In 1973 William Goldman penned a quirky but endearing story about a beautiful princess, a mysterious pirate, a lovable giant, a Spanish swordsman, a cunning Sicilian, a six-fingered villain, a duplicitous prince, and an out-of-work miracle man. Perhaps a little bit like A.A. Milne’s Once On A Time, The Princess Bride is tough to categorize or even describe. It is a romance. It is a fantasy. It is an adventure story. And, notably, it is a comedy.
Typically in our reviews, we try to capture the essence of a story and highlight its merits while also drawing attention to things that readers may wish to know in advance of reading. In this review, however, we are going to cover slightly different ground. We are going to assume that most readers have, at least, a passing knowledge of The Princess Bride either from the movie or from the book. We are going to assume that readers know that it is a bit of a spoof on a fairy tale. Instead of focusing on plot points or story arc, we are going to focus on format, family friendliness, and the abridgement joke.
Let’s walk through the timeline because it matters:
In 1973 William Goldman authored an entirely new story called The Princess Bride. In it, Goldman alleges that the story between the covers is an abridgement of an old story that his father told to him many years ago. This is a literary device. Goldman is making his first great joke on this wild adventure that we are about to go on. Stretching the joke a bit, Goldman explains that when he was a child, his father read to him from an old Floriense satire. When Goldman wants to revisit the story as an adult, he realizes that his father edited the story, reading “only the good parts” and leaving out hundreds of pages of “boring parts.” Again, this is just all part of his joke. There is no abridgement. Also included in this original introduction, Goldman includes fictional biographical details about himself. In essence he wrote himself into the cast of characters.
Throughout the book, Goldman is really telling two stories. The Princess Bride and his own fictional creation of the “abridgement.” The main text of The Princess Bride is printed in regular font while the “abridgement notes” are in italics. So, while we are getting caught up in the romance between Buttercup and Westley, we are constantly being interrupted with funny details about Goldman’s fictional life and fictional struggles to abridge this old text.
In 1987, after multiple failed attempts, inconceivably, The Princess Bride made it to the big screen. The funny, romantic, and sweet medieval adventure was at best a modest success. Most involved with it, however, considered it a bit of a failure. It didn’t receive the critical success that they were hoping for and it was misunderstood by audiences. In his memoir As You Wish, Carey Elwes attributes some of the “failure” to a terrible movie poster which only furthered the confusion about what the film was really about.
A funny thing happened in 1988. Movie rental stores could not keep the movie on their shelves. Not only was it being constantly checked out, it was being re-checked out. According to Carey, it became a cult favorite which radically increased its fan base. As the movie gained traction, it gained acclaim. Significantly, it became a family film that could be enjoyed at nearly all ages and stages. In recent decades, children of the original cult have initiated their children into the story, making it even more of a cultural icon.
As the movie became a sensation, the book re-emerged onto the scene. Moviegoers wanted to read the book and many anniversary printings with extras were ordered. My copy is the beautiful 30th Anniversary printing. In it, I have a second introduction which takes the abridgement joke even farther. Sadly, I also have the “Buttercup’s Baby” sample chapter. (I will explain why I say “sadly” further on.)
In 2003, Rob Reiner recorded an abridged audio version of the story for Phoenix Books. And when I say “abridged” this time, it really is abridged. The audiobook run time is only 2 hours and 34 minutes which is a super thin retelling of the 496 page book.
To answer the extremely important question about how family friendly The Princess Bride is, we have to break it into its parts. The movie is delightful and 99% wholesome. There is the famous line about perfect breasts, but for the most part it is a cringe-free family movie. It may have some slight curse words, but I don’t remember hearing them. If you are concerned, do preview it ahead of time.
The book is another story entirely. There are two ways to read the book: an edited way or the regular way. If you plan to hand the book to a child or do it for a family read aloud, be warned that the introductions have some provocative material in them. Goldman’s character is flirting with a “hot” actress while he is “happily” married, and that scene is far longer and more detailed than it needs to be. There are quite a few other undesirable bits in it as well. While some parts of the introduction are really very funny, other parts are just plain uncomfortable.
In the interest of family friendliness, I would skip the introductions and ALL of the Goldman commentary throughout the story (or keep in any parts you like and eliminate those you don’t).
Additionally, “Buttercup’s Baby” is awful in every way. It has an uncomfortable conversation between Westley and Buttercup about how they are going to lie together in bed so as to further their romance. (Keep in mind, she is technically married to Prince Humperdink). The labor and delivery of Buttercup’s baby is ridiculous and far more detailed than any reader needs. The flashback scene for Inigo is out of place and more than a little suggestive. At the end of the day, no one really wants to hear how Fezzik delivers a baby by c-section. Or how Fezzik dies. No one really wants to know about Inigo’s romantic fantasies. And, for a guy who just won the day, Westley says very little and isn’t good for all that much. It is just bad writing and in very bad taste. Frankly, I might even cut the pages out of my book.
Another option for making it family friendly would be to get the audiobook. Rob Reiner reads it beautifully. Preview it first to determine its appropriateness to your family values but know that it is mostly just the parts that made it into the movie.
Goldman claims that he wrote The Princess Bride for his real life daughters who wanted a story about princesses and brides. The story that he crafted for his daughters is one that many of us would enjoy sharing with our children. The story that he crafted for himself is one that I regret having to read. For my family, I am willing to watch the movie again and again with my children. I am also willing to do the read aloud by only reading the fairy tale portions. I will likely turn my older kids loose on the audiobook at some point. The introductions, adult narrative and “Buttercup’s Baby” are simply not good food for anyone in my house.