- Author: William Goldman (b. 1931)
- Rank: #73
- Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
- Published: 1973
- Pages: 283
- First Line: “This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.”
- Last Lines: “I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”
- ML Edition: none
- Film: 1987 (**** – #1 film, dir. Rob Reiner)
- Read: Fall, 1990
The Novel: So there we have it. This book could stand proudly on a shelf with A Tale of Two Cities, The Catcher in the Rye and Lolita (all of which are on this list by the way) based simply on its first and last lines. The first line informs you that you moving into a post-modernist world, the story of a book before we even get to the book. The last line tells you all you need to know. The line would become slightly different in the film (“Who said life is fair? Where is that written?) and it works for the film just like this line works for the novel. It is exactly the right line for the right book and it belongs where it is.
Millions upon millions of people are familiar with The Princess Bride. An entire generation seems to know every word of the film, which is pretty remarkable given that it finished 41st in the box office tally for 1987. But how many of those people know the book? How many of them know that so much of what they love about the film comes directly from the book. Of course, both the film and the original novel come from the same writer, William Goldman, but it is remarkable how good a job he did at taking his post-modernist classic and turning it into such a wonderful film.
So that’s the second time now I have called it post-modernist. Why is that? Well, because The Princess Bride as Goldman writes it is the abridgment of an old Florinese classic by S. Morgenstern. Morganstern’s Princess Bride is a long novel that satirizes the European aristocracy and class system. It is long and, though filled with romance and adventure, very long-winded, with long digressions worthy of Victor Hugo. Goldman grew up being read the book and when he discovered as an adult how much of it he had never been exposed to and how the book had gone out of print, he sought to rescue it from obscurity by abridging it and releasing a “good parts” version.
Except that’s all a bunch of crap. It fools people, that’s for certain. It messed with both my younger sister’s head and my mother’s head when they both read it. There is no such person as S. Morganstern. There was never a previous version of The Princess Bride. That’s all Goldman’s joke. Instead he writes a romantic, adventurous and very funny book and decides to cloak it in this outside story of how his father read it to him as a child and how he reacted (this is what made it so easy to frame the film within the manner of a grandfather reading it to his grandson – it’s the same way the book is written). There are many asides and the actual story is only part of it.
But the story would be enough. There are the great lines of description that make it seem like a medieval romance: “The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.” Or “At 8:23 there seemed every chance of a lasting alliance starting between Florin and Guilder. At 8:24 the two nations were very close to war.” It’s a great story and he does a great job telling it, making Westley, Buttercup, Inigo and Fezzick truly come alive.
But then there are the asides. “I didn’t even know this chapter existed until I began the good parts version,” Goldman says about Chapter Three, where Morganstern purportedly spends 105 pages on the training of a princess. We even get the moment that would become classic on film when his father interrupts (and Goldman interrupts the narrative with his father’s interruption) with the line “She does not get eaten by the sharks at this time.”
So much of what would later make the film a classic is all right here in the book, and a bit more. After all, there is always more story in the book, always a few more characters, always a little bit of extra characterization. But it really comes down to that first line and that last line. Everything between is just extra.
The Film: “This is the most ridiculous movie I’ve ever seen,” I said as I watched her leap down the side of the mountain. It didn’t take long to see how wrong I was, especially when I got to the moment where Mandy Patinken stood there and said “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” (I have a shirt with a name-tag that says exactly that. I get the best reactions when I wear it to work.)
Of course, walking into a film in the middle is never a good idea, but with this film it was a particularly bad idea. I had no idea that him yelling “As you wish” would let her know who he was. It was only later, when I got a chance to watch the film from the beginning where it all made sense, where I understood who everyone was and where, when I got to the last line of the film, I realized how wonderfully powerful it was, one of the great last lines in all of film history.
It is my favorite film. It is one of four films about which I can say this, four films I have seen oh so many times (the other three are Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the King). In all four cases, I have pretty much every line memorized. But what is so extraordinary is that everyone has this movie memorized.
Don’t believe me?
My brother’s cross country team in college, on runs, would routinely quote lines from this film. In a fake fencing match my Freshman year at Brandeis, two of us were both battling with spoons. He backed me up against a wall and I said “I know something you do not know.” “What is that?” Avi replied. “I am not left-handed.” I battled him back against the other wall. None of this had been planned. And when he repeated his own lines (“I am not left-handed either”) and threw his spoon from one hand to the other, everyone watching us went “Da da da da” in perfect unison and tone with the score of the film. Everyone in the room knew what was going on. And watching this film in the Baghdad Theater in Portland, it become apparent after just a couple of minutes that not only was I sitting there saying every line of the film, but so was everyone else in the theater.
That’s what this movie does to people.
It is a film with great depth, wonderful romance, magnificent adventure and has as many great quotable lines as Clerks or Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
“Bye bye boys. Have fun storming the castle.”
“You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you.” “You seem a decent fellow. I hate to die.”
“Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?” “Yes.” “Morons.”
And of course, my favorite:
“Give us the gate key.” “I have no gate key.” “Fezzick, tear his arms off.” “Oh, you mean this gate key.”
Twice in life, quotes from this film cracked up my entire family. They are two of my most treasured memories of all of us together. The first was the morning before my brother’s wedding. The seven of us were gathered together as the seven of us for the last time before adding someone to our family and my mother asked if anyone had anything to say to John. Kelly, looking very serious, then said “Marriage,” in the exact same tone of voice that Peter Cook uses. Any attempts at seriousness were gone.
Less than six months later, with eight of us now (and the soon to be ninth with us at the table), I was asked to explain what had gone wrong for me at Brandeis. I looked at them all and said “Let me explain. No, is too much. Let me sum up. Buttercup is to marry Humperdinck in little less than half an hour.” I then paused. Then I added “Oops. Wrong story.” A tense moment passed in waves of laughter.
I’ll add this last little bit. This is a film about love itself. True love is the greatest thing in the world (except for an MLT). It happens once in a century. So I feel blessed to have found my true love. And when we were deciding what music to play at our wedding, I suggested she walk in to the score from The Princess Bride. She instantly agreed. That says enough.