Nearly everyone I know has seen and enjoyed the film version of `The Princess Bride’ , written by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner. Far fewer people seem to have read Goldman’s original novel,  which came out around fifteen years before the film. So this week I am recommending the novel, which is available in paperback or as an ebook. Its full title is `The Princess Bride : S.Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. The “Good Parts” Version, Abridged by Wiiliam Goldman’, which drops a heavy hint that this is a story about storytelling. Goldman knew that what works in a novel wouldn’t necessarily work in a film, so reading the novel and watching the film of `The Princess Bride’ are very different experiences. In the film, the story is being read to a sick little boy by his grandfather. In the novel, the framing device is more complicated, so I’ll divide my usual synopsis into two parts.

The outer story – A middle-aged author called Willy Goldman looks back on the people who influenced him to become a writer. He claims that his `whole life really began with my father reading me the Morgenstern when I was ten’. Goldman explains that his father came to America from the land of Florin and so wanted his son to know and love the Florinese writer Morgenstern’s great novel `The Princess Bride’. Many years later, Goldman searches for an English-language copy to give to his own ten year-old son. He’s devastated when the boy finds the story too dull to read past the first chapter. Though his wife and son give him no encouragement, Goldman works hard to produce a version of `The Princess Bride’ without any of the original author’s boring digressions. Will this book change other people’s lives, as it changed Goldman’s?

The inner story – Buttercup lives on a farm in Florin, where she enjoys riding her horse and ordering the Farm Boy around. At the age of seventeen, she suddenly realizes that she is in love with Westley, her `beautiful and perfect’ Farm Boy. He is set on going to America to make his fortune but Buttercup promises to wait for him. When news comes that Westley’s ship has been attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who leaves no survivors, Buttercup vows that she will never love again. By this time, Buttercup has become the most beautiful woman in the world. She is picked out  by Count Rugen as a suitable bride for his master, Prince Humperdinck of Florin. Humperdinck is mainly interested in fighting wars and in hunting and slaughtering animals in his `Zoo of Death’. He gives Buttercup the choice of marrying him, and eventually becoming a queen, or dying `in terrible pain in the very near future’. She reluctantly agrees to the marriage and spends several years being trained to become Humperdinck’s `Princess Bride’.

Not long before the wedding day, Buttercup is kidnapped by an odd trio: a Sicilian hunchback, a Spanish swordsman and a Turkish giant. The hunchback, Vizzini, has been paid to kill the `princess’ on the border between Florin and the rival realm of Guilder, but the other two aren’t happy with this plan. The trio find they are being followed by a mysterious man in a black mask. The Spaniard Inigo, has trained himself to be a great swordsman as he searches for the six-fingered man who murdered his father, but he is unable to defeat `the man in black’. Buttercup is rescued from her kidnappers but soon finds herself in even greater danger. Before true love can prevail, there will be terrible treachery and strange alliances, gruesome torture and ferocious fights, death and revenge, passion and miracles. In short, all `the good parts’ of any story.

So, what do you get from the novel, that you don’t get from the film? As you might expect, the characters in the novel have greater depth. The reader will discover the full range of Buttercup’s emotions and the full stories of creepy Count Rugen, cruel Prince Humperdinck, revenge-obsessed Inigo, and rhyme-loving giant, Fezzik. Surprisingly, there are even more action scenes than there are in the film, including a ripping sequence in which Inigo and Fezzik fight their way through the monsters in the `Zoo of Death’ to rescue `the man in black’.  The novel is both more complex and more artificial than the film, since it gives you two fictions for the price of one. The apparently factual account of Goldman’s childhood and his relationships with his family is as much a Fantasy as the story of Buttercup and Westley. Goldman the narrator writes, `Life imitating art, art imitating life; I really get those two confused,’ but he’s the one exploiting the confusion. The land of Florin represents the muddled European heritage of so many immigrants and is a reminder that European fairy tales still influence American story-telling, especially in Hollywood. `The Princess Bride’ has a very American take on such tales, since all the traditional authority figures in the story are shown to be villains or fools. A prince marrying a poor girl is a common motif in European folklore but the motives of Goldman’s prince are very sinister indeed.

As Goldman describes the cuts he made in the fictional original book, he has great fun at the expense of  the solemn guardians of literary classics and  the sort of writers who put off young readers by slowing down a story with boring explanations and turgid descriptions. For example, Goldman informs his readers that they have been spared fifty-six and a half pages about a princess packing and unpacking clothes and hats, even though Florinese scholars deem this section to be `the most deliciously satiric chapter in the entire book’. The fact that Goldman keeps interrupting the story with his own digressions on topics such as the apparent anachronisms in the text, Mrs Morgenstern’s views about her husband’s book, and whether a particular scene is too Jewish, only adds to the joke. This framing device, which continually reminds the reader that they are dealing with layers of fiction, could make it hard to believe in the plot or care about the characters, but Goldman is such a captivating storyteller that he can tell a joke and then plunge you straight back into a world of tension, excitement and high emotion. You know that you are being manipulated by the author, but you don’t care because you so want to find out what happens next. Goldman, the narrator, may claim that he doesn’t believe in true love any more, but Westley and Buttercup’s romance remains `the most pure, the most passionate’ in all Fantasy.

`The Princess Bride’ is a very funny book but it is also a fairy tale that warns you not to believe in fairy tales. There may be plenty of invincible heroes and perfect couples in fairy tales and Hollywood movies but they are extremely rare in real life. `The Princess Bride’ has a theme in common with the bleak Japanese novel I recommended last week (The Goddess Chronicle), a theme that Goldman has the narrator sum up in one sentence – `The wrong people die, some of them, and the reason is this; life is not fair’. Some good people will suffer in the story and some bad people will go unpunished.  Knowing this and choosing true love for its own sake, and not for some mythical `happy ever after’, is what counts. `The Princess Bride’ is a book which has three endings. There is Morgenstern’s original ending, which would be too bleak for most tastes, there is Goldman’s father’s preferred ending (which is the one used in the film), and there is the ending tentatively suggested by Golding himself. If you want to know what that is, you will just have to read the novel. Until next week…