, only to discover his father had been making alterations to the story all the while. We also hear narrator-Goldman's opinions on whether or not these changes improve the story, and why.

In the movie: Charming grandfather Peter Falk reads a story to his sick grandson Fred Savage. They argue throughout about which way the story does go, or should go, or shouldn't go. At the end, the boy goes to sleep happily, and wants to hear the story again the next day.

Can it really be a coincidence that one of the best book/movie combinations of all time spends a lot of time asking the question: how should this story go?

One of the things that comes up a lot in book-movie adaptations is the value of fidelity to the source material. Princess Bride is unique in being unabashedly in favor of revising the original—both the fictitious S. Morgenstern book, and the Goldman book that became the Goldman-adapted screenplay. Sometimes we change things, it goes, so that we can enjoy the story more. So it can mean more to us. But we don't change everything—the grandson may not want a kissing book, but that one perfect kiss is so central to the story that the grandfather must insist on leaving it in.

The stories we love as children don't always serve us well when we grow up. (Cinderella, for instance, can be a bit of a problem.) We may find, as narrator-Goldman did, that the stories we heard as a child weren't necessarily true—they had embellishments, and excisions, and bits were rearranged. And sometimes we have to change the story, to bring it closer to the truth—for instance, to change history books to reflect the very real and often ignored contributions of women, minorities, GLBTQ folk, and so on. And sometimes—as narrator-Goldman did—we find something in the fairy tales that is better than the actual truth. Something that lifts us up, that brings us together, that tells a slightly larger truth than the one S. Morgenstern intended when he wrote his satirical original.

This discussion, for instance, about Wesley's unexplored past as the Dread Pirate Roberts, contains an imagined scene about our two main characters:

You could probably write a really funny sketch that takes place immediately after the movie ends, where Buttercup starts to ask Westley a little about his adventures. He tells her the most horrible stories imaginable in this wistful tone.

“Sometimes I miss the sunset over the waves, the cry of the seagulls, and the simple pleasure of having my way with a schoolgirl and making her parents watch.”

“Excuse me?”

“I was thinking of you every second, my dearest!”

“What?”

The Princess Bride invites us to see narrative as open-ended, as variable, and as personal. And, to me, that's a more important truth than who originally said, "Life is pain. Anyone who says different is selling something."*

*In the book, this opinion is offered by Fezzik's mother.