It’s often discussed how the golden age of mature, adult-oriented fantasy has come about in the last decade or so. Indeed, the genre’s pop culture dominance is as undeniable as The Lord of the Rings winning Oscars, Game of Thrones winning Emmys, and the Harry Potter films just winning all the money that’s on the table.
Yet, with all the scowling severity of today’s digital sorcery, the form’s universal roots of artifice and oral tradition have been as supplanted as Bilbo Baggins’ role in The Hobbit films. In lieu of excessive Orc decapitation and decadent CGI wizard battles, an adolescent mania for the somber has hidden the emotional reason we love these kind of stories: they’re eternal daydreams meant to be shared from one generation to the next. No film understood that better than the less modern, but infinitely savvier, The Princess Bride.
The Princess Bride plays just as marvelously in 1080p as it did when I first watched it on a worn VHS tape. For over 30 years, children have been as awed as their parents were amused by the Rodents of Unusual Size, and have been collectively smitten with a love story that considers tumbling down a mountainside an act of romance. In fact, the only thing that has aged a day about the picture is how its initial audience of children is now old enough to share it with kids of their own. This unabashed joy of passing a cinematic storybook from one era to the next is where the real alchemy of the genre lives—a feat just as surprising now as it was then.
The Princess Bride came out in an era when fantasy was considered the realm of well-intentioned misfires, with projects like George Lucas’ Willow and David Bowie making the moves on Muppets and Jennifer Connelly alike in Labyrinth. The idea that it could be as celebrated for adults as it was for children seemed a novelty act before Inigo Montoya first hissed, “You killed my father, prepare to die.” Roger Ebert even championed this innovation when he understated, “The Princess Bride looks and feels like Legend or those other quasi-heroic epic fantasies – and then it goes for the laughs.”
Ebert is correct that it pursued humor, but only so far as to tackle the fantasy from the most serious perspective imaginable: that of an adult attempting to articulate the importance of stories with princesses, brides, and perhaps a Dread Pirate Roberts. It’s a love letter from outsiders searching for more than fanboy approval.
When William Goldman began the path to writing The Princess Bride novel (which was published in 1973), it had been borne out of a nighttime yarn for his two daughters, one of whom wanted a story with a princess and the other desiring that of a bride. However, Goldman’s compromised conceit of “The Princess Bride” became something more when he started writing it for himself. Describing the process as the most “strongly connected emotionally to any writing of mine in my life,” Goldman embellished his entire reason to tell the story to his daughters as a narrative-framing device of the story—in which he was abridging a novel by fictional author S. Morgenstern for his fictional son.
Presented with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, The Princess Bride was intentionally exploring the genesis of fairy tales and fantasy within its own self-aware artificiality; this is about the need for passing morality plays from one generation to the next, usually involving the theme of true love. However, the real cleverness of Goldman’s novel came from deconstructing this heritage while simultaneously paying it homage. Traditionally, fairy tales end with a young heroine becoming engaged to a prince or some other form of royalty. Instead, The Princess Bride, with its juvenilely titled Princess Buttercup, used this frequent epilogue as a giant springboard into a larger story that involves multiple protagonists with layered agency; it contextualizes the idea of “true love” in modern terms within a timeless backdrop. It also does so with plenty of chuckles.
This achievement should be noted when considering Goldman’s background as not a writer of either children’s literature or high fantasy and its variously dense fabled languages. Goldman came from a theatrical and literary world, studying at Columbia with brother James Goldman (playwright of The Lion in Winter) and John Kander (musical composer of Cabaret and Chicago) as roommates. William Goldman’s first breakthroughs in cinema were writing screenplays for films that included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and Marathon Man (the last of which is adapted from his own novel).
This history of straight-faced drama is what allowed Goldman to pen his personal favorite novel, which looked at the concept of magic and enchanted forests with loving, if bemused eyes. He could best honor childhood daydreams by giving in to them with one foot firmly removed from their world.
It was where that other foot landed that allowed The Princess Bride film to stand apart. Director Rob Reiner first heard of Goldman’s fairy tale because the writer was researching another book entitled The Season—a candid look at the Broadway season of 1967 to 1968—when he met Carl Reiner, the playwright of the ill-fated Something Different (1967), as well as father of Rob. As the younger Reiner tells it, it was at his father’s insistence that he began reading Goldman’s books, including the forthcoming The Princess Bride, which Rob considered one of the greatest reading experiences of his life. “It was like the writer was inside my head,” Reiner would later describe on The Princess Bride commentary.
Cut to the mid-1980s, after Rob Reiner proved his funny bone with This is Spinal Tap (1984). The young director convinced Goldman that they shared the same comedic sensibility for adapting The Princess Bride to film, and Goldman agreed to pen the script. It is that sensibility, a secret Philosopher’s Stone, which guides The Princess Bride with its decidedly offbeat, New York comic disposition. As much as The Princess Bride relies on archetypal heroes like Cary Elwes as sweet farm boy Westley—cast partly due to his uncanny resemblance to a young Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.—and Robin Wright’s star-making turn as Princess Buttercup (with a convincing English affectation to boot), the film is colored in the margins by supporting actors unapologetically suffering from an anachronistic 20th century Big Apple viewpoint.
