On this very Friday 25 years ago, The Princess Bride, a movie featuring the beautiful Robin pre-Penn Wright and the dashing Cary Elwes (whom hordes of teen girls would go on to have enormous crushes on), was released. There are many highly successful films adored in cult-like fashion that began with a humble book (The Hunger Games, for one). But as sweeping as William Goldman's work is—there is comedy, romance, adventure, and fantasy!—it is all wrapped up in the joy of reading. As captured as we all are by the story of a terrible prince who will reign the imaginary country of Florin and insists on claiming the bride of his choice without her getting much say in the matter, that tale is framed by another: A father (said to be Goldman's own) reading the book by Florinese "S. Morgenstern" to his son (Goldman). The movie—which was written by Goldman himself and directed by Rob Reiner—keeps generally to the novel's original plot, though it's hugely pared down, and this element survived adaptation, with Peter Falk playing a grandfather who reads the book to his sick grandson, played by an 11-year-old Fred Savage.
So, yes, The Princess Bride may not be Y.A., technically, and it may be better remembered as a movie, but even as film, it may be one of the greatest screen tributes to what makes reading so great. The book still has a huge young reader following and was named the #17 Best-Ever Teen Read in NPR's recent ranking. In this writer's opinion, the movie, while excellent, doesn't remotely achieve the scope and span and breadth and depth and magic (and a lot more darkness and profundity, including revelations of and about Goldman himself) of the 512-page novel. (As a complete but worthy aside, this was its crazy, not-very-Y.A.-friendly '70s-era cover.)
I read the book over and over again through the years, regardless of the eventually dog-eared cover and waterlogged pages (reading in the bath can do that to a book). I watched the movie over and over again, too, repeating favorite quotes—"Never get involved in a land war in Asia." "ROUS!" "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." "Anybody want a peanut?" And the withering "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." I swooned over Elwes just like my friends did. But there was even more of adventure, danger, violence, reflection, and darkness to keep me entertained, along with the "kissing" parts, in the book.
Goldman claims the story has everything: "Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles." And as many readers would say of the first books that snared them, in his frame story he writes, "What happened was just this: I got hooked on the story ... What became of beautiful Buttercup and poor Westley and Inigo, the greatest swordsman in the history of the world? And how really strong was Fezzik and were there limits to the cruelty of Vizzini, the devil Sicilian?"
Let's compare a few of those themes to what we see elsewhere in the Y.A. universe. There may, er, be spoilers, but come on, if you haven't read The Princess Bride or seen the movie, you sort of deserve to be spoiled. Also, you should remedy that immediately.
True love. It doesn't happen every day, but it's especially compelling when it happens in Y.A., and Buttercup and Westley have the kind of forever romance—romance despite their particular trials and tribulations of life—that we can't get enough of in the category. Compare Buttercup and Westley to some of the other great loves we've known: Gilbert and Anne (Anne of Green Gables); Katniss and Peeta/Gale (The Hunger Games); Meg and Calvin (A Wrinkle in Time); Grace and Sam (Shiver); Katherine and Michael (Forever); Ginny and Harry and Hermione and Ron (Harry Potter); uh, and, we have to mention Bella and Edward/Jacob (Twilight) despite ourselves. Westley evidences the sort of unchangeable core in a flexible shell, plus, the unconditional love (despite distance and even death) that we've seen in many who came after. His heart is his lead; Buttercup's is hers. The movie quote that says it all:
Buttercup: You can't hurt me. Westley and I are joined by the bonds of love. And you cannot track that, not with a thousand bloodhounds, and you cannot break it, not with a thousand swords.
Death. This means the stakes are as high as they can possibly be. With an evil monarch, magic that can bring people back from "mostly" but not "all" dead, giants and witches and warlocks and spells, plots of murder, threats of suicide, no small amount of gore, torture chambers run by sadist counts, fire swamps, the Dread Pirate Roberts, a man in black, and some of the most hatable yet still somehow comedic villains in literature, this book published in 1973 continues to bring it in 2012.
Magic. Three words. Pre. Harry. Potter.
Epic geographical reach, featuring new lands. Buttercup lives in an imaginary land named Florin; the rival kingdom is called Guilder. Florin's heir apparent is Prince Humperdink, a bad but also an ultimately cowardly man. Like any number of fictional villains, he is inherently weak and felled by his own flaws in character.
A questionably likable heroine. Buttercup is beautiful, but she's a bit of a pain in the neck. Like Katniss, she's a little prickly. At first she orders her farmhand Westley around rather rudely, with him only answering "As you wish," until she realizes he loves her and she loves him back. Of course, then terrible circumstances intervene, preventing them from being the couple they deserve to be. They find their way back together, but not before she thinks he's dead, thinks he's an enemy, and then pushes him down a hill, albeit without knowing who he is at the time. She agrees to marry someone else, which perhaps she shouldn't, but she thinks she's doing it to save him. It's complicated. She's tough, and then sometimes she's not, but all that serves to make her our slightly imperfect heroine by the ultimate happy-ish ending, and we wouldn't have anyone else fill the role. Like Katniss, like Bella, like so many of our teen heroines and even anti-heroines, she's a girl of a common background who must confront uncommon things, make hard choices, and try to do things in the best way she can.
Violence (and Adventure!). There's fencing! Swashbuckling heroes and villains engaging in death-defying feats of combat. Vizzini dies of poison, at his own hand (speaking of hands, there is a six-fingered man)! There's storming of castles, fighting not to the death, but to the pain—more terrifying even than death, the stakes pushed still higher. Think of, comparatively, Voldemort; the undead vampires of Twilight; the avoxes of The Hunger Games who've had their tongues cut out as punishment but must live on. In The Princess Bride, the whole world is a sort of giant, less bloody, Cornucopia. Beyond that there's a world full of terrifying, dangerous things, from snow sand to giant rodents to the guy who wants to kill you and is just paces from reaching you—or pressing the lever or button that will do it.
A frame story. This is not to say that most books for kids and teens have frame stories or should. But the frame story is an effective way to promote one of the most compelling elements of Y.A. novels: They allow kids to see themselves in what they're reading. Here's a resonating conversation between Falk and Savage in the film:
The Grandson: A book?
Grandpa: That's right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I'm gonna read it to you.
The Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?
Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...
The Grandson: Doesn't sound too bad. I'll try to stay awake.
Of course, he doesn't really have to try once his grandpa starts reading. But maybe the frame is even better in the book. As Timothy Sexton wrote for Yahoo in 2006,
The movie's frame doesn't allow for the commenting upon the action that the novel does. In the book there are passages of the story that are interrupted by the voice of Goldman inserting satirical asides on everything from writers who insist on describing every single detail to the (bogus) history of Morgenstern, his novel, and the process by which Goldman is translating, to the single most important lesson to be derived from novel, a lesson that clearly is missing from the movie, perhaps because it's just way too dark for a children's story.
But often our Y.A. stories are dark (and this is something that's not new, even as the ways we show darkness change). When we talk about content being dark, though, it usually means there's depth, too. Such is certainly true here: There are many of layers of meaning that can be unraveled and parsed, additional insights to be gleaned, and life lessons to be garnered with each re-read. And re-reading it also can remind us almost viscerally of who we were when we read it the first time, or of the person who read it to us, and that's satisfying and deep in its own way.