Whether you watch the movie or read the book, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, a self-described “Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure” is separated from its true author through the filter of a fictional author: S. Morgenstern. In the movie, Grandpa, Peter Falk, reads the Morgenstern book to his grandson, Fred Savage. In the novel, Goldman self-inserts a fictional version of himself to relay to us his experience of his father (a Florenese immigrant) reading the book to him while he’s recovering from pneumonia as a kid.
When I first ventured to read this story—already one of my favorite films—it confused me. Goldman fills an entire first chapter explaining how Morgenstern’s The Princess Bride is the book that gave him a thirst for books and adventure stories as a youngster. He claims to never have read it for himself and never realized that his father was reading just the “good parts” of a satirical history of Morgenstern’s native country of Florin. My confusion quickly grew to fascination. Morgenstern’s work was never meant to be the trippingly adventurous fantasy romance we know it as, Goldman insists. Instead, it was a slog; full of tedious, useless chapters of tree descriptions and Prince Humperdinck’s lineage. Wanting to share the story as he knew it with his son (and with us) Goldman abridges Morgenstern’s work. The Princess Bride: the “good parts” version.
And thus, William Goldman frames his novel in a way that allows him to call his own creation his favorite book as a child. Clever. But, why bother? Why not just write about Buttercup, Westley, Indigo, Fezzik and their adventures as is, trusting the story to stand for itself? And why keep that device going in the film adaptation, having the grandpa and grandson and their occasional interruptions? After all, it’s got fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…etc. and plenty of movies thrive off that kind of content without the need of anything extra. It’s universally appealing. I certainly jump at the chance to read or watch anything that promises high adventure and a happy ending!
So what’s up with the framing? You might say it’s another layer of fun. It sure is a good kick when Buttercup’s being charged by a shrieking eel and wham!—we cut back to Fred Savage clutching blankets and mirroring our own reaction to the scene. It’s funny, you might say. Some may disagree though. Some may dislike the interruption. Say that it’s pointless. That’s one preference, and I have mine, but I’m not here to merely present my own taste. I’m not trying to say that the framing device matters simply because I enjoy it.
My claim is that it matters whether you realize it or not. I propose that it matters because life isn’t fair—but in stories it can be.
“Who says life is fair? Where is that written?” the grandpa asks when the grandson gets upset over the direction of the story. Young Billy Goldman has a similar reaction. And no, it’s not fair that Buttercup marries Humperdinck—but that’s just a nightmare. And it’s not fair that Westley dies—but the miracle pill brings him back. Without injustice, stories would lack conflict, but it’s the nature of stories like The Princess Bride to promise—and deliver on—a happy and just ending. And even though we know deep down that the happiness is coming, we often find ourselves in the shoes of Fred and Billy, protesting a story’s direction because we can’t yet see the way out.
Goldman even goes a step further in the novel and has Morgenstern end the book in a cliffhanger—one that he never knew existed because his father was a romantic and put the happily ever after in the place where it belonged. Goldman, keeping in the spirit of the theme as he sees it, opts to leave the Morgenstern ending in place, but because he’s also a romantic at heart, and because growing up didn’t jade him completely, he adds that he believes everything turns out well—or at least not in disaster. Life isn’t fair, he says:
“It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”
But while the theme of the Morgenstern, as Goldman describes it, is that life isn’t fair, that’s all still fiction, remember? Take another step back and Goldman is writing fiction about how a fictional piece of fiction fictionally affected him. Yet that is what rings true. As I read, that’s what wells up the emotional resonance. Take a step back from the film, and it’s about a kid falling in love with a story. And who among us hasn’t done that? Maybe we fall for stories like The Princess Bride, or maybe it’s Star Wars, Back to the Future, or The Dark Knight, but they all carry a similar element with them. They reflect real life in ways that draw us in, but they aren’t real life. They’re storytelling.
The Princess Bride—by William Goldman—is storytelling. It’s about Westley and Buttercup on one level. On another it’s about experiencing stories; about growing up; about realizing and coming to terms with the fact that life isn’t like storybooks (and sometimes storybooks aren’t even like we think storybooks should be). And then on the topmost level it’s about storytelling. About love for story. That’s what’s important about the story, and without the framing device, that could never be conveyed. Yes, it has the adventure, the romance, and the endless stream of quotable lines; and sure, I love those things about it as much as anyone. The phenomenon of storytelling assures that. But The Princess Bride stands apart, and that’s because it understands storytelling.
Goldman understood storytelling; the appeal, and the importance of it perhaps more than anyone else, and he embedded that undying love within The Princess Bride. He acknowledges the faults and cynicism that real life brings to the picture, because without the random unfairness of life, there’s no appeal in the justice and structure of story. He points out the difference between real life and story, and then he holds out his creation for us, not as some inscrutable ideal of fiction, but through a lens that alters our perception. We are shown the story as a story. Again, clever. Presenting the base story as fiction elevates it beyond reproach. Any fault or hole isn’t one, since it can be attributed to Morgenstern. It’s just fiction. But I doubt avoiding criticism was Goldman’s motive.
I fervently believe that his framing device was the intended and actual heart of the work. It’s a testament to his talent that the framed story could stand alone, but alone it’s incomplete. While it had everything else it needs and a couple rhymes to boot, all great stories need meaning to make them last. And what greater meaning can a great story convey but the great human need for great stories?
The Princess Bride‘s framing device reflects and subtly expounds on the reason why stories like The Princess Bride stick with us in the first place.
Why it resonates with us—we who long for love, adventure, and a fair, happy ending far beyond our cynical reason which says it will never come out that way in the real world. So, really, that little bit of framing—superficially clever as it may seem—is inconspicuously the most essential element of this beloved, classic tale.