The Princess Bride

Young’ns will hardly believe it, but 20 years ago Rob Reiner was once one of the most interesting and vital directors of commercial cinema in the US.

Check out this string of hits: This is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, A Few Good Men, each one unusual for its time, innovative in some unexpected way, smart, and unerringly commercial. Usually if a director has three hits in a row he would be considered a master; this run is impressive by any definition.

The Princess Bride sits smack in the middle of this run and simultaneously the most old-fashioned and post-modern of these movies. The script, by “Nobody Knows Anything” William Goldman, manages to be both a loving send-up of old-fashioned adventure tales and a straight-ahead telling of those conventions at the same time.

A grandfather reads to a sick boy a book his father once read to him. The book is called The Princess Bride and the boy isn’t sure if he’s interested — it sounds like it’s for girls. And in the audience we’re not sure if we want to hear the story either — it sounds quaint, old-fashioned and soft. And in 1987, in the time of The Terminator at the box office, it was hardly the kind of story designed to sell mass quantities of tickets.

The story gets started and, indeed, it seems like it’s a girl story, a gothic tale of princes and princesses, trusty stablehands, pirates, giants and so forth. There is an over-the-top “kidding” aspect to the story and performances (which are scary good, Robin Wright and Cary Elwes being particularly perfect playing the delicate balance of camp and straight). But then something happens. In spite of the kidding nature, in spite of how silly the story is, in spite of the plot machinations being laid bare and discussed, the narrative takes hold. What the writer and director do is tell you “I’m going to tell you a story, it’ll be great, here’s how it will work, this is what you’ll think of this guy, this is what you’ll think of that guy, here’s how you’ll feel by the end,” and the jaded, seen-it-all viewer lets one’s guard down because one thinks that one is, like the kid, above the material. Then, amazingly, it turns out one is not above the material, in fact one can barely keep track of the plot as it changes direction so quickly. And it’s all stuff you’ve seen before but somehow you’ve never seen it quite this way before and before long, like the kid in the movie, one finds oneself completely wrapped up in a story that simultaneously feels ridiculously absurd and vitally true.

It’s like a magician who comes out and says “I’m going to do a trick for you, but first I want to show you how the trick is built, and how it works, and how it fools the audience, and how it’s going to fool you too,” and then goes ahead and performs the trick and it does fool you, even though you know how it works.

It works because, as storytellers have known for millenia, there are a number of fundamental principles that apply to good stories no matter what the genre, the format or the age of the audience. Master those principles and you can tell a story and take it apart at the same time, you can even chide the audience for getting involved in the story, the audience will still feel the same thrills and emotions.

The characters in The Princess Bride know this, certainly, that’s why they all have stories at the ready with which to justify themselves and deceive others. Westley has a story to convince people he’s a fearsome pirate, Vizzini has a story he’s beentelling himself for years about how a brilliant arch-criminal he is, Fezzig had a story he used to get the job working for Vizzini, Inigo has a story he’s been telling himself for years about the death of his father. Story has a vital and central place in the lives of these adventure-tale characters, and the filmmakers show that it has a vital and central place in our own lives as well.

Try this exercise at home: read Robert McKee’s Story, then watch The Princess Bride.  For the young storyteller, few experiences will be more eye-opening and rewarding.
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15 Responses to “The Princess Bride”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    I have at least one copy of each! If I didn’t have so many other things to do, I know what my homework for tonight will be.

    I sure do love that movie.

  2. leechan says:

    Watching The Princess Bride now as an adult, I can’t help but notice how different of a movie it would have been, if we would have ever seen anything outside of Fred Savage’s room. If we would have seen the living room or the house in which he lives, the movie would have a totally different feeling to it, and it would be less about the characters inside the book.

    That being said, I also feel that the entire movie is really about a young boy coming of age and his discovery of it through the characters in the book. The end is kind of bitter sweet, when the Grandpa leaves the room and Fred Savage’s last line is kind of reminiscent of something deeper and unspoken about the bond of Grandpa and Grandson.

  3. ghostgecko says:

    For years and years I seriously disliked this movie, and I blame my 9th grade English class. We read the book first, and I wasn’t cognizent of the changes a book needed to undergo to become a movie. I was disappointed there was no Zoo of Death (or whatever that was called), I hated the special effects, and I thought it was generally just stupid.
    Then I caught it on tv a few years ago. I still think it’s kind of a goofy movie, but I appreciate the stuff you pointed out more.

    • serizawa3000 says:

      I saw the movie before I’d ever known there was a book (see below)… my friend who told me about the book was a little peeved about the lack of the Zoo of Death as well (he modified it into a D&D campaign and no one was the wiser)…

  4. medox says:

    My top ten favorite films list is forever evolving, with movies being bumped and shuffled all the time — but The Princess Bride is always on it. Always. It was the right movie with the right story at the right time for me.

  5. craigjclark says:


    This film is the reason why I will always consider Wallace Shawn a genius (although the fact that he wrote Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Designated Mourner doesn’t hurt, either). And Christopher Guest is so great in it, I had no idea the six-fingered man was him until the third or fourth time I watched it.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Inconceivable!

      Check out The Fever as well. Not to mention My Dinner With Andre.

      • craigjclark says:

        Re: Inconceivable!

        I’ve been meaning to catch up with The Fever. And I’ve read the published script of My Dinner but still haven’t caught up with the film. (Is it even out of DVD?)

        While we’re talking great Wallace Shawn performances, I have to say his Uncle Vanya in Vanya on 42nd Street was pitch-perfect.

  6. Anonymous says:

    One of the most quotable movies ever.

  7. serizawa3000 says:

    “Good Parts” Edition

    Years ago, a friend of mine told me about the book upon which the film was based. Same title (The Princess Bride), and same author of course (William Goldman). The framing sequence Goldman used was not too dissimilar to that of the film. He tells about how the story was told to him by his father. There’s also bits at the beginning about Goldman being in Hollywood, and some stuff of his family at home (fictionalized; William Goldman has a daughter, not a son), but the gist of it of course is the story… and the stories within the stories (Fezzik’s was my favorite, because it’s funny and sad at the same time).

    The book was marketed as being an “expurgated” edition of an old, old story by “Simon Morgenstern.” Goldman himself occasionally interrupts the story. Whole “sections” have been abridged, if not omitted outright…

    My friend was convinced that there was an “unexpurgated” edition of The Princess Bride out there somewhere… but it’s very possible he was yanking my chain.

    Goldman was supposed to be working on “translating” the follow-up to The Princess Bride…

  8. ajsnavely says:

    The Princess Bride is one of those movies I can watch over and over. And I actually loved it even more after I read the book. (I have read it several times in the last few years) It is not often that the movie is just as good as the book, even with all of the changes that needed to be made. Usually after I see a movies a lot, I have to skip certain scenes that bug me for what ever reason, but I can’t think of a single scene in this movie that is not perfect.

    And of course it is one of the most quotable movies out there. You know you’ve made a friend when someone knows the proper response to “Truly you have a dizzying intellect.”

  9. ndgmtlcd says:

    I have some problems with the rythm in that movie. I first saw it about a year ago, after having heard or read many references to it. I was expecting something much better.

    At first, everything was great, with the story moving along at a good pace till about half the movie was done. Then it seemed to start tripping on the plot’s convolutions, stopping, slowing down, starting up again, slowing down again. I was intensely bored at one point, about three quarters through but I persisted in viewing it right on through the end, hoping to understand why so many people loved it so much. I can’t say that I’ve really understood, I’m just guessing that it has something to do with cultural references they have and I don’t, like Shakespeare.