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CARPE LIBRUM: Remembering William Goldman’s indelible imprint, ‘The Princess Bride’

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Gwenyfar revisits “The Princess Bride” and remembers the man who brought the story to life.

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or maybe an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

princessbrideThe Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure
25th Anniversary Edition
William Goldman
Ballantine Books, 1973, 1998
399 pages
It has been a tough week. We lost several people in our community here—Ryan Lee Burris (see pages 4-5) and local musician Jeremy Norris. Those losses have  reverberated. In addition, William Goldman died.

He famously adapted S. Morgenstern’s “Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, The Princess Bride.”

It takes a hell of a great storyteller to convince multiple generations of functional adults the frame tale in a novel is so real, it has come from two countries named for defunct currencies.

But Goldman did. Because his readers wanted to believe it.

Like many people, I came to this book by way of Rob Reiner’s 1987 movie version. I did not read it until the 25th anniversary edition came out in 1998—and that will forever be my edition of the book. It is the one I think of, the one that sits facing out on my bookshelf at home at eye level. It blew me away. I had no idea a book could be so snarky and sarcastic and melodramatic all at once. It’s like your most sophisticated and jaded relative telling you a bedtime story for grownups.

Also, about a tenth of the book made it into the movie. Goldman envelopes the book in a frame tale about how he is abridging a book by S. Morgenstern. In the film it is shortened to the piece where Peter Faulk reads the book aloud to his grandson, who is home from school with an illness. The frame tale alone is captivating.

It amazes me how many people believe it is real. At least once a week someone in my book store comments that one day they are going to find the unabridged  edition by S. Morgenstern.  I have yet to find the heart to point out it is a piece of William Goldman’s imagination.

“The Princess Bride” is an epic tale of Buttercup, a beautiful, but poor, farm girl who falls in love with Wesley, the laborer on the family farm. She and Wesley are separated and she believes him dead, so when approached to marry the prince, she goes along with the plan. It is better than being poor on a farm, after all.

The prince has plans for her, though, and she finds herself abducted and used as a pawn to start a war. She is rescued by the mysterious “Man in Black.” Together they take off into Fire Swamp. Adventure ensues. Along the way they meet Count Rugen, Miracle Max and his wife, Valerie, Inigo Montoya, and the most wonderful giant in  the world, Fezzik. There are duels, battles of wits, reunions, losses, and above all an amazing story filled with a cast of characters we all want to be (even the bad guys—maybe, especially the bad guys). Goldman makes us love every one of them—except, really, Buttercup, who is pretty much nothing and very disappointing. But all the men around her are fabulous.  Perhaps Goldman writes better male characters, or perhaps for him, the perfect woman has no real personality. Now that he’s dead, we may never know.

But this we do know: Storytelling transcends death. Goldman gave us not one, but three incredibly compelling stories within the covers of one book—because he is that talented a writer. There is the main Princess Bride story of Buttercup and Wesley. There is the aforementioned frame tale, but in the 25th anniversary edition, there is the saga of the attempt to write the sequel as well.

Stephen King makes a cameo as Goldman’s nemesis (Goldman adapted King’s book “Misery” to the screen). As someone who hopes to one day write something that will out live her, “The Princess Bride” remains an inspiration, a beacon and perhaps even a secret treasure map to the process. One of the keys it contains is best summed up by my friend Anthony, “The book is the book. The movie is the movie.” It’s Anthony’s way of saying, when adapting from one medium to another, the medium is the message, and each work must be treated as a stand alone. So anyone who loves the film shouldn’t read the book expecting to find the film. The book is much deeper, detailed and involved.

I go back to “The Princess Bride” frequently. Since Goldman passed away last week, I have been with it alternately crying and laughing. Over and over again, I turn the pages and marvel—at the structure, the scope and convincing power of the stories that sweep readers up and transport them beyond the confines of reality into something much larger and more enduring.

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