The Princess Bride (As You Wish)

The Princess Bride’s relationship to the scriptures.

Bear with me here.  This is not one of those “William Goldman [the author of the book and screenwriter for the movie] was LDS” things (like “Yoda is President Kimball” or whatever from other franchises).

When I first read the book (which came before the movie), it shocked me.  I did not expect what I found. Almost everything from the movie was in there (although often in different ways – the famous “life is pain” quote comes from Fezzik’s parents in passing during a flashback, for example), but there was so much more.  There was a lot on “his” [scare quotes on purpose] dysfunctional family life, his career, his childhood, and a lot more plot in the actual tale of Buttercup.

Now, there are at least 4 different, overlapping stories being told in the novel.  The movie (wisely, as it is a movie and doesn’t have time to cover it all) sticks to two, the grandfather reading the tale and the main story.

In the novel, the four (I could identify more than 4, but as an English PhD, I may be over-analyzing) stories are:

1. Buttercup, Westley, Miracle Max, the Fire Swamp, storming the castle, etc.

2. His father [not his grandfather] reading him the novel at night; he sees this as his favorite childhood memory.

3. As an adult, tracking down a copy of the novel for his son; his son hates it, so “Goldman” reads it and finds out his father “edited” the novel down considerably, and his attempts to edit the story down to something manageable (as the original book is apparently heavy on excessive historical detail, period political commentary, many meandering monologues, and very long digressions).

4. His dysfunctional family life, with an underachieving, obese son enabled by his overly permissive and clueless wife (this relationship, if you read later editions of the book where he includes updates, did not last).

Now, the first thing to realize (which I did not when I first read the book): none of this is real (even the Buttercup stuff; the novel claims Morgenstern based his tale on a true, historical story and one can find all the details in the historical archives of Florin and Guilder, which do not actually exist as countries).  The “William Goldman” of the novel has some shared history with our reality’s William Goldman, but is otherwise distinct (in the novel, he has one son, and his wife is a child psychologist. In real life, his wife was a photographer, and he has two daughters).

So, what does this have to do with the scriptures?  While I would never claim The Princess Bride is scripture (please, no hate mail over this statement), understanding how to read it resembles how we can approach/read scripture:

1. We all come to the text with preconceptions. I came to it expecting the movie with more detail, but instead found a multi-layered story where I naively assumed some of the layers were real (Morgenstern never existed in our reality, and I wondered why Goldman was so willing to throw his wife under the bus when he talked about his family life).
When I first decided to read the Bible from end to end, I was shocked at how many details the “primary” versions overlooked or left out.  Sampson was a real jerk. Jonah ends on a very odd note (which the Veggie Tales version included, showing you can tell it to kids).  David had to do a lot more than get anointed by Samuel to become king.  I came expecting the versions I was familiar with, but instead found stories even more wonderful and strange.

2. Like onions and ogres, there are layers.  Like the 4 layers of narrative in the book, the scriptures often have layers.  Think of the Book of Mormon, with Mormon and Moroni editing, summarizing, and adding commentary to older sources.  Nephi is writing about his younger days, but many decades later as a mature adult reflecting back, with a different perspective than his younger self (somewhat like how the Goldman in the novel had a very different experience with the Morgenstern story as a child and as an adult, and how the whole thing causes him to reflect on his childhood in a new way).

3. Adaptations change things.  The movie moves quotes from Fezzik’s parents to The Dread Pirate Roberts, or the kiss that surpasses all kisses gets moved more toward the beginning of Buttercup and Westley’s relationship rather than near the end of the story.  The ending of the novel is also much more ambiguous.  Now, think of how in the OT, Chronicles repurposes material from Samuel and Kings (or other books), sometimes adding details, sometimes changing things around – or the differences between the four Gospels (such as the timing of the cleansing of the temple, or what day of the Passover the Last Supper happens).  Sometimes, writers, editors, and redactors concern themselves more with thematic than chronological unity.  A Rabbinic saying goes “There is no early or late in the Torah.”

None of this is to say that the Scriptures are fiction or made up.  However, even as scripture they are also literary creations, and reading them like we read literature can help us appreciate them more.

[And I didn’t even bring up the three morons. You want them, you should read my essay in The Princess Bride and Philosophy]

4 comments for “The Princess Bride (As You Wish)

  1. I remember the fact that I read The Princess Bride while in High School. A few decades later what I can primarily recall is the scene where the prince sees Buttercup for the first time. That’s it. I don’t recall any of this multi-layered story at all.
    I was a voracious reader and am coming to realize how much authors like “show don’t tell”, and how much I have missed out on what authors were trying to communicate because of that principle. I love the Saints series, and I believe it’s because in large part the editors are forcing the authors to not use “show don’t tell” practices.
    What else should I reread from my high school years I likely missed out on?

  2. I had no idea that later editions of the book changed or added different updates. It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember that some of the later material struck me as, how to say it, of questionable quality? Like I really didn’t need to read the part about Buttercup giving birth (which might have been part of the original, I don’t know). So I came away thinking that this was one case where the movie was definitely better than the book.

  3. jader3rd – provide a detailed list of what you did or didn’t read and perhaps I can answer that. ;)

    JG – All the later editions have updates – at first, it was just the hilarious letter you used to get if you wrote in asking for a copy of the reunion scene. Then when he added “excerpts” from the sequel, there were whole sections about how Stephen King really wanted to do the abridgement of the sequel (“Buttercup’s Baby” – that’s where she gives birth and it was new, not part of the original) instead and so on. I have the last edition published before he died, and it goes right up to the modern day, including a discussion of the movie and details on the failure of his [fictional] marriage.

    However, it’s still the fictional Goldman, who just happens to share some details with the real one.

  4. Also, Goldman stated he was having a hard time with the sequel and wasn’t getting it right. Two relevant quotes from him:

    “I desperately want to write [Buttercup’s Baby], and I sit there and nothing happens and I get pissed at myself. I got lucky with The Princess Bride the first time, and I’d love to get lucky again.”


    “I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride and those are the only two things I’ve ever written, not that I’m proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation.”

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