There is a very popular and widespread convention that the book is always better than the movie that is made from it. Usually true, perhaps, but not always. For instance, Steven Spielberg turned what was essentially a run-of-the-mill potboiler thriller about a ravenous shark into a film classic. While some might argue, at least as many others would agree that the film version of Gone with the Wind is a significant improvement over its literary inspiration. One case where the old saying applies with room for argument only from film fanatics or those who have not actually read the source material is The Princess Bride.
William Goldman was responsible for writing both the novel and the screenplay for the film based on his novel and this unusual double duty goes a long way toward providing evidence for the fact that the book’s charm and magnificence lies not so much in the swashbuckling story of adventure and romance that it tells, but in the form and structure that proved far more suitable for a literary endeavor than cinematic one. Lending further credence to this conclusion is that both novel and film utilize a framing device—two distinctly different types of framing devices—as a means of introducing the story proper.
In the movie, the story of Buttercup and Westley’s romance, Inigo Montoya’s lifelong vendetta against the six-fingered man who murdered his father and the various other subplots are presented through a framing device of a grandfather reading a storybook to his sick grandson. Occasionally, the action of the adventure narrative is punctuated by short interruptions in the form of scenes between the grandfather and grandson. These interruptions are brief and mainly inserted to provide a bit of comic relief at points in the narrative that might be too scary or romantic for younger viewers. The intrusion into the narrative in the book versions of The Princess Bride are not only longer, but essential to the overall effect of reading the adventure novel within the novel.
The Princess Bride actually kicks off with a long introductory section in which a semi-fictional version of William Goldman addresses the reader in the first person with the story of his favorite book of all time: “The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure.” William Goldman’s The Princess Bride thus becomes a heavily abridged version of a novel written by S. Morgenstern and along with the cutting of huge chunks of text are the occasional insertions of annotations by Goldman. These annotations are by no means academic in nature; they are written in the same breezy, conversational style that makes Goldman’s novels such entertaining reads. The annotations do not just include reasons behind why he decided to edit S. Morgenstern’s original text, but also hilarious explanations of the “history” of “The Princess Bride” as well as stories of his own adventures in publishing in Hollywood
The film version of The Princess Bride is about S. Morgenstern’s adventure story. The book is about just about everything else except that story. Don’t take that wrong way: the bulk of Goldman’s novel tells the story presented in the film with surprisingly few changes albeit some of those changes are quite significant. But while the film is totally concerned with that story, the story in the book becomes a tool by which Goldman can provide a running commentary on society. As evidence that the heart and soul of the book is not really about it being a tale of true romance and high adventure so much as it being an abridged version of a classic text about true romance and high adventure, consider that after completing just the first two chapters of a first draft, Goldman’s creativity dried up. Only after one of those eureka moments when the idea of presenting the story as an abridgement with annotations did the book as completed finally fall into place.
Of course, as completed, The Princess Bride is essentially unfilmable for the purpose of a mainstream release intent on making money. So, in a way, The Princess Bride that millions of audiences have watched is every bit as much an abridgement of William Goldman’s novel as his novel is an abridgement of S. Morgenstern’s The Princess Bride.