“The Princess Bride” arrived from Rob Reiner in the middle of a remarkable stretch by the director (one that also included “When Harry Met Sally,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” Stand by Me,” and “A Few Good Men”). It fizzled at the box office, but much like several other films of the era found a new life on the nascent VHS market, quickly attaining classic status. The film walks a fine line as a post-modern, fairy-tale send-up that is nonetheless oddly earnest in its delivery. It is among the most quotable of quotable films as well as being a lovingly constructed, if occasionally bemused, deconstruction of the fairy tale form. As inconceivable as it initially seemed, “The Princess Bride” is one of cinema’s most beloved classics and a single viewing is enough to see why.
Adapted from the S. Morgenstern classic of the same name (carefully abridged by William Goldman), “The Princess Bride,” like the novel at its foundation, is a tale of true love and high adventure. The film opens on one of the all-time great cinematic framing sequences: a young boy (Fred Savage) home sick from school is left in the care of his knowing Grandpa (Peter Falk). We also have a book, but not just any book. No, this is a very special book. It is one that fathers read to sick children and it, as the grandfather explains, has “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.” In short, this particular book has everything a good story needs. The boy is skeptical, but as is the case with all good stories, he is eventually won over. In this framing narrative, the duality of “The Princess Bride” is neatly outlined – the boy’s eventual skepticism gives way to earnest wonder at the entertainment and adventure the story offers, while the wry cynicism and arched eyebrow of Peter Falk let us know that there are a few things here for the adults in the room as well. This is the magic of “The Princess Bride.”
According to William Goldman, The Princess Bride was born when one of his daughters requested a story about princesses and his other daughter a story about brides. Accordingly, we have the story of Buttercup (played in the film by Robin Wright), a beautiful farm girl whose one true love, Westley (Cary Elwes) goes missing and is presumed dead. She winds up betrothed to the dastardly Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), only to have her presumed dead love interest emerge in her time of need. Thus, the requirement for both princess and bride economically and efficiently completed, our story continues in earnest. At its core, The Princess Bride falls somewhere along a line that includes romance, fairy tale, and high fantasy. But Goldman pulls these genres apart, strips away unnecessary affectation, and slyly puts the pieces back together in a way that never quite upends the classic tropes, but instead knocks them off balance in delightfully knowing ways. The film, adapted by Goldman – he also happens to be an Oscar-winning screenwriter – follows suit.
Much like the novel, what sets “The Princess Bride” apart is that, while it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it does look seriously at its audience. It is a perceptive parody and a well-intentioned spoof that nods and winks at its own underlying structure, but not at the viewer. It is earnest and enchanting with a satirical edge meant to cajole and tease rather than bite. “The Princess Bride” works precisely because it proceeds through its tale of long lost lovers, kidnappings, revenge, and swordfights without a hint of irony even as it pokes good-natured fun at genre conventions. That’s not an easy line to walk and few other stories have walked it quite as well.