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The Princess Bride, 25th Anniversary Edition
S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure: The "Good Parts" Version, Abridged
William Goldman
Ballantine Books, 400 pages

Art: K. Green
The Princess Bride, 25th Anniversary Edition
William Goldman
William Goldman received Oscars for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 and All the President's Men in 1976. His other screenwriting credits include The Princess Bride, Misery, Magic, A Bridge Too Far, and Maverick. He has also written children's fiction, short stories and novels as well as books about screenwriting and the movie business.

The Princess Bride has developed something of a cult following with a number of websites devoted to it (see the URL below).

ISFDB Bibliography
The Princess Bride Links

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

There are actually two stories here. The first is the supposedly abridged version of S. Morgenstern's darkly humorous take on the archetypal fairy tale of high adventure in pitting good and noble young innocents against the treacherous forces of evil. The second recounts the transformational events that led William Goldman to write "The Good Parts" abridgement and screenplay of The Princess Bride in which the forces of good (the creative storyteller) triumph over the forces of evil (corporate suits who control the purse strings). There's a fairy tale story here, too, equally archetypal, concerning the reconciliation of a father and son and the quest to regain a seemingly lost gift. It, too, is a humorous story with shadowy overtones. Both tales leave us not quite sure if there's a happy ending.

Equally unsure is whether there is, in fact, an S. Morgenstern. Probably not. But, whether he is or not (it is a "he" because Goldman reports excising from the "original" text comments from Mrs Morgenstern about how much she enjoyed what her husband was writing. Just one example of how Goldman pulls your leg, but letting go just before you can be absolutely sure he's kidding), is really beside the point. In interrupting the narrative periodically to explain what part he's about to cut, or just to comment on the action, Goldman takes pot shots not only at a literary form, but literary pretensions (see how many you can count). So, as with the best fairy tales, The Princess Bride works on a number of levels as a satisfying read for, as the saying goes, kids of all ages.

Do you have a book from your childhood that it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say changed your life? (I'll bet you do.) Goldman says his book was The Princess Bride, read aloud by his father to him while he recuperated from a bout of pneumonia. It's what prompted him to become a reader, which in turn lead to his career as a novelist and screenwriter.

"This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it... As a child, I simply had no interest in books. I hated reading. I was very bad at it... Which is how you have to think of me when I came upon The Princess Bride. It was my first night home [from the hospital]. Drained; still one sick cookie. My father came in, I thought to say good night. He sat on the end of my bed. 'Chapter One. The Bride,' he said. It was then only I kind of looked up and saw he was holding a book. That alone was surprising. My father was next to illiterate. In English. He came from Florin [the setting of The Princess Bride]... Who can know how the world is going to change?... Picture this now: an all-but-illiterate old man struggling with an enemy tongue, an all-but-exhausted young boy fighting against sleep... What happened was just this: I got hooked on the story."
What the young boy didn't realize was that his father had (as many of us do when reading to our children), edited it as he went along. And what he edited out was not what adults might consider the "bad" parts -- descriptions of possibly disturbing passages related to death or sex -- but the boring parts.

Indeed, Goldman professes to have had no idea there even were any boring parts until, with an absentee father's guilty conscience, he shipped his son, Jason, a copy of The Princess Bride as a 10th birthday present, only to be disappointed that the boy couldn't read past the first chapter. Goldman can't understand why Jason can't get hooked on the story as he did until he sits down to actually read the book for the first time:

"I skimmed the first chapter, and it was pretty much exactly as I remembered it. Then I turned to the second chapter, the one about Prince Humperdinck and the little kind of tantalizing description of the Zoo of Death. And that's when I began to realize the problem. Not that the description wasn't there. It was, and again pretty much as I remembered it. But before you got to it there were maybe sixty pages of text dealing with Prince Humperdinck's ancestry and how his family got control of Florin... The more I flipped on, the more I knew: Morgenstern wasn't writing any children's book; he was writing a kind of satiric history of his country and the decline of monarchy in Western civilization. But my father only read me the action stuff, the good parts."
Thus the need for a "Good Parts" abridgement.

