by Padraic Coffey
In the introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of his novel The Princess Bride, William Goldman quotes advice given to him by George Roy Hill. “If you had gotten the script to work and cast it properly, then you had a chance for something of quality. But if you had not… you were dead in the water.” Goldman had collaborated with Hill on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for which he had won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Goldman reiterates this information in his recollection of the filming of Rob Reiner’s cinematic adaptation; “Remember this: shooting is just the factory putting together the car.” This reverence for the printed word is evident both in Goldman’s original text and Reiner’s film, which simultaneously work as affectionate tributes to the magic of storytelling, and gently satirical send-ups.
Reiner’s adaptation brought Goldman’s text to the screen after a decade and a half in development limbo, and though it failed to impact in the manner anticipated by its original author, time has been kind to The Princess Bride, a firm favourite among the generation who discovered it on VHS, aptly described by star Mandy Patinkin as “the Wizard of Oz of our generation”. Reiner’s film employs a framing technique absent from the book: an elderly grandfather (Peter Falk) regales his initially sceptical grandson (Fred Savage) with a reading of a cherished story by S. Morgenstern (a pseudonym Goldman admirably sustains for the duration of the novel.) In this, farmhand Westley (Cary Elwes) and Buttercup (Robin Wright) fall deeply in love, but their relationship is disrupted when Westley is reported dead at sea, and Buttercup is engaged to the imperialist Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon). Added to this is are Spanish swordfighter Inigo (Patinkin), determined to avenge the death of his father, and a gentle though intimidating Turkish giant, Fezzik (Andre the Giant).
Few films blend genres quite as wonderfully as The Princess Bride. Reiner’s debut, This is Spinal Tap, is widely-regarded as one of the finest comedies ever made, and its deft touch at humour is visible throughout The Princess Bride. Yet while the trappings of classical adventure storytelling are gently ribbed, mainly through Fred Savage’s disdainful interjections, there is no doubt that both Goldman and Reiner intended the film to stand tall alongside fairytale benchmarks, and not descend into an outright lampooning. Hence, an extended duel between Inigo and Westley features gravity defying sword-catching and flamboyant acrobatics, but these tongue-in-cheek aspects do not detract from the impressiveness of the overall contest, for which both Elwes and Patinkin extensively practised on set. Indeed, Inigo’s quest to find his father’s killer in many ways fuels the heart of the film, surpassing even the central romance between Westley and Buttercup.
Fans of the more satirical side of the film may balk at the depiction of Westley and Buttercup’s relationship, though it is an improvement on the original novel. Whereas Goldman devoted several pages to the couples’ tentative early stages, he wisely condenses it in Reiner’s version, aided by Mark Knopfler’s nimble guitar-plucking. Budgetary restrictions resulted in many of the more lavish set pieces from the novel, such as a protracted sequence in Humperdink’s ‘Zoo of Death’, being scrapped, though this sometimes works in the film’s favour. The artificiality of some of the backdrops imbue the film with a storybook-like quality, while Inigo’s eventual dispatching of the ‘Six-Fingered Man’ who murdered his father is a more euphoric moment than in the book, removing some of the more unpleasantly sadistic detail. The inability to secure highly-paid stars – Arnold Schwarzenegger was considered for the role of Fezzik – has resulted in many of the cast being permanently associated with their onscreen counterparts. Nonetheless, they could do worse than to be associated with a film which has, over time, achieved the status of a modern classic.
The next Light House Cinema book club event takes place on 17th December, 2012. The topic for discussion is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, following a screening of The Muppet Christmas Carol.