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The Princess Bride and Sarcasm, Women in Books

The Princess Bride; Strong Female Protagonists; Book Reviews; Movie Reviews

It is (possibly) a universal law that any discussion concerning The Princess Bride must contain the phrase “as you wish” somewhere within the first paragraph. This fulfills my obligation to nature (note: sarcasm).

I enjoy The Princess Bride (the movie) and have for a long time. Until last week, I had never read the book. But now I’m on the fence about whether I’m glad I did or not. The movie and the book are so similar (since the author helped very closely with the movie), that it’s hard to really draw a distinction between either of them, but I will try.

Have you ever read The Princess Bride?

The Princess Bride is a story that is somewhere between a cult classic and an actual classic. Maybe it’s not quite old enough to be considered a true classic, but I don’t know the rules for officially defining that. Either way, the story certainly has an avid if not rabid fan following. I will venture a guess that the majority of these fans came about because of the successful 1987 movie featuring Robin Wright and Cary Elwes. Frankly the entire cast was perfect, although I won’t list them all for the sake of space.

And now a quick and possibly controversial aside: I listed Robin Wright first even though she is listed eighth on the cast list over at IMDB. Why? I’ll talk more about it later.

It is (potentially) a law of nature that any article about The Princess Bride shall contain the phrase “my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die” somewhere in the fifth paragraph. I have hereby appeased the gods of the universe (note: also sarcasm).

The Movie

I do not think that The Princess Bride would be a thing that anyone ever talked about if the book were the only telling of the story available. The movie is what made its mark, not the book. If one of your friends lets loose with a hearty “inconceivable!” after you best her in a game of ping pong (or possibly billiards), everyone within earshot gets the joke—well, everyone worth knowing anyway.

The same is true for Inigo Montoya’s quote from earlier, Westley’s “as you wish” from even earlier, and Fezzik’s “anybody want a peanut?” that I haven’t even mentioned yet. All of this, and the many other quotes that have become colloquial, are famous because of the movie, and only because of the movie.

Most (emphasis on that word) of the famous lines from the movie were also in the book (not all). I only say this to point out that William Goldman wrote really, really well. I mean, he was an expert.

As mentioned before, I love The Princess Bride (the movie) and I have loved it since I was twelve or fourteen years old, whenever it was I first saw it. But I must say that I am lukewarm-to-tepid regarding the book, rating it three stars on Goodreads (most people give it five). I would give the movie four-and-a-half or five without a second thought.

The movie hits on all cylinders for me. Its comedy is perfect. The story although uncomplicated is still engaging. And the protagonistic (I made that word up) characters draw me in.

Movies vs. Books

I’m about to say what I don’t like about the movie, but before I do let me throw this in first:  My mother in law is a librarian. She loves books (I’m an author; I love books too). She has a frame around her license plate that says “Don’t judge a book by its movie.” I support this sentiment. Except not for The Princess Bride.

Most books, probably all books (The Princess Bride included), develop characters, background, and events far more effectively than movies. Timing is on the side of the author, not the director. An author can spend fifty pages describing a scene that takes a minute to elapse in story time. A director lacks this luxury; for her, comprehension is almost exclusively visual and must be achieved practically instantaneously.

Character development matters to me. In general, my largest complaint with any movie is that villains are frequently so one-dimensional that I am dissociated from caring what happens to them. When this happens, I find that I just don’t care about the presentation part (Avatar is my number one example of this). There are few if any real people that have no motivation for their actions other than just being “bad,” and I really want the characters in stories to be realistic. Characters are what make great stories, and movies often fail in this category.

It’s not totally the fault of the director, either. As I mentioned, it is very tricky to get a good solid descriptive backstory into a movie. The format is just wrong for it. So books in almost all cases have better characters and tell better stories. The Princess Bride falls into this category. But I still like the movie better.

The Book

I’ll give my best reason to like the book more than the movie, but I’m not going to change my mind because of it. Prince Humperdinck is a pompous, one-dimensional idiot in the movie. There is nothing about him to like, and all we really know is that he is freaky-good at following footprints after the duel between Inigo and Westley.

But in the book, he has some actual depth that helps define his character. He isn’t just a bad guy (although he is a bad guy) because he actually wants to be a good ruler and works hard at it. Unfortunately, part of his plan to be a good ruler is to kill Buttercup so he can start a war with Guilder and thereby prove himself. That kind of makes him a bad guy. But in the book, at certain points, you can understand where Prince H is coming from.

So then what’s my deal, anyway?

