If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class you know the first rule is to simply write–a lot.

The second rule is to revise.

And the third rule is to repeat the second–“reprise revise,” if you will. (Don’t ruin the moment… I like to pretend I’m humorous sometimes.)

William Goldman’s classic The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure ‘The Good Parts’ Version [Abridged] first published in 1973 reads as if it were an exercise in revision and satire. It’s witty, but the editor/narrator Goldman shows the reader exactly what can happen when an author gets too attached to his or her work by pretending to be removing passages from the previously over-zealous Florinese writer, S. Morgenstern:

“This is my first major excision. Chapter One, The Bride, is almost in its entirety about the bride. Chapter Two, The Groom, only picks up Prince Humperdinck in the last few pages.

This chapter is where my son Jason stopped reading, and there is simply no way of blaming him. For what Morgenstern has done is open this chapter with sixty-six pages of Florinese history. More accurately, it is the history of the Florinese crown.

Dreary? Not to be believed.

Why would a master of narrative stop his narrative dead before it has much chance to begin generating? No known answer. All I can guess is that for Morgenstern, the real narrative was not Buttercup and the remarkable things she endures, but, rather, the history of the monarchy and other such stuff. When this version comes out, I expect every Florinese scholar alive to slaughter me. (Columbia University has not only the leading Florinese experts in America, but also direct ties to the New York Times Book Review. I can’t help that, and I only hope they understand my intentions here are in no way meant to be destructive of Morgenstern’s vision.)”

The book woos readers with  a page-turning story evenly interspersed with witty explanations as to why S. Morgenstern included a section on the value of trees and why Goldman was taking it out.

After all, the world only needs one Moby Dick.  

The 1987 theatrical release of The Princess Bride thrilled audiences with its fantasy, comedy, romance, action, and overall message. But how did William Goldman, as the author and screenwriter, adapt and abridge his already “abridged” text for the screen?

The same way he presented his story to readers: He considered his medium and audience and adjusted, trimmed, and “excised” key passages in the book to create the best screenplay.

Let’s take a look at three of the most important abridgments from story in the book to the movie that has become a quotation machine, meme favorite, homeschool relationship test, and favorite of many.

The Gravelly, Grandfatherly Narration of Peter Falk

In some ways, the film The Princess Bride directly mirrors the book. The first line of the book reads, “This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” Similarly, the audience grows to appreciate and love a book they have never read through the retelling of the story.

But the book speaks with quite a different voice.

William Goldman tells the “autobiographical” story of his own book-hating childhood until he became sick with pneumonia and his dad selectively read him The Princess Bride. It sparked his love of reading and writing adventure and an eventual career as an author. The book opens with Goldman–or Goldman’s character–giving the book to his own son, and upon hearing that it was “boring” realizing that his dad edited the book for him and deciding to chop out the boring parts and republish it.

Families seeking to read the print version of the film best steer clear of the introduction and some of the commentary because Goldman presents himself as a satirical, red-blooded male.

“Now the next afternoon, it so happened, from somewhere, there actually appeared a living, sun-tanned, breathing-deeply starlet.

I’m lolling by the pool and she moves by in a bikini and she is gorgeous. I’m free for the afternoon, I don’t know a soul, so I start playing a game about how can I approach this girl so she won’t laugh out loud. I never do anything, but ogling is great exercise and I am a major-league girl watcher. I can’t come up with any approach that connects with reality, so I start to swim my laps. I swim a quarter-mile a day because I have a bad disc at the base of my spine. Up and back, up and back, eighteen laps, and when I’m done, I’m hanging on in the deep end, panting away, and over swims this starlet.

She hangs on the ledge in the deep end too, maybe all of six inches away, hair all wet and glistening and the body’s under water but you know it’s there and she says (this happened now), “Pardon me, but aren’t you the William Goldman who wrote Boys and Girls Together? That’s, like, my favorite book in all the world.” I clutch the ledge and nod; I don’t remember what I said exactly. (Lie: I remember exactly what I said, except it’s too goonlike to put it down; ye gods, I’m forty years old. “Goldman, yes Goldman, I’m Goldman.” It came out like all in one word, so there’s no telling what language she thought I was responding in. )

“I’m Sandy Sterling,” she said. “Hi.” “

Not exactly Grandfather Peter Falk.

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For good reason and to broaden his possible audience, Goldman removes himself from the story and simplifies all of the background and fancy forms of abridgment and “excision” he uses in the novel to one slightly salty grandfather reading an entertaining and beloved story to a sick kid.

The Bald Princess Noreena

Do you ever wonder why Prince Humperdinck chose to marry Buttercup and make her his princess? Or why he’s so determined to start a war with Guilder?

Well, in the book, it turns out Humperdinck was almost connived into marrying the bald Princess Noreena of Guilder. And it was only after the candle-tipping accident that set the brandy boar aflame and knocked Princess Noreena’s wig off and set Humperdinck off on his quest to marry the most beautiful girl in the land, regardless of her station or feelings for him.

“Servants rushed in from all over to put out the flames, and they did a good enough job, considering that everything in the room was flying this way, that way, fans and scarves and hats. Particularly the hat of Princess Noreena. It flew off to the wall behind her, where she quickly retrieved it and put it properly on. That was at 8:23 and fifty seconds. It was too late.

At 8:23:55 Prince Humperdinck rose roaring, the veins in his thick neck etched like hemp. There were still flames in some places, and their redness reddened his already blood-filled face. He looked, as he stood there, like a barrel on fire. He then said to Princess Noreena of Guilder the five words that brought the nations to the brink.

