The Princess Bride is an amazing movie, perhaps one of the greatest ever written — but the book is better. That might be a contentious claim, but once you’ve read the book it’s the obvious truth. Let’s break down why, comparing the movie and the book side-by-side to figure out what’s different, and why those differences matter.
The Princess Bride is a pretty straightforward movie. It’s a fantasy romance story set in the fictional kingdom of Florin, where Westley, a farmhand-turned-pirate must reclaim his love interest, Buttercup, from the evil Prince Humperdinck. He does this with the aid of Inigo Montoya, a Spanish swordsman on a quest to avenge his father, and Fezzik, a simple-but-lovable giant. It has snappy dialogue and great acting, but what really sets The Princess Bride apart is its framing device — that of an old man reading the story to his sick grandson. The child is initially uninterested, but eventually comes around on the book, and is enthralled by the very end.
This “meta” aspect of the movie lets it play with the story. The narrator is not a faceless, featureless voice, but a real character of his own. It creates one of the best lines of the movie (“She doesn’t get eaten by eels at this time.”) and allows for clever cutaways during key moments, relieving tension and adding another dimension to the film. It makes a simple fantasy movie into a story about storytelling, and the power it has.
The book, however, does this better.
The Princess Bride book is confusing, and intentionally so. It starts off with a partially-fictionalized account by the novel’s author, William Goldman. First of all, he claims that The Princess Bride is a different novel, one by S. Morgenstein (a made-up character). He claims that his father is from Florin (the same fictional country the book is set in) and used to read him the story when he was younger and sick in bed. These readings are what ignited his love for books, eventually resulting in him becoming a novelist.
Goldman then tries to acquire a copy for his son on his tenth birthday, going through great pains and spending hundreds of dollars to eventually do so. Except his son doesn’t like it. He can’t even finish the second chapter. Goldman is confused and infuriated by this, untile he actually picks up a copy of the book and realizes that it’s terribly dreary, with long, boring accounts of royal lineages and the history of Florin. His father, when he read it aloud to Goldman as a child, abridged it drastically, only reading the parts that would be exciting to a ten-year-old boy. And so Goldman sets out to abridge the book, only leaving in “the good parts.”
It’s a good eighth of the way into the book until the actual story of Westley and Buttercup begins. From there it continues on more-or-less apace with the movie, except for when Goldman interjects (usually at the end of a chapter) with his own reasons for cutting one portion of the story or another, and then later to comment on why he feels certain parts of the novel are important. It is, in a way, Goldman’s retelling of the same story his father read to him, one that was clearly very formative for him as a young child.
That is what the movie loses. Sure, it has the frame story of a parental figure reading to a sick child, allowing it to keep some of the same lines from the book, it loses the dimension of a father carefully abridging and paring down a boring and realistic book into one his son would be excited to read. It loses the frantic energy of Goldman desperately trying to recover the story of his youth and pass it on to future generations, including his own son who he struggles to connect to.
There are things the movie does better than the book. It frankly does a better job with action scenes — Inigo’s final duel with Count Rugen as well as his first duel with Westley are vastly more enthralling played out on the silver screen. It removes some of the more confusing aspects of the book, including an absurd amount of timekeeping in Westley’s final showdown with Humperdinck, and keeps up the excitement by cutting back and forth between Westley’s pursuit of Buttercup and Humperdinck’s pursuit of Westley. However, it loses the most important aspect of what makes the book an absolute treasure. So who is to blame for this? What Hollywood hack cut out the most interesting part of the book? Oh, it’s…
Yep, that’s right. William Goldman not only wrote the book, but also the film’s screenplay. That actually makes sense, since Goldman was not only a novelist by trade, but a screenplay writer as well, best known for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It makes sense that Goldman cut out the meta narrative from the book, since it’s so clearly tied into the idea of it being a book, an abridged version of the original (fictionalized) S. Morgenstein text. Clearly Goldman didn’t think it would translate well to the big screen, and it’s hard to doubt the creator of such a dizzyingly clever narrative when he makes that choice. While the book still maintains a depth that the movie can’t match, it’s hard to blame the movie for being, well, a movie.
So while The Princess Bride (the book) is better than The Princess Bride (the film), the film’s still worth checking out. It’s now streaming on Disney+, so if you haven’t watched it yet, you should — but read the book first.
The Princess Bride is a really good movie, but few remember that it's based on an even better book. What was lost in the jump from page to screen?