Sarcasm and why the internet seems to be full of hate

Something you probably didn’t know (before this moment) was that if you write about The Princess Bride, you absolutely have to include the line “You seem a decent fellow, I hate to kill you. You seem a decent fellow, I hate to die” in the eighteenth paragraph. If you don’t, the Princess Bride police arrest you. This is true (note: it’s not true; sarcasm).

I don’t actually know if sarcasm is the reason the internet seems to be full of people that just spew hate and misunderstandings at each other. It’s probably not that simple, but it must be part of the reason. However, I feel strongly that sarcasm is one of the reasons I didn’t really love The Princess Bride as a book. This already sounds weird if you know me, because I’m a pretty sarcastic person.

The Princess Bride is classified as a satirical fairy tale by some. There are numerous asides by Goldman throughout that “break the fourth wall” in comic book speak. The mythical text that Goldman is supposedly abridging doesn’t actually exist, and neither do Florin and Guilder, although he continually references them as if they were real historical kingdoms. I have no problem with any of this. It was entertaining and well presented.

But amidst all the satire, he missed the boat.

The Women of The Princes Bride

The problem I have lies in what I believe is demonstrated by Robin Wright’s credited position in the cast list of the movie itself that I referenced earlier. Eighth. She is the princess bride, her character is the title of the story, and yet she is hardly even featured (not even billed as a costar). This is a tiny sliver of a problem with the movie that stems from a gargantuan problem in the book.

In short (I’m at 1,310 words at this point in the post, so I probably can’t legitimately say “in short” anymore, but I’m writing this, not you), Goldman’s treatment of his female characters in The Princess Bride is deplorable. Buttercup is portrayed as simple-minded (read: stupid) and weak. The other female characters are essentially nonexistent other than as devices for the advancement of the male-dominated plot.

There is some amazing potential to do some great things with Buttercup’s character, not to mention the queen, Buttercup’s mother, and Miracle Max’s wife (we get a glimpse of her, but just a glimpse). However, instead of pursuing these characters, Goldman sweeps past them in a rush to get back to the main characters, Westley, Inigo, Fezzik, Prince H, and Count Rugen (all male, by the way).

Does Goldman do this because he’s writing satire and he’s trying to make a commentary on the lack of female heroes in fantasy novels (see JRR Tolkien for the worst of the worst offenders in this realm)? Some have suggested this is the case. Or is it because he really only views women as supporting props for his male heroes?

If you read nothing else, read this

I’ll answer my own question: it doesn’t matter.

I say this and will stand by it for two reasons.

First, sarcasm does not always translate into writing very well. That’s sort of an underlying message to this whole post, which I am expertly weaving into my narrative via the sledgehammer method.

Sarcasm in writing can be done, it has been done, but it doesn’t work unless it’s expertly done. There aren’t any internet commentators that have done it expertly, so people get really angry in those forums. But that’s the internet for you.

So how about this satirical fairy tale that is supposed to possibly comment on the type of story we seem to enjoy? Goldman does well with comedy in The Princess Bride, he’s funny. He is really funny. But the sarcasm aspect is left wanting, chiefly because I can’t tell where he actually means to be ironic and where it’s his actual position.

Second, some topics, even approached sarcastically, just aren’t funny.

There are few enough good female characters in classic and modern entertainment (books or movies) to take Goldman’s path with Buttercup, whether intentionally satirical or not. And if he is being satirical, it’s so subtle that it misses the mark completely and simply becomes impossible to view as such. In fact, if it is satire, it’s so subtle that it actually seems to add weight to the other side of the argument.

But it gets worse.

As Westley and Buttercup flee from the scene of Vizzini’s death, Westley (clarification: the protagonist, hero, and knight in shining armor) actually slaps Buttercup in the face…in the face! This cannot be presented ironically enough to make it acceptable. And that’s where I hopped off the “enamored with the Princess Bride in book format” train. In Buttercup’s vernacular you might say “I died that day.” A hero can’t behave like that and remain a hero.

The End

Comedy is one thing, and as I have said several times Goldman’s writing is really amazing. His storytelling is first rate, his characters are deep and real. The plot moves quickly, but delves into all the deep spots too. In short, a very well done book. But amidst it all is something I just can’t overlook. I can’t just close my eyes and pretend that I like a book that promotes demeaning women and treating them as lesser people. Not even, or maybe especially not, in jest (or satire, or sarcasm, however we wish to say it).

And now after having said all of that, I kind of wish I had given it two stars instead of three.

What do you think about my take on this book? Am I being too harsh or overly sensitive? Take just a minute and add a comment of your own below.