Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Literary love story, part 1

I am an avid reader and, as you might suspect, I own a lot of books. Most of my books have no special meaning to me: I read them (or, in the case of coffee table-type volumes, I paged through them), I liked them, and now they sit on my shelves as constant reminders of pleasant days past. Four books, however, I love beyond all others, and I love the actual physical copies of them that I own. I'm going to tell you about them this week.

First up: The Princess Bride by William Goldman. WARNING: Spoilers abound!

First, don't go whining, "The Princess Bride? Wasn't that some kids' movie 20 years ago?" Believe me, the movie, while an enjoyable trifle, doesn't come anywhere CLOSE to the wonderfulness of the book, despite author William Goldman's involvement in the film, and I'll get to that presently. Second, isn't that a bizarre cover? That's the original artwork that appeared on the first paperback edition in the U.S., and that was my first copy of The Princess Bride. My dad read and enjoyed it when the paperback was first published, and he passed his copy on to me. I was about eight years old at the time, and isn't that a weird-looking book for a little kid to be running around with? Also, if you're remotely familiar with the plot, you know that the artwork has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Ah, those 1970s-era graphic designers -- they were high, and thought all of us were, too.

The title page reads:

S. Morgenstern's
Classic Tale of True Love
and High Adventure
The 'good parts' version
Abridged by

In his introduction (which you absolutely must read -- it's part of the story), Goldman claims he didn't write The Princess Bride. He says his father read it to him as a kid and he loved it. How could he not? Little Billy was a sports fanatic, and when he asked if the book had any sports in it, his father replied, "Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles." What is not to love, I ask you?

Well, years later Goldman gave his son a copy and was stunned that the kid couldn't get past the first chapter. Nothing wrong with the first chapter, Goldman thought, but all the really good stuff comes later. He'd never actually read the book himself -- his father had read it aloud to him -- so when he picked up his son's copy he was surprised to discover that there were a lot of ponderous historical and political passages he didn't remember. That's when he realized his own father had skipped all the boring bits and gone right for the passages that would entertain little Billy. Goldman made it his mission to abridge this fine book and make it entertaining and accessible for all.

[All of this is untrue, of course. The Princess Bride grew out of an ongoing bedtime story Goldman told his daughters when they were little. In one of his later books on screenwriting, he admits that The Princess Bride is his favorite of his own books and he has no idea how he came to write such a great story.]

If you buy a copy of The Princess Bride today, you'll notice sentences, paragraphs, and sometimes whole pages set in a fancy italic script. These are the places where Goldman "interrupts" the story to explain things or to point out that he excised a number of pages at this point and that the only thing you, dear reader, need to know is that "What with one thing and another, three years passed." That sort of thing. My first-printing paperback, and the first edition hardback I obtained many years later, don't have the fancy italic type passages. Those passages are instead printed in red, which is even fancier, especially in a $1.95 paperback. The brilliance of these fake edits is that the story keeps moving forward without any boring exposition.

The book apparently was optioned for film a number of times, and Goldman was either unhappy with how slowly its development progressed or with how drafts of the screenplay were turning out. Finally he bought the rights himself so he could have more control over his baby.

Those who enjoy the movie might be surprised at how lame some of the casting is, or rather, how very different the on-screen characters are from their literary counterparts. For instance, Robin Wright is very pretty, but she is not the most beautiful woman in the world; the entire first chapter of the novel explains how Buttercup becomes the world's most beautiful woman. Also, Wright's hair is blonde, and Buttercup's is the color of autumn, which I have always imagined to be more of an auburn shade, with perhaps some golden highlights. And finally, Robin Wright seems like a pretty smart cookie, while in the book, Buttercup is kind of dumb. She is lovable in her way, but she's not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I've always found Cary Elwes to be very bland, so the less said about his portrayal of Westley, the better. Perhaps the most egregious miscasting is Chris Sarandon as Prince Humperdinck. Sarandon is also a bit bland, and worse, he's just a lightweight kind of guy. Humperdinck is tough and mean and scary. He is shaped like a barrel and is described as walking "like a crab, side to side." Oliver Reed in his heyday would have made a fantastic Humperdinck.

One of the things I find interesting about Goldman's fiction, which is completely at odds with movies based on his books, is that a crucial plot element hinges on you not being able to see what is happening. That is, you're picturing something while you're reading, but it later turns out that you had it all wrong. In The Princess Bride, that plot element is the Man in Black. The moment you see the Man in Black, you know it's Westley -- he's wearing a mask, sure, but you'd have to be a moron not to realize it's Cary Elwes. In the book, you can't tell. The Man in Black is some scary, nameless, relentless pursuer who will stop at nothing to get his hands on Princess Buttercup, and it's a fantastic moment to discover that he is, in fact, Westley in disguise. Goldman does something similar in several of his novels, notably Marathon Man and Control, in which you picture the action occurring a certain way, and it turns out you're mistaken. It's kind of cool, actually, and it's a pity that the movie versions have to go and ruin a great thing.

Speaking of great things, my two favorite scenes from the book aren't in the movie. The first is the flashback sequence to Inigo's childhood, when his father practically kills himself trying to make the perfect sword for the six-fingered Count. Inigo briefly explains this sequence of events to Westley while they're dueling, but it's far more entertaining, not to mention detailed, in the novel. The other scene I love occurs when Inigo and Fezzik rescue Westley from the Zoo of Death. See, in the movie he's being held prisoner in the Pit of Despair, but in the book he is captive on the fifth level of the Zoo of Death. Apparently there wasn't enough money to film that sequence, which is really a pity because it's a thrilling and very funny little adventure within the larger story. I heard Rob Reiner loves that sequence, too, and was very sorry not to have the budget to shoot it.

I love The Princess Bride because it has everything (see above), yet nothing feels crammed or shoehorned into the story. It's funny and exciting and romantic, and it's as much about books and the love of writing as it is about the plot. I've read it probably 20 times, and I'm looking forward to reading it again this year. As far as I'm concerned, not to love it is . . . inconceivable.

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