Brow Beat

The Princess Bride You Don’t Know

William Goldman’s novel of “true love and high adventure”—the basis for his beloved screenplay—is also a thoughtful examination of his craft.

Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride.
Cary Elwes and Robin Wright in The Princess Bride. MGM

William Goldman’s screenplay for The Princess Bride is a perfect example of the old saw “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” The Oscar-winning writer, who died last week at the age of 87, was a master storyteller, and his skills were never sharper than when he was adapting a book for the big screen. Goldman knew exactly which tangents of a story wouldn’t work on film and when a choice piece of original dialogue was needed to sell a scene. (Deep Throat wasn’t the one who came up with “Follow the money.”) Those instincts were just as acute when Goldman was writing his own work, turning novels such as Marathon Man and original screenplays like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid into equally enduring cinematic classics. But perhaps none is as beloved as the Rob Reiner–directed The Princess Bride, for which Goldman adapted his own 1973 novel, a tale of “true love and high adventure.”

Goldman’s screenplay includes some of the best bits of his own plot—the “good parts,” as he would call them. There’s the iocane powder scene, which could only be the product of a dizzying intellect; the tumbling reveal of the identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts; the miraculous resurrection of a previously killed-off character who, it turns out, was only “mostly dead.” And, of course, there are the quotes lifted straight from the pages of The Princess Bride, from Inigo Montoya’s patricidal revenge monologue to Vizzini’s shouts of “Inconceivable!” that continue to haunt Wallace Shawn to this day.

But even Goldman couldn’t possibly distill all of The Princess Bride, a novel of several hundred pages, into a 100-minute movie, and there are treasures in those pages that didn’t make it on film. Take, for instance, The Princess Bride’s frame story, which in the movie features a grandfather reading the fable to a sick little boy who would rather be playing video games. The novel’s frame story is infinitely more complicated, as Goldman turns himself into a character, borrowing just enough details from his real biography as a novelist and screenwriter to muddy the line between reality and fiction. This fictional Goldman is charged with “abridging” The Princess Bride, one of his favorite books as a child, which he is dismayed to discover is actually much longer and duller than the version his father read to him decades earlier.

So elaborate is the deception that Goldman gives his character a fraught relationship with his psychiatrist wife, named Helen, and an overweight son with whom he struggles to connect. (The real Goldman had two daughters, whose requests for stories inspired The Princess Bride.) Goldman also invents a fictional author for The Princess Bride, S. Morgenstern, and an equally fictional—though entirely plausible-sounding—country of origin for him, Florin. It gets even more complicated from there. Florin, named for the coin, has an entire history and culture that Goldman, the character, must grapple with as he struggles to turn Morgenstern’s work into something that will hook a popular audience.

The result is that the text is frequently interrupted by asides and explanations from Goldman to explain why he has cut a particular passage from the “original” book:

Just as the chapters on whaling in Moby Dick can be omitted by all but the most punishment-loving readers, so the packing scenes that Morgenstern details here are really best left alone. That’s what happens for the next fifty-six and a half pages of The Princess Bride: packing. (I include unpacking in the same category.)

In this instance, Goldman describes a consultation with “Professor Bongiorno,” the head of Columbia’s (again, nonexistent) Florinese department, for an explanation of the passage’s important historical significance, which supposedly reflects Florin’s rivalry with an equally made-up neighboring country, Guilder. “I’m not about to argue with a full professor,” writes Goldman, “But if you ever have a really unbreakable case of insomnia, do yourself a favor and start reading Chapter Three of the uncut version.”

The Princess Bride is as much about Goldman and the art of adaptation as it is about Westley or Buttercup or the rest, since his character is constantly at war with Morgenstern and his choices. This comes to a head with Westley and Buttercup’s reconciliation scene. After many pages spent apart, the lovers are reunited—but we aren’t permitted to know what they do and say at the moment they’re back together. As Goldman tells it, Morgenstern refused to write the scene for the sake of the privacy of his characters, much to the dismay of his wife. Goldman takes her side, concludes that Morgenstern is being unfair, and wants to include an original scene of his own in which Westley and Buttercup make up; his editor talks him out of it. “If you’re going to abridge a book in the author’s own words, you can’t go sticking your own in,” Goldman writes, though he does encourage readers to send a letter and request the three-page scene he wrote from his publisher, even including the address for Harcourt Trade.

None of this is even alluded to in The Princess Bride, the movie—nor should it be. Goldman’s skill always won out over vanity, and there was only room for one of his elaborate, make-believe worlds in Reiner’s film. But The Princess Bride, the novel, is as thoughtful an examination of Goldman’s craft and its frustrations as any of his celebrated nonfiction work about Hollywood. In the introduction to the 30th-anniversary edition of the novel, Goldman writes that he visited Florin with his grandson in hopes of similarly “abridging” a sequel to The Princess Bride called Buttercup’s Baby—a sample chapter of which is included at the end. He does this after being chastised by Stephen King (with whom Goldman worked on Misery), supposedly one of Florin’s most famous descendants, who insists that he, not Goldman, should be the one to adapt the sequel, dissatisfied as he is with all of Goldman’s decisions and omissions. “Yeah? Well, a lot of people liked it just fine,” Goldman tells him. I know I did.