Mandy Patinkin, whose big break came in stage musicals like Evita and Sunday in the Park with George, wonderfully embodied the vengeful anger and swashbuckling chutzpah of Inigo Montoya with a hammy Spanish accent. But there was no hiding Billy Crystal and Carol Kane’s contemporary bickering as hilarious representations of magicians. Typically, the sorcerer is the catalyst of earnest fantasy. Where would Arthur be without Merlin? And what would become of the Grimms’ Cinderella without a fairy godmother? But the Gandalf of this story is an out of work schmuck named Miracle Max, and it’s a role that Rob Reiner has admitted is partially inspired by Mel Brooks’ “2000 Year Old Man.” Crystal even recalled during a DVD special feature that when Reiner first approached him Crystal asked, “Why don’t you get Mel?”
It is in this vein that my favorite character of the film hails: Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini. The leader of three ostensible villains—albeit two of them become heroes of the yarn—Vizzini is a purported Sicilian of unscrupulous origin. But Wallace earned the part by his ability to deliver with delightful contempt and arrogance an endless barrage of insults and condemnations for all mortals in his wake. I would even argue that Shawn, a playwright and New Yorker editor himself, delivers the best line of the film with all the dripping disdain of the most assuredly insulated intellectual: “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders; the most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia. But only slightly less well known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”
The juxtaposition of a post-modern wink to the collective errors of Napoleon, Hitler, and a Vietnam-addled U.S. and an acutely non-Sicilian cackling before his own final croak is the stuff comedy dreams are made of.
Yet, none of this is attempted in the hope of making an outright laugher. Rather Mandy Patinkin described The Princess Bride effect best during a 2006 interview.
“I remember Rob at the first lunch that we had. He said to me, ‘The way I want everybody to play this is as though you have a hand of cards, and I want all of us to almost show the hand to the audience, but we never really show it. That’s how I want it to happen.’ So, he collected a bunch of people who would play cards that way.”
And so they did. For the first fantasy film in modern Hollywood to be taken seriously by adults, the illusion was conjured not by actors delivering their lines with the earnestness of the Royal Shakespeare Company, but rather in painfully obvious American accents as they shouted, “Have fun storming the castle.” Or whatever Peter Cook was affecting as that oh-so-impressive clergyman.
This was not meant to detract from the wide-eyed sentimentality of the themes about giving up vengeance and accepting love, as realized by the characters of Westley, Buttercup, and Inigo; it rather framed the above in a knowingly artificial way, which is the truest form of tall tales, folklore, and, of course fairy tales.
Where these stories originate is a widely debatable issue, however they certainly started taking on a tangible record in the 16th century when writers (usually at the behest or hand of affluent matriarchs) began legitimizing what had been up to that point oral traditions. These were morality tales with an unapologetic frivolity about their mythology or setting.
The Princess Bride accomplishes the exact same purpose with the wily framing device of Peter Falk as the grandfather who passes this whole narrative down to an initially apprehensive grandson (Fred Savage). As much a plea for kids to put down the joystick and pick up a good book as anything else, this device also cuts to the origins of fantasy as being an oral tradition from a bygone age to a modern one—it’s a dream we all can share, albeit with a slight raised eyebrow in Falk’s case.
The meta-contours of frequent story breaks for Savage to critique shrieking eels and too much kissing just layer the experience as a universal one for both parents and children. The various American accents populating “Florin” and other knowing nudges in the margins only enrich it for both generations by being amusedly as smart as its audience. If you notice that Florin and Guilder are reappropriated names from defunct Italian and Danish currencies, it further enlightens this impossibly magical world. Its whimsy is a blessing, not distraction.
High fantasy is a wonderful thing, but The Princess Bride succeeds by shrugging at the concepts of “world-building” or “verisimilitude.” The film’s opening frame of a boy playing a video game admits this is an illusion that extends only as far as the last utterance of “As you wish.” Even by 1987 standards, the painted vistas behind the Cliffs of Insanity or the obvious little person residing in the R.O.U.S. were old-fashioned. Thank goodness for that, because the film’s insistence to be feigned and humorous makes it just as timelessly current now as it was then. The effect will still work at getting closer to the reason for fantasy long after the millions of WETA-created CGI beasties in Middle-earth pass their expiration date.
This is not a criticism of modern fantasy. But nonetheless, we often now revel that fantasy is an avenue mostly for adults in popular culture; The Princess Bride achieved that decades ago without sacrificing children. And its ability to play brilliantly to both sides of the coin is how it will live on as the purest cinematic fairy tale for generations to come. The urge to surrender that is akin to missing the Fire Swamp for the trees.
My name is David Crow. Follow me on Twitter. Prepare to Tweet.