Here’s the thing about providing an analysis of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride as it exists in book form: while the film version aligns unusually well with the events as described in the novel, in cinematic form the story loses all its meaning. The inescapable fact of the situation is that the film version of The Princess Bride pretty much lacks any significance. Some of the most memorable scenes from the novel are delivered intact onto the screen, providing an experience that is one of the closest to the act of reading a book as any movie adaptation can usually get. You’ve got the swordfight between Inigo and the Man in Black, Westley and Buttercup’s run-in with those Rodents of Unusual Size and even a hilarious visualization of the terrific scene in the book with Miracle Max. In fact, one of the few things lacking in the translation from page to screen is…significance. The filmmakers are content to tell large chunks of the story exactly as written and as far the average moviegoer can probably tell manage to leave little of significance or consequence out. By the time the film concludes, however, all that is left is the memory of a story well told. A story strangely lacking in admittedly surprising gravity contained within the book and carrying absolutely none of the weight of profundity that is reached by novel’s end.
Ultimately, it all boils down to one enormously significant element. The Princess Bride is movie form is basically a children’s fantasy, while the book William Goldman wrote and on which he based his screenplay is a book for grown-ups. The translation to screen did not quite manage to leave huge sections of the book that make the book so enjoyable and more profound. The framing device in the novel, for example, takes up quite a bit of the book’s overall word count and with good reason. It is not going too far to suggest that without the inclusion of the actual meaning of this framing device, nothing that follows can possibly be understood completely. In other words, those familiar with The Princess Bride only from the movie are missing half the story. Or, well, at least a third of the story.
That opening section of the novel that becomes an example of the literary tool known as a “framing device” is actually a first-person account by the author taking place in contemporary times. William Goldman even refers to himself as the author and Oscar-winning screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid despite the fact that details of his personal life do not equate with reality. Thus, right from the opening pages, the nature of reality is being tampered with by the author and that is going to become an overriding thematic concern of the book sorely missing from the film. Using his real name and seemingly the real names of others, Goldman proceeds to give a hysterically funny account of how he came to translate an edition of S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure: The Princess Bride. Goldman amuses the reader with his own short chronicle of falling in love with the story read to him from a book by his dad and his subsequent realization that all along dear old dad has been taking care to edit out substantial portions of the narrative. The highlight of this section is the uproarious scene with the Beverly Hills hotel pool as its backdrop which briefly introduces readers to Sandy Sterling, a starlet who apparently never quite made the transition into full scale stardom.
Goldman resolves to take on the challenge of editing the original novel by Morgenstern to make it more appealing both to his son and contemporary audiences. And with that decision the reader gets to the parts of The Princess Bride with which they have become familiar through the movie. The most beautiful woman in the world Buttercup, her one true love Westley, the diabolical Prince Humperdinck whom she agrees to marry, her kidnapping by the hapless trio of the Sicilian, Fezzik and Inigo Montoya—equally talented with a sword as he is driven to depression by the inability to exact vengeance upon the six-fingered man who murdered his father—and, of course, the mysterious man in black and Humperdinck’s right-hand man Count Rugen who both turn out to be a great deal more than first suspected.
In the hands of the prose created by a comic impresario like Goldman with his infallible ability to combine irony and romantic adventure, the story you think you know from the movie becomes one that takes on a completely new and separate life of its own when told in literary form that provides more than enough room for an expansion of meaning and introduction of themes. As just one obvious example, the extended sequences offering historical context to Inigo and Fezzik not only serve to broaden an understanding of their natures, but also spread an extra layer of import to the events and actions to come.
The most substantial divergence between book and film version of The Princess Bride, however, are those sections of the book that not recreated on the screen at all. And, it is must be admitted, probably could not be adequately recreated to reveal the true depth of their significance even attempted. The scenes in question are actually interruptions, interpolations, digressions and annotations to the narrative inserted by William Goldman as his semi-fictional alter ego in the book. Without the full functionality of the framing device which sets the stage for these sections of commentary, it is impossible to fully appreciate what Goldman ultimately asserts to be the overarching theme of his novel: “Life isn’t fair.” That thematic aspect which expands the narrative of the adventure romance story within is impossible to ascertain merely from events and incidents described in that adventure romance. Which definitively leads to the inescapable conclusion that appreciating the theme of The Princess Bride in its original novel form is quite simply impossible if your familiarity with begins and ends with its film adaptation.