Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Review: The Princess Bride

Having long been a fan of the classic movie The Princess Bride, I was eager to begin my increased “Focus on Fantasy” with the novel version, S. Morganstern’s The Princess Bride by William Goldman. The film is the comical yet romantic tale of Westley, who must rescue reclaim his beloved Princess Buttercup from the evil Prince Humperdink. There is also a secondary plot line about the character Inigo Montoya revenging his father’s death with the aid of his loyal friend Fezzik the giant. The film is distinguished from other adventure-romance-fantasies by its comic elements; the dialog is hilarious and memorable, delivered with aplomb by Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn (Rex the Dinosaur from Toy Story), Chris Sarandon and the rest of the cast. It is parody at its finest, and yet audiences cannot help but take seriously the romance between Elwes and the beautiful Robin Wright (Jenny from Forest Gump). I swoon every time.

But for those of you who are not familiar with either the novel or the film, let me explain that the double authorship suggested by the title (S. Morganstern, William Goldman) is part of the metafictional parody that Goldman employs throughout the novel. Metafiction is a literary device in which a story calls attention to the fact that it is, in fact, a story. This distinguishes it from most other fiction, which attempts to disguise itself as truth or to at least distract the reader from the fact that they are reading a story and pull its audience deep into the tale. In S. Morganstern’s The Princess Bride, the real author William Goldman has written a story about himself rediscovering as an adult The Princess Bride by S. Morganstern, a novel that he loved very much as a child and that he in fact swears is the reason that he became an avid reader and eventually a novelist. This a frame story; Goldman tells the tale of how his father first read The Princess Bride to him when he was a little boy, and how Goldman gave his own son a copy of this same novel when the boy turned ten. Are you with me so far?

Both the novel and the movie versions contain a frame story that draws attention to the fact that the story about Westley and Buttercup is a parody of a fantasy story, but I must admit that I prefer the frame story in the movie to the more complicated version in the novel. The story about how Goldman’s father shares the beloved novel with his son, then Goldman himself shares The Princess Bride with his son and grandson, could have been fairly heartwarming and entertaining – but Goldman (the character) comes off as a rather dislikable guy in many ways. His strained relationship with his wife and son, his rude comments about his son’s obesity, his strange almost-flirtation with a young bikini-clad actress at a hotel in California all, quite frankly, turned me off. If I were to re-read this novel any time soon – or read it to my kids – I would skip the several introductions that have to do with Goldman and simply begin on page 30 with the tale of Buttercup and her handsome Farm Boy Westley.

I think, though, that by the time Goldman wrote the screenplay for The Princess Bride and was eventually able to have it filmed (over a decade after the novel was published), he had figured out the right frame story. The pared-down tale in the film about a grandfather reading the story to his grandson is cute and conveys much the same sentiments as the story about Goldman’s father reading it to him as a boy, without taking away from the stories about Westley and Buttercup, Inigo and Fezzik.

The main story of the novel, the fantasy narrative, is just as comical as the film version – perhaps even more so. All the most-quoted phrases from the film are present in the original text (“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father – prepare to die!”) and there are even more excellent lines of dialog that were likely excluded from the film simply for the sake of keeping the movie to a reasonable length.

Even so, there are subtle differences between the stories of Westley and Buttercup that are related in the film and the novel which made the fantasy tale likewise less enjoyable for me than the film version. For example: Buttercup’s characterization as a beautiful, devoted but extremely unintelligent young woman ultimately irritated me, even though it was a fairly humorous element of parody for Goldman to include. If I was able to read The Princess Bride simply as parody without connecting it to the film, with its sweeping romance between Elwes-as-Westley and Wright-as-Buttercup, then I would probably find Goldman’s dim-witted and gullible version of Buttercup quite a clever commentary on fairytale princesses. But the truth of the matter is that despite my own opinion that audiences should try to separate the book and film versions of story, appreciating each as a separate entity, I still cannot let go of the more noble and intelligent image of Buttercup that I have in my head thanks to Robin Wright. So, while the parody in the novel is quite entertaining, I ultimately prefer the slightly-toned-down version (and be reassured, the change is quite slight) of parody in the film.

But in fairness to the novel, I want to stress that this is still a really enjoyable, funny book to read. In retrospect, I think it’s kind of an odd way to start off my “Focus on Fantasy,” since it can be difficult to fully appreciate the parody of the genre without being completely aware of the genre’s elements. But that’s the nice thing about The Princess Bride – you can enjoy both the book and the film whether or not you understand the parody because underneath, you still have a good old-fashioned fantasy-romance with a lot of swaggering, swashbuckling pirates and villains crossing swords, all for the life and love of a beautiful princess.

This post participates in my Focus on Fantasy Reading Challenge. To learn more about the challenge or participate in the contest, visit the original Fantasy challenge post.

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