Goldman contends that some critics (including Stephen King -- but more of that later) think he botched the job in places. In fact, I did an abridgement of my own in reading the story to my 8-year-old daughter, Sydnie, leaving out most of Goldman's digressive editorial interruptions which would have been lost on her (although I certainly enjoyed them). Sydnie, too, got hooked on the story, while much of the sarcasm flew past her (as, presumably, it was meant to). She also shared many of the same reactions attributed to the young Goldman as his own father read to him, in particular a spot when a main character dies (but, this being a fairy tale, it's an obstacle that has a work-around). So, in terms of telling a fast-paced story with a series of cliff-hangers (indeed, in one scene there is actual hanging from a cliff), a further abridgement of The Princess Bride succeeds almost too well: instead of going to sleep, your kid will be begging you to "please, please, pretty please with molasses on it," just read a little bit more.

Playing the role of the omniscient, know-it-all editor that many writers are plagued by, Goldman gets the urge to insert a reconciliation scene of his creation between Buttercup, the Princess Bride, and Westley, her lost love, to improve Morgenstern's narrative. Alas, Goldman complains he wasn't allowed to. (Don't drop everything and write for a copy of the reconciliation scene as Goldman suggests, by the way; what you'd get -- and it isn't quite what you might expect -- is included later in this edition.) One reason was Goldman's own editor, who "felt that if you abridge someone you can't suddenly start using your own words" (a comic comment on translation, which of course involves "using your own words" to make the original words understandable in another language). The other is a lengthy legal entanglement with the Morgenstern estate.

Indeed, according to Goldman, the impetus behind this particular edition is to prove to the estate's literary executors he's up to the task of abridging Morgenstern's sequel, Buttercup's Baby. Apparently the Morgenstern family prefers the aforementioned King to write the abridgement, who, needless to say, not only has wider name recognition, but a convenient surname to rewrite a fairy tale. Goldman wants desperately to do it, in part because he thinks his own storytelling art has dried up, and that this might be a way to rekindle his gift (another fairy tale motif and another ironic joke, considering that Goldman is already making this up.) It is King himself who suggests doing an anniversary edition to include Goldman's abridgement of the sequel's first chapter. See what the reaction is, get the pulse of the prospective audience, see if Goldman is truly up to the task.

Goldman presents a promising, if confusing, start. The confusion isn't his fault, he innocently claims, but Morgenstern's, who employs non-linear narrative techniques to write in a more "literary" fashion. As in the original, it seems as if another major character -- this time, Fezzick, the giant -- is doomed, though Goldman hints we can probably expect a last-minute miraculous reprieve of some sort.

I wouldn't recommend reading this part to your kid, though, if only because it leaves too may questions open, which of course is what would happen if you only have the first chapter of any good yarn. Let's hope that Goldman does intend to do the complete sequel rather than simply play a joke on the notions of sequels.

Finally, if you've seen the movie, read the book. But if you haven't read the book or seen the movie, read the book first. Except for the fact that it replaces the book's ambiguous ending with the more happy sort you'd expect in a mass entertainment movie, the cinema version is quite faithful to the abridgement (which isn't surprising since Goldman is the screenwriter). It also employs the neat conceit of Peter Falk reading the story to a bedridden boy, so it gives you a little bit of the flavour of what Goldman is getting at in his digressions about the child's visceral need for storytelling.

Yet, I don't think you can truly appreciate the movie without knowing the "full story" it refers to. My wife, for example, who hasn't read the book, thought the movie mildly diverting but couldn't understand what my daughter and I were getting so excited about in saying, "Hey, remember this part?" So, you might not "get" the fuss about The Princess Bride unless you read it first. Or, better yet, have it read to you.

Copyright © 1999 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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