Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: The Princess Bride

I am often terrible at getting the things I plan to write actually written - I keep a long, long list of post ideas I plan to write and then experience writer's block about getting the actual words down, even though I'm thinking about what I want to say often.  Usually, this is because I very much want to make a positive commentary, but the subject matter itself turns out to be problematic.

Months ago, now, I received a book via Blind Date with a Book (an excellent service, and I highly recommend you give them a try!).  You can read my review here - I talked about their service, but kept the book I received a secret so it wouldn't ruin the surprise for anyone wanting to choose the book based on their hints.

What they do is wrap books - some old classics, some newer offerings - in plain brown paper labeled with just a few key hints at what it might be. You select your book based on those keywords and then a lovely surprise book comes to you!

The hints for my book were "Spoof fairy tale * Romance * Adventure * Fantastical * Hilarious".  My guesses when I picked it were that it might be 1) something by Terry Pratchett, 2) The Princess Bride or 3) something wonderful I had never come across before.  Any of these options sounded great to me, so it was win win win, no matter what.

It turned out to be Princess Bride - which I'd checked out of the library and read once long ago, and I've seen the movie several times. Hooray!

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman was originally published in 1973, and then updated and expanded in 1999, well after the movie release in 1987.

For those that love  the movie (also written by Goldman), there is much to love in the book, because most of the movie dialogue is lifted wholly from the book without change.

I am pretty sure that the first time I read it, it was the earlier edition - the one I received was the update.

So first, the good - it is the same rollicking tale as the movie, which makes it an easy, fast paced read that feels very nostalgic and familiar.

I don't have a lot else to say about that - I don't think I've ever read a book with a movie tie-in that so completely mirrored one another. What's in the movie is in the book, although the book does provide some additional backstory and expansion on the history of most of the main characters.

On that basis, I'd recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the movie.

So what led to my discomfort with writing about it? It's the expansion.  The premise of the movie is a grandfather reading an old book to his sick grandson.

In the book, Goldman makes a fictionalized version of himself the main character - while in real life, he has two daughters, his fictionalized self has an unhappy relationship with his wife, and a son he doesn't connect to.

His descriptions of his thoughts toward this family of his were really off-putting to me - he blames his wife for being a strong, successful woman, and refers to his son with contempt - he's fat (depicted as a character flaw more than merely a physical trait), he isn't interested in the things his father is, which is evidence that he is an unworthy son.

He wants to have a better relationship with him mainly as a matter of duty, but he pretty much puts the fault on the kid for not being the son he actually wants.  And there is never any irony in this, never any sense that he, the author, knows the mistake in this. His family disappoints him, so he avoids his son  and cheats on his wife.  Their fault.

I have a really hard time seeing this as anything other than a veiled dig at his actual non-fictional family.

He remembers a book his father (or grandfather? I can't actually recall) read to him as a child, and thinks perhaps his own son will bond with him over this book, so he goes to great expense to locate this obscure book in a second hand shop and has it sent to his son while he's away on a business trip.

Later he asks him how he liked it and the kid says he didn't and tried to read it but couldn't.  Again the son has failed him - how could he not love this wonderful story of love an pirates and adventure?  What is wrong with this boring lump of a kid?? What a waste of time and money getting him the book!

Well - it turns out the book wasn't fiction - it was a very dry and badly written book of history, and while the stories were in there, they weren't written to entertain.  His father/grandfather had greatly editorialized the book when he read the 'good parts' to him so long ago.

So, he sets out to rewrite it as it should have been - a fairy tale.

And thus, we enter the story of the Princess Bride

Goldman definitely makes it a fairy tale - Buttercup isn't simply beautiful, she is the Most Beautiful Girl in the World.  And that is all she brings to the story - her personality is petulant, kind of mean, bland, and incurious and she is a very passive participant  in the adventures that center around her.

And yet - she is Beautiful, and therefore a reasonable object of desire and all the resulting intrigue and chaos that ensues. Westly holds no interest for her at all other than as a thing to order around and demean, until he expresses love for her (because of her beauty) - then she loves him back.

Even more problematic, when Westly is still disguised as the Dread Pirate Robert, he enjoys a good round of actual physical violence toward her before revealing himself to her - and neither one of them seem to think this is disturbing. It's what Love does when it's angry, right?

The movie was better and now I'm afraid to rewatch it again because this is still a very strange 'love story'.
I'm not sure I'd have such a negative impression of her and their relationship if I hadn't read fictional-Goldman's criticisms of his wife for not being content to be a passive, supportive ornament for his own life.  And because I am not sure where real-Goldman and fictional-Goldman part ways, I wound up reading the entire thing through this somewhat annoyed lens.

Very disappointing!  It doesn't take away one bit from the fun parts of the story, but overall I think it doesn't age well... so much of this is rooted in the tail-end of the Mad Men era's notion of women, and he did nothing to correct it in this later update.

I'm glad I read it and don't want to discourage anyone from reading it who wants to, but I do think it's not suitable for younger readers unless there is a long discussion of how sometimes authors have some disappointing sexist views that need to be understood as such.

I get that when you read older books, you have to account for the era in which they were written - and I remember the early 70s well enough to recognize the attitudes Goldman brings to his story. But there is little cultural excuse for it in the late '90s, and I'd like to think that here in 2017, girls are no longer content to believe their value comes solely by how beautiful and willing they are to let men suffer and fight to attain them.

So, my assessment - problematic.  Just as fictional-Goldman needed to reframe dry history as a fairy tale, the resulting fairy tale needs some reworking. But - if you liked the movie, you'll probably enjoy at least the parts of this book that found it's way into the film!  If you don't want to be rabidly annoyed, feel free to skip the prologue, and maybe a lot of the parts about Buttercup and Westly.

If you'd like to give Blind Date with a Book a try, check back in a few days - we'll be offering another Giveaway!  And definitely go check them out - they now have a subscription Book Club!


  1. I really enjoyed the book, even tho I too had seen the movie. I didn't realise he expanded the book?

  2. One of my favorite movies and books of all time! Now I don't seem to recall this back story information from reading the book. But that was many years ago and I only read it once. Perhaps I need to revisit the book and see if my attitude is different! Thanks so much for sharing and for linking up with me!


  3. I didn't remember it either and was all 'what is happening here???' - either it wasn't in the edition I read the first time, or I had the good sense to just skip the whole prologue, not realizing it was part of the fiction. But truly - the fun parts I loved the first time are still fun and I still love them!

  4. I also read the earlier book version before the movie came out. I still remember that my mom argued with my dad to take me to see the movie and then he ended up loving it! Visiting from Booknificent Thursdays. Tina from Amanda's Books and More

  5. hmmm interesting. I love the movie, and think I'll just stick with that. :) Liz

  6. Blind Date With A Book sounds like a great service to try! Thanks for sharing at The Blogger's Pit Stop! Roseann from www.thisautoimmunelife.com

  7. Lynda, this movie is such a hit in our house that my oldest son and his wife have "As You Wish" engraved inside their wedding bands. I read the book ages ago, and thought it was even better than the movie. So fun to read your thoughts!

  8. I'm not sure I ever saw this movie. I think I'm getting it mixed up with "The Princess Diaries." The "Blind Date with a Book" service sounds fascinating. I'm going to have to check that one out. Everyone seems to love "Princess Bride," so maybe I should see it, and/or read it.