Page to Screen: The Princess Bride (1987)

princessbride1987

The Princess Bride
based on the novel by William Goldman

★★★★½

1987 • 98 minutes • 20th Century Fox

I suspect that one of the many, many motivating feelings in my quest to CONSUME ALL MEDIA is envy. It’s the curse of the pop culture obsessive raised by non-pop culture obsessive. I, of course, had plenty of media to chew on. I was a preteen when The Lord of the Rings happened. I’m part of the Harry Potter generation, for the love of Pete. (Hufflepuff, by the way. Always and forever.) And yet, there’s still a part of me that squirms enviously when people merrily recall childhood memories of Star Wars or—more to the point of today’s review—quote The Princess Bride in near-full.

It’s not so much that I’m angry that I didn’t get to experience it that way—you can’t change the past—but rather that nostalgic love is a hell of a feeling and I’m very greedy. I’m getting better about it, but there’s still always that twinge. Of course, the only way I could actually satisfy said twinge is if I were Tilda Swinton’s character in Only Lovers Left Alive—i.e., immortal, filthy rich, and made of free time.

And when it’s good? Oh, that’s even worse. (Do keep in mind that I’m from fandom and regularly bark “YOU DORK!” at people and characters I adore.)

I’m not sure if I have anything else to say about The Princess Bride that hasn’t been said already, by the kinds of lists that introduced me to it (thanks, I Love the 80s), the coolest kid in my high school (who once took me aside at his job just to point out how flippin’ cool the twentieth anniversary cover was), and the stars themselves (see Cary Elwes’ As You Wish). I haven’t even read the original book, although I have a copy of the book at home—a gorgeous paperback copy from my hometown bookstore that smells exactly like an old speculative fiction paperback should. It’s a perennially fresh cult classic, undoubtedly aided by the fact that’s the rare fantasy comedy.

There just aren’t enough of those in the world at the moment. There are plenty of fantasy films with a funny bone—How I Met Your Dragon, anyone?—but comedy is not their raison d’etre. Your Highness was the last mainstream fantasy comedy to hit theaters in 2011, and it bombed so poorly that there is (I am told) a joke in This is the End about it. Galavant made a go of it recently, but it’s hardly revitalized the genre. The Princess Bride still stands head and shoulders above the rest.

And that’s because The Princess Bride is supremely disinterested in parodying fantasy. At no point does Fred Savage’s grandson (two degrees away from too cool for school before the story enraptures him) question exactly where Florin and Guilder is in the real world, where the fantastical elements come from, or how Inigo manages to learn the events of the last third of the film while blind drunk in another part of the movie. Instead, the film’s humor derives from the breaking of the fourth wall via the grandson and his grandfather, as well as a truly witty script. There’s a reason it’s so eminently quotable—it delights in wordplay and elegant humor in a way that few films do. A lot of modern comedies are focused solely on the script, as Tony Zhou rightfully points out in his Every Frame a Painting episode on visual comedy, but The Princess Bride carries off the same focus with grace and aplomb. That’s mostly because the story is as invested in its characters’ emotional lives as it is in their witticisms; I can never watch this film without tearing up at Mandy Patinkin’s performance as Inigo, given his intricate connection with his role. (If you don’t know that story, you owe it to yourself to find out.)

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Watching it again as a grown woman and not a feckless teenager, it’s very glaringly a white boy’s club to the point that I started getting uncomfortable. Robin Wright is luminous as Buttercup, but she gets so precious little to do that I’m now itching for The Congress or House of Cards. (The Congress is more likely, since it’s so focused on the consumption and exploitation of her image.) IMDb informs me that Carrie Fisher was the first choice for the role; I’m not sure any film could withstand the amount of sassy eyebrows thrown had she been cast.

I saw this film at Videology.

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