“Madam, feel free to flee!” And with that he stormed from the Great Hall. The time was then 8:24.”

The abridged screenplay mainly excludes minor character such as Princess Noreena to streamline the story and focus viewers on the pivotal characters surrounding Buttercup and Westley and the key events that drive the story.

After all, who wants to watch 105 pages worth of text about how Buttercup became the Princess of tiny Hammersmith and was trained to become the bride of the Prince for three years?

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Goldman did not want to read it either, so he satirically “excised” the passage. But there’s no need to mention the process in the screenplay. It would require far too much explanation for something worth removing anyway.

Some minor characters, such as the backstory of the death of Inigo’s father, Domingo Montoya, are fascinating… But most film adaptations of a books need to start cutting material somewhere.

Much better to focus on the “poor circus performers” and others keeping “true love” apart.

The Zoo of Despair?

I must admit I was a little surprised that Goldman abridged his clearly terrifying and deranged “Zoo.”

In the book, Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen have created a Zoo of five levels of fearsome animals and torture. It kind of reminds me of cross between Dante’s Inferno and Meateater…

“So to avoid the problem of absence, Prince Humperdinck built the Zoo of Death. He designed it himself with Count Rugen’s help, and he sent his hirelings across the world to stock it for him. It was kept brimming with things that he could hunt, and it really wasn’t like any other animal sanctuary anywhere. In the first place, there were never any visitors. Only the albino keeper, to make sure the beasts were properly fed, and that there was never any sickness or weakness inside.

The other thing about the Zoo was that it was underground. The Prince picked the spot himself, in the quietest, remotest corner of the castle grounds. And he decreed there were to be five levels, all with the proper needs for his individual enemies. On the first level, he put enemies of speed: wild dogs, cheetahs, hummingbirds. On the second level belonged the enemies of strength: anacondas and rhinos and crocodiles of over twenty feet. The third level was for poisoners: spitting cobras, jumping spiders, death bats galore. The fourth level was the kingdom of the most dangerous, the enemies of fear: the shrieking tarantula (the only spider capable of sound), the blood eagle (the only bird that thrived on human flesh), plus, in its own black pool, the sucking squid. Even the albino shivered during feeding time on the fourth level.

The fifth level was empty. The Prince constructed it in the hopes of someday finding something worthy, something as dangerous and fierce and powerful as he was. Unlikely. Still, he was an eternal optimist, so he kept the great cage of the fifth level always in readiness.”

Of course, after reading the context in the book, you realize that the fifth level becomes the home of Count Rugen’s life-sucking invention and that is there that Westley finally succumbs to torture and meets death once again. But, for the purposes of the story, much like other passages from the book, Goldman removes unnecessary references and satire and leaves behind only the skeletal system of the story and basic comedic elements. Thereby, creating the new and improved “Pit of Despair.” Oh, and the albino stays.

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But, as a person who has read and appreciates Dante, I still grin every time I read about The Zoo.

The Question of the Ending

Books and movies are different mediums and have different goals and audiences.

Upon first realizing that Goldman wrote the screenplay of his own book, one would assume that he tried to keep everything he could because he found it to be perfect the first time around.

But that is not the desire of a true writer.

A true writer chooses to revise. Adapt. Abridge. Change.

That is why I believe Goldman “excised” all of the parts that he did. And that is why I believe he changed the ending of his book.

The movie ends with the most perfect kiss of true love. And the description of the kiss is in the book… in the first chapter when Westley and Buttercup first part. This is how the book actually ends:

“Buttercup looked at him. “Oh my Westley, so do I.”

From behind them suddenly, closer than they imagined, they could hear the roar of Humperdinck: “Stop them! Cut them off!” They were, admittedly, startled, but there was no reason for worry: they were on the fastest horses in the kingdom, and the lead was already theirs. However, this was before Inigo’s wound reopened; and Westley relapsed again; and Fezzik took the wrong turn; and Buttercup’s horse threw a shoe. And the night behind them was filled with the crescendoing sound of pursuit. . . .

That’s Morgenstern’s ending, a ‘Lady or the Tiger?’-type effect (this was before ‘The Lady or the Tiger?,’ remember). Now, he was a satirist, so he left it that way, and my father was, I guess I realized too late, a romantic, so he ended it another way. Well, I’m an abridger, so I’m entitled to a few ideas of my own.

Did they make it? Was the pirate ship there? You can answer it for yourself, but, for me, I say yes it was. And yes, they got away. And got their strength back and had lots of adventures and more than their share of laughs. But that doesn’t mean I think they had a happy ending either. Because, in my opinion anyway, they squabbled a lot, and Buttercup lost her looks eventually, and one day Fezzik lost a fight and some hot-shot kid whipped Inigo with a sword and Westley was never able to really sleep sound because of Humperdinck maybe being on the trail.

I’m not trying to make this a downer, understand. I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

Reading the ending always makes me laugh and sigh a little. We need books that question the world around us, change our lives, and remind us that growing up is hard to do sometimes. Because life isn’t fair and love isn’t perfect. But nobody wants to leave the theater and head back to “real world” with the resounding gong of reality ringing in their ears.

No, we would rather believe in true love even if it’s simply for the duration of 98 minutes of fleeting film.

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So, instead of driving home the artistic realism, Goldman, for the sake of the screenplay and the hope of children everywhere, declared, “As you wish.”


All pictures and media are the property of Act III Communications and 20th Century Fox.

Quotations were taken from the free online PDF version of The Princess Bride which was retrieved from https://mr-west.wikispaces.com/file/view/William+Goldman+-+Princess+Bride.